When it comes to store design, supermarkets today are thinking less like warehousers and more like merchandisers, experts told SN. That thinking is resulting in stores being designed to "cross market" items in the center store and in perimeter departments, they added. A greater emphasis on branding and private-label products, and the emergence of the Internet and new technologies, are also affecting how stores are designed, architects and store designers said.
As with many changes in the supermarket industry, store design changes tend to come about slowly, and only after they stand the test of economics. However, designers and architects contacted by SN said they feel several trends may stand that test and contribute to the evolution of the grocery store.
"The reason I enjoy working with supermarkets so much is that there is so much room for improvement and evolution," said Tom Henken, vice president and director of design for Architecture Plus, Tampa, Fla. "The supermarket really hasn't evolved all that much from the 1950s and '60s."
Designing a store begins with the objectives of the retailer -- most often today, that means a design that establishes the retailer brand as a leader in its marketplace. This, observers say, is important today because of intense competition not only among grocery stores, but other entities competing for the food dollar.
"I think chains today are more aware than ever about who's going to take their lunch," said Kevin Kelley, a principal with Shook Design, Charlotte, N.C. "The challenge then is to build a brand that absolutely owns its category."
Shook Design was behind such an effort recently for Genuardi's Family Markets, Norristown, Pa. For Genuardi's new store in Lionville, Pa., Shook was charged to establish the store as the leader in home meal replacement. Shook's solution -- a store-within-a-store concept called The Kitchen -- debuted in August (SN, August 28, 2000).
The Kitchen, Kelley said, reinvents the home meal replacement concept with a plan owing more to mall food court designers than supermarket builders.
The problem with home meal replacement in most supermarkets, Kelley believes, was twofold: Customers didn't feel supermarkets had "credibility" when it came to prepared foods, and the traditional "power aisle" design and layout of most HMR departments was simply ineffective.
Shook tackled the latter concern by creating a store-within-a-store concept which arranged the various offerings along the perimeter of a 10,000-square-foot space, which shoppers could enter and exit without having to enter the center store itself. And that, he said, would help ease the credibility gap.
"The consumer doesn't believe that supermarkets have any credibility when it comes to prepared foods," Kelley said. "Just like you wouldn't buy furniture from a lumber store: You feel the lumber store is where the raw materials for furniture are and the supermarket is where the raw materials for meals are.
"We needed to make the consumers believe the store had credibility -- the way you believe a brewery is serious about making beer," he added. "We had to get away from the lumberyard feel."
Kelley believes The Kitchen can achieve such credibility not only by separating the department from the center store but by a strong presentation of The Kitchen "subbrand." The various departments in The Kitchen -- deli, coffee, rotisserie and so on -- are distinct but unified through use of The Kitchen logo and the cartoon "Chefman" character that appears with it.
The layout is superior to the more common "power aisle" display of HMRs, Kelley added. Those displayed take-home food in linear cases 70 to 100 feet long.
"The problem with that was that customers started on one end and never doubled back -- they don't want to turn around and make loops," Kelley maintained. "With The Kitchen, it's just like being at the food court at the mall -- you can go get what you want and meet back in the center. Everything is in front of you."
The Lionville store has been open only since August, but Kelley is confident the concept will be a success.
"There are those who wanted to write off home meal replacement and there are those who say, let's make it work," Kelley said. "Genuardi's wanted to own HMR in their market and think they will."
Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, looked to Somerville, Mass.-based designer Arrowstreet to create a prototype store design that positioned the Hannaford brand as an engaging, but value-based, retailer, according to Bob Lowe, associate principal for Arrowstreet.
The new Hannaford prototype, which opened this summer in Falmouth, Maine, reflects that vision by more closely associating the center store and specialty departments through use of consistent flooring and graphic elements. That sends a message that the store is more value-oriented than price-oriented, Lowe explained.
"Hannaford previously made a very conscious effort to separate its perishable departments, which were very well-appointed, from its center store, which was a real warehouse style," he said. "One of their objectives was to have a store that had a unified feel throughout. They didn't want to step over the line and appear to be too high-end, but they felt the time was right to take their emphasis solely off price."
Hannaford is in the process of rolling out three additional stores of around 55,000 square feet using Arrowstreet's new prototype, Lowe said. Another 10 are on the drawing board.
