A new day for design

Local connections, flexibility, and a return to shopping “experience” are all major themes in grocery store design as we head towards a post-pandemic era

As we start to see light at the end of the pandemic tunnel and a semblance of normal is beginning to return, Kevin Kelley, principal and co-founder of Los Angeles-based design firm Shook Kelley, says he’s busier than he’s ever been. Demand for his firm’s retail design services, he says, started booming as soon as pandemic safety measures began to lift. “We have so much work now that we’re in the mode of turning jobs down left and right,” he declares. But as the world emerges from the COVID-19 era and grocers look to create new stores or renovate old ones, what sorts of design trends will we see?

“The pandemic can be viewed as ‘the great accelerator’ of shifts in the retail industry,” says Debbie Kalisky, associate, retail development at Montreal design firm GH+A. “It helped accelerate the monumental shifts that had already started pre-pandemic.” Canadian Grocer spoke with a handful of top retail designers from around the globe to glean insights on how the pandemic accelerated some existing food and shopping trends while taking others into new directions, and how all of this will affect grocery store design trends as we move forward.

Esselunga in Brescia, Italy moved the checkouts from the front to the side of the store to make room for a large, glassed-in area where customers can see food being made as they enter (Landini Associates)

The return of “experience”

Online grocery shopping soared in the past year and a half, and grocers everywhere rapidly improved their e-commerce operations to meet demand, making the process easier and more reliable than ever.

At the same time, at the height of the pandemic, the in-store shopping process was stripped down to something almost clinical—get in and out as fast as you can, with as little contact as possible. While most experts agree online shopping is here to stay, many consumers are feeling the urge to get out and enjoy their shopping trip, now that pandemic safety measures are easing.

“There’s a pent-up well of desire for consumers to get out,” says Kelley. “I think consumers used to look at their home as a refuge, and their work and commute as drudgery, but now they’re like, ‘My home is not my refuge. It’s my nightmare and I need to get out,’” he laughs. “We’re hard-wired as humans to get out. We’re meant to have our senses activated by a million different things, so getting out is very important for us. It helps us to find memories and differentiate experiences in life.” And food, he says, is one of the most important sensory experiences for most people, so grocers are well-positioned to answer that call.

But when online ordering is so convenient, enticing customers to the store may require retailers to add some extra appeal to the in-store experience. “For the grocery store to thrive amongst increased online grocery ordering, the appeal of the physical experience needs to be enhanced. Why should customers want to make the trip to the store?” says GH+A’s Kalisky.

Mark Landini, creative director of Sydney, Australia-based Landini Associates, says elevating the in-store experience can be as simple as putting certain back-of-house processes that are already happening at the store—say, pizza-making or bread baking—on display for all to see, behind glass panels rather than hidden away. He likens it to a busy “market” feel. “People love markets, the movement, delivery and removal of goods, the yelling and the colour of commerce in action. People also like these as places to gather, gossip and gander,” he says. “I predict activity will return, open up and be displayed again. Maybe robotics will play an increasing role. They’re certainly fun to watch.” So if you’re looking for experiential retailing, Landini argues, “it’s there already. You just have to move a few walls.”

With this strategy in mind, Landini says retailers can even challenge the standard grocery store format with some forward-thinking rejigging. “Why, for example, should you not plan for the death of the checkout—Amazon is marketing ‘Just Walk Out’ [technology] to third parties already—by moving the checkouts from the front to the side, and replacing this with [on-display] bakeries and kitchens that already exist?” he says. His firm’s recent work for grocery retailer Esselunga in Brescia, Italy did just this, moving the checkout stations to the side to display bread baking and food production behind a glass wall in a prominent spot by the entrance, giving shoppers a glimpse into where their food is coming from as they enter the store.

Of course, pre-pandemic, the idea of in-store dining was probably one of the hottest trends when it came to grocery “experience”—and this is one of the elements that completely disappeared in 2020. Most designers agree in-store restaurant-style dining will be back in fashion at grocery stores as pandemic safety restrictions continue to lift—but perhaps not as quickly as grocers might like. Jean-Pierre Lacroix, president of Toronto-based Shikatani Lacroix Design, thinks consumers who are keen to dine out are going to hit all their favourite traditional restaurants before they start dining in grocery stores, “because there is this pent-up demand to go to restaurants.”

