Design for the times

Retail strategy and design expert Kevin Kelley talks about the changing grocery store
Kevin Kelley

As founding partner and principal at L.A.-based Shook Kelley, Kevin Kelley spends a lot of time studying consumers in food-based environments and uses those insights to help retail clients—the likes of Whole Foods, Harvest Market, and Freson Bros.—develop compelling solutions and spaces. Here, we talk to Kelley about everything from the impact of COVID on the grocery store to what’s next. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.

What impact is the pandemic having on stores and what will be some lasting effects?
Prior to COVID, we would’ve said the world was over-sanitized already. We even questioned whether anti-bacterial soap was too much. People would walk in and touch vegetables and pick things up; now it’s obviously completely different. People aren’t touching anything. It’s a fundamental behavioural shift. That lack of tactile-ness has really changed things for us. We see that sticking for a while; however, we know from past epidemics and events that behaviour does change over time, so we don’t see it sticking forever.

But we’re looking at surfaces and materials. We’re exploring sensory activation points such as the sense of smell, which is the most powerful sense. So, for the first time in a long time, the smell of Clorox and Lysol and these things are welcome in the store—we’re actually using the smell of cleaner, which is bizarre. We used to do everything we could to disguise it. We’re also looking at uniforms, and how they can suggest cleanliness. We’re learning to make a statement that shows an extra level of service.

To shift gears, another big question for us is things like salad bars, wine bars, cafes, olive stations—these are things we’re studying. It’s not as simple as, “Just get rid of it,” because these are features that really help differentiate a store. We’re starting to look at salad stations where somebody is there wiping down the counter to cleanliness; people need to see those visual cues, but that does involve a human being and that’s increasing labour. We’re still figuring this out.

What are your grocery retail clients asking for in terms of design?
The one thing we’ve heard from the retailers, which surprises us because they’re a pretty conservative bunch, is they’re saying they want flexibility. This tells us they have faith that things are going to go back to normal. They’re having us design stores that have a temporary, short-term phase, but with a long-term vision to bring back a lot of those key aspects/ features that respond to those trends that were already in motion such as more eating on premise, more bars, more social gatherings.

In the future, what will grocery stores look like?
We see smaller stores, right off the bat, which means centre store will become much more edited and curated. We see a more restaurant-esque approach, a non-grocery approach. Brands are going to try to not to look like a traditional grocery store. We’ll continue to see urban stores, despite the exodus to the suburbs. Although, we might build urban-looking stores in suburbia. We still see these places as more local and more community , like in the old days. We actually see that soul coming back into these spaces, and people using the store differently—to have a beer, to engage and to learn about products. We see that coming back. It’s exciting.

And we’re doing a lot of experimentation. Could we do stores without aisles? Could we do stores with zones not based on the category of product, but that are consumer-needs based? You think of all the things that go with coffee, or all the things that go with breakfast, or that go with making lunch. It’s a different arrangement. So we’ve been looking at that in a radically different way. I think that’s where the race is going to happen. Grocery’s been resistant to that and this crisis has helped.

What’s the outlook for grocery stores?
It’s a really exciting time for grocery stores. Prior to COVID, they had been getting beat on and demoralized. Part of that had to do with the headlines, just over and over and “Will there be grocery stores in the future?” Now, they’re having their moment in the sun. Talking with consumers we’re finding they take great comfort in knowing there’s a local grocery store . That sentiment, and that spirit, has been really good. Grocers we’re talking to have an innovation mindset now, to go, “OK, what can we do with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer's February 2021 issue.