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.