That said, Lacroix suggests grocers continue to focus on expanding and improving their in-store dining areas and offerings to cater specifically to local demographics—because as the post-lockdown restaurant rush eventually slows, grocers will be there to fill a niche. “What supermarkets have [going for them is] large commissary kitchens at the back and their local presence. So they’re not driven by creating a chain of restaurants and finding their operational efficiency—they can make brands that are targeted to key consumer segments based on the trading area, which is a competitive advantage to them,” he says.

Swiss retailer Migros opened Bridge this spring, a 21,000- sq.-ft. grocery/food hall in Zurich. Using a flexible design strategy, the retailer views it as a “lab store” where it can foster innovation and try new ideas (Interstore | Schweitzer)

Focus on flexibility

Food and shopping trends, even prior to the pandemic, shift so rapidly it’s sometimes hard for grocers to keep up. This pattern of fast-changing trends prompted Italy-based design firm Interstore | Schweitzer to create its new store design concept called Flexstore. “Having worked with food retailers for decades, there’s been this ongoing issue around how to adapt the store to fit with changing demands. And if you think about it, as an operator, if I want to add a vegan counter or a pizza oven, I may have to make a decision about ‘what do I give up to create the space for that?’” says Nathan Watts, creative director at the firm’s London office.

“And the classic problem retailers face is that it’s so expensive to refit a store because of the plumbing and all of the heavy cost of engineered equipment and how to move it,” Watts explains. “So I think what happens is retailers have this point of inertia or lack of action because the cost makes it hard to do anything. Over time, that actually leads to a bit of a state of decline and a loss of relevance, because the retailer is not keeping up with the needs of the customer.”

Enter the Flexstore model, which “effectively puts the store on wheels,” says Watts. “So instead of plumbing everything in from the ground and the wall, we’re providing all the services from the ceiling, and a set of bespoke equipment that can basically plug-and-play and be moved around and arranged much more easily than a traditional set of equipment.” This gives retailers significantly more freedom, he says, “to act when they realize they have something that needs to happen in their space.”

While this concept was already in the works when the pandemic hit, the importance of flexibility in design was undeniably magnified by the crisis. All of a sudden salad bars closed, in-store dining was shut down, and many parts of the store had to be re-jigged for COVID-safe shopping. “I think retailers have never come across a moment where it’s been so obvious that change is needed quickly in store,” says Watts, “and this is why the development of Flexstore was quite timely for us.”

One of the first stores featuring the Flexstore design strategy is Bridge in Zurich, opened this spring by Swiss retailer Migros. The 21,000-sq.-ft. grocery/food hall location is being viewed as a “lab store” by the retailer, a place where it can foster innovation by trying out new ideas to be implemented in other stores. “They’re trialling our Flexstore system as much more of a pop-up strategy around how to bring in local producers, local foodservice operators, and to enable this space to have a bit more of a dynamic life of ever-changing food content.”

One flexible element in the store is the cooking/food lab area: “Customers can go there and meet, and they can have cookery schools in the space, but the whole environment is flexible—so they can completely convert the environment into smaller cookery classes or large almost amphitheatre-like experiences with big-name chefs, and so on,” Watts says, referring to it as a kind of “mobile kitchen” that can be moved around the space.

Another example is the checkout stations, which are on wheels and can be moved around if you want space for something else at the front of the store. “The checkout classically lives in a quite important real estate space towards the front of the store—so having a mobile checkout area where you can just push the checkout slightly to one side to enable you to open that area up for other events and pop-ups has been built into the store, so they can move things around and address whatever they need to in that space,” says Watts, who notes that while the details are still under wraps, his firm is currently working with a Canadian client on implementing the Flexstore-style design.

At the flagship Save Mart in Modesto, Calif., the in-store restaurant embraces local with its food offerings as well as its shipping container format, a nod to the agricultural focus of the area (Shook Kelley)

All things local

While the desire for all things “local” was trending well before the pandemic, it’s been amplified significantly in the past year and a half. But now, it’s not just about sustainability or quality; it’s also about the supply chain and supporting your local economy and community when times are tough. Most designers agree the idea of “local” will increasingly make its way into store design in various interesting ways.