In preparing a center store design for a new Kash n' Karry store near Tampa, Fla., Henken prepared videotapes of center store aisles of some competing stores. Watching the tapes was a revelation.
"You couldn't tell them apart," Henken said, adding that the tape not only illustrated the sameness of stores, but also said much about the experience of consumers, who rarely see compelling displays or creative merchandising on center store aisles. But that, he said, is changing.
"The center store has been mostly untouched through the years, but today you're seeing interest from product manufacturers like Kraft and Procter & Gamble interested in seeing what can be done to get their products noticed more."
Architecture Plus tackled this problem for Kash n' Karry by creating what Henken called a "jug" in the center of the aisle that allows certain products to be positioned at an angle. That exposes more products to shoppers and provides a better basis for cross marketing of related items, Henken said. The angled aisle displays are part of a theme that incorporates more curved lines throughout the store, he explained.
"If a product isn't on your shopping list, you can pass right by it if it's just sitting there on a shelf," Henken said.
Similarly, Kelley said he sees the beverage aisle as an opportunity for stores to implement what he called a "lifestyle approach" to merchandising.
"We think the beverage aisle is a great place to start changing the mindset from a lumberyard to a lifestyle approach," Kelley said. "The way it's set up today is monotonous, with too many choices and not enough variety. The consumer is less and less compelled to make a choice."
Kelly said "exploding" the aisle by placing associated items -- frozen pizza or salty snacks or videos -- alongside the beverages, for instance, would provide more solutions to consumers.
"I think we'll see more zoning of the center store in the future," Kelley predicted. "A push toward cross merchandising, which other retailers -- places like Rooms To Go with their vignettes -- are today doing very well."
Henken said the trend toward stores better positioning their private-label goods can also impact center-store creativity.
"Stores are just beginning to realize that if they can be more savvy with their private-label brands, the stores could drive what's on shelves and not the [national] brands," Henken said. "If there were more loyalty to the private brands you wouldn't necessarily need 20 brands of toasted oat cereal taking up all that shelf space. There would be fewer facings and more space could be freed up for other things."
"There's a huge opportunity to carve out ownership of the center store," he added. "But it's going to take real leadership among the operators."
Though Internet shopping has barely scratched the surface of the retail food industry thus far, some store design experts feel its potential should be in the minds of all supermarket chains.
"I think every company is going to have to take a look internally and ask themselves what e-commerce means to their existing buildings," said Tim Morrison, design principal for Little & Associates, Charlotte, N.C.
According to Morrison, some stores are pondering the logistical and economical challenges of installing e-commerce packing and pickup areas in-store. But the possibilities for technology-driven shopping go further than that as well.
"A lot of stores include tenant spaces carved out for video stores or dry cleaning services and found later they weren't appropriate for their customers. I think some are going to look at those spaces for an e-commerce area, if only a 10-by-10 [foot] space, to test it. Because if e-commerce is going to become a basic of this business, stores need to find a space to attack it," Morrison added. "It goes along toward the trend of making things more convenient, tighter, more compact."
E-commerce or other applications with similar effects -- including so-called "smart appliances" or even handheld wands to scan products on shelves -- could also have an enormous impact on store design, observers say.
"I could see [new technologies] having a positive effect," said Henken. "I can imagine a time where the boxes and the canned goods that are part of every planned shopping trip could wind up in the customer's pantry and they would be left to do that part of the shopping trip that everyone enjoys -- shopping for fresh goods and those products that require a keen eye and touch."
Henken envisions such "hybrid" stores would allow for fewer facings of products, reduce labor to stock shelves, speed the shopping process for consumers and allow for more creative presentation of all goods in the stores. "It takes manpower to keep products on the shelves," he noted.
Some chains, including Albertson's, Boise, Idaho, are experimenting with several of the above strategies, most famously with its Albertsons.com store in Washington. Albertson's is also working on an Internet-enabled wireless ordering system where consumers could self-scan items at home and download a shopping list to stores over the Internet, according to Hadley Wagner, group vice president, systems development, speaking at a recent seminar. "Orders are a drop in the bucket now but they are steadily increasing," Wagner noted.
Though integrating e-commerce operations in stores remains a topic on the drawing board for many companies, stores could reflect its impact soon.
"Architects and designers are looking at every possible convenience they can slip in there," Morrison said.