Meeting the needs of the grocery customer through smart design

For several decades, BRR has supported national and regional grocery brands with their store design programs. We sat down with Doug Livingston, AIA to explore the latest trends in the industry. Doug has 30 years of experience working on a variety of project types, including grocery, big-box retail, mixed-use and fuel stations. Before joining BRR, Doug spent 11 years with Walmart and Safeway leading internal design teams for regional and national building formats. His first-hand experience managing a brand’s physical adaptation to the building environment is an essential asset to both our project teams and clients.

Recently he led an internal research project, exploring the latest consumer complaints grocers face. Read on for some of the insights related to the research:

Q: What’s the strategy behind this research?

We work hand in hand with our clients to address, through good design work, some of the obstacles facing retail grocers. That said, we strive to continuously bring new ideas to our clients, so we often do a lot of research about the latest trends and consumer feedback. We wanted to gain more knowledge about specific challenges in the industry, so we are better equipped to help our clients.

Q: What are some of the common issues prevalent across most grocery chains?

After perusing a large number of consumer websites and facilitating discussions with our clients, I’d say we identified five of the most common complaints from the average shopper.

  • The store is difficult to shop in and does not offer enough conveniences.
  • It is an unpleasant experience to shop there.
  • The store offers poor customer service.
  • The store does not offer high quality goods and services.
  • The store simply does not offer what they expect in terms of experience.

Q: Are these complaints new to the grocery industry?

Actually, no, they’ve been consistent for decades. So, why do these problems persist? Has the customer changed? Are grocers reticent of changing their systems that have been successful for decades?

One thing that is certain — in order to win new customers and keep the loyalty of existing customers, it is evident that a paradigm shift must occur to keep the loyalty of the average retail grocery shopper.

Q: How can grocers begin to fix this issue?

Even with the emergence of technology to help manage stores, stock and employees, we see that grocers still conduct business much the same way they’ve been doing it for the past 50 or 60 years. Many have experimented with the size of their stores, the number of SKUs on the shelves, or various forms of self-checkout, online-shopping, pick-up and home delivery.

Yet both store operation and store layout have remained virtually the same for the past 60 years. Food is delivered at the back, stocked on shelves and it leaves through the front – much as it has since Piggly-Wiggly created the first self-service grocery model in 1916.

Our thought is that we should help our clients take a radical new look at how food is brought into and handled in the store. What if we began looking for a new way to sell groceries from the perspective of a vastly evolved customer’s and employee’s needs?  In other words, how can we remove friction for the customers as well as create a more pleasant and engaging environment for store employees?

Q: Can you give us an example?

Our research found that when customers complained that it is “difficult” to shop there, most experiences stemmed from a difficulty in finding what they were looking for. Others complained about the large format stores being too inconvenient when shopping for just a few items.  And finally, many complaints are related to seeing long check-out lines while empty lanes are available but not staffed.

Customers’ schedules are becoming more and more overloaded, so their time is at a premium. To strengthen loyalty and increase sales, grocers must give back some time to their customers and provide more convenience in their shopping ventures.

Walmart and Amazon are leading the effort to eliminate lengthy check-out times with different forms of scan-and-go technology. Other grocers are experimenting in smaller formats in attempts to provide a more convenient in and out experience with a more targeted and curated offering.

Q: What about the shoppers who say it’s a physically unpleasant experience?

The condition of the décor and finishes is a factor that can turn shoppers away if the store hasn’t been remodeled or kept up to date with the times. Customers today are much more informed and in tune with what is considered “outdated.”

However, improving the physical appearance of the store extends beyond just improving lighting and maintaining a fresh and consistent branded look. We’ve seen a lot of success with grocers who have added elements to create a destination, a place to go a do more than buy groceries. Hy-Vee, Kroger and others are adding “grocerants” and full-service cocktail lounges into their stores which offer home style meals to busy families and adult beverages in a social setting. Imagine a new generation of grocery stores as the perfect place to rendezvous with friends, catch up and enjoy a beer or glass of wine before picking up online grocery orders to take home.

Q: How has the ‘farm to table’ trend influenced a grocer’s approach?

Today, more than ever, consumers are concerned with the quality and ingredients of their food.  They want to know about foods’ origins, ingredients contained, fertilizers used, whether it’s non-GMO, free-range, free-swimming or raised in a laboratory.

Creating store designs that bridge the gap between farmer and consumer will foster trust and build an important connection between the customer and the store. We suggest providing intentional and focused demonstration areas for local food growers to promote their products. You could even go one step further and create a store design that facilitates frequent farmer’s markets. This approach will establish the store as an experiential event place rather than a place to merely fulfill a task. Finally, there are more and more mobile apps available which can communicate nutritional and allergen information to concerned customers.

Q: Speaking of apps, how do you think technology will impact staffing in the future?

Because the wants and needs of consumers are changing at such a rapid rate, it only makes sense that employee roles should be re-examined to maximize their purpose and better meet these needs. Grocers should now consider ways to alleviate the menial tasks in stores by leveraging technology, thus allowing them to re-purpose staff specifically to deliver a more engaging customer experience.

What does this look like?  We’re seeing robotic grocery picking to fulfill online grocery orders much more rapidly – adding convenience for the customer. The automation equipment assembles orders at almost four times that of human labor and it only takes up a “sliver” of the store’s back of house space to accomplish this. Fulfilling orders more efficiently will not only increase online sales and customer satisfaction, but it will also allow for new opportunities to repurpose employees for customer interaction.

Q: How do you envision grocery