“Localization in food retail is a powerful consumer draw. It determines what makes a grocery store feel integral to the local community. It’s what gives it its sense of place and fosters pride of belonging,” says GH+A’s Kalisky. “This can be achieved through design cues that incorporate indigenous materials into the store design, or highlighting merchandise produced by local vendors such as artisanal cheeses, butchers, farmers’ produce, bakers.” To sum it up, she says, “the space needs to be contextualized to reflect the values of its community.”

Sabrina Fan, principal at Shook Kelley, points to its design of the flagship Save Mart in Modesto, Calif. (which opened just prior to the pandemic) as an example of a store consciously designed to reflect its local Central Valley/Central California community. “The whole store is designed using a local agriculture industry and warehouse inspiration of corrugated metals, concrete blocks, industrial I-beam structures and other raw materials, as well as exposed framing and ductwork,” she says, noting the produce section “especially captures this feel, as a ‘produce depot.’ The depot concept is visually raw and taps into the local area’s agricultural wealth. Its large concrete wall backdrop is anchored by a plant wall made of industrial pallets and painted ‘Local’ [lettering] graphics that also speak to the brand’s local roots.”

The in-store restaurant, the Tipping Point—which looks like a huge, brightly coloured shipping container—also taps into the idea of local by reflecting the community’s food culture, says Fan. “The restaurant is all about doing barbecue tri-tip really well, and extending that ‘hero item’ into many forms that show an understanding of how the community eats through fun takes like tri-tip tacos, tri-tip tortas, tri- tip sandwiches. Tri-tip’s a California barbecue staple popularized along the Central Coast, so embracing it, doing it well, and having some fun with it, is about embracing the specificity and understanding the specialness of the community,” she explains. And design-wise, the Tipping Point “has an iconographic quality with the two-level shipping container form, which references the dominance of the agricultural industry in the Central Valley.”


To emphasize its local focus, Aldi Corner Store commissioned a local artist to fill the North Sydney location with artworks that celebrate the store’s surrounding neighbourhood (Landini Associates)

As we emerge from the pandemic, the importance of community will increasingly play a critical role in store design, echoes Lacroix, “so you’re going to see a big push by grocery store chains to reaffirm their commitment to the community.” Interestingly, Landini also connects this local/community focus to the simultaneous trend we’re seeing toward smaller stores. “As space becomes a premium, and daily shopping desires focus on safety and convenience, retailers are looking for spaces closer to their customers. This can drive frequency, potentially engender loyalty and probably require specialization. Local often means smaller and, as such, necessarily tailored to their community’s needs. That’s a good business model if you can deliver.”

Other designers agree smaller-format is trending when it comes to store size. “You’re definitely going to see a shrinking of the stores,” says Lacroix. “Consumers are going to want more representation of smaller, local stores versus the large superstores.” Kelley concurs, adding that “around 10,000 square feet seems to be the magic size.”

Landini Associates worked on a 10,635-sq.-ft. store for Aldi in North Sydney, Australia under a new small-format banner called Aldi Corner Store, which made its debut in July. Aimed at a local, predominantly walk-in customer base with a focus on fresh offerings, each store under this new banner will commission a local artist to create artworks celebrating the store’s surrounding neighbourhood. At the inaugural Aldi Corner Store in North Sydney, for instance, renowned Australian street artist Mulga (Joe Moore) uses his signature bright colours to illustrate ideas of not only tasty food and fresh produce, but also to evoke elements of the North Sydney area itself (examples include images of the red Banksia plant, native to North Sydney, as well as wavy blue lines that symbolize the nearby harbour, according to the artist.)

Overall, Shook Kelley’s Fan suggests the increased focus on local and community may stem, in part, from a backlash against the rise of the massive online entities like Amazon. “If Amazon and its mostly place-less yet convenient approach is the big ‘enemy’ of the future for traditional grocery, being their opposite can be about capturing a more detailed reflection of ‘local’ or providing a more tailored experience that Amazon doesn’t fulfill—for instance, a sense of neighbours and neighbourhood; what it means to really be within and from a community,” she says. “On a broader scale, the prominence of ‘local’ in grocery design probably just reflects how much culture and society are grappling with questions and tensions between convenience versus quality; best value versus best experience; and being for anyone versus being for you.”

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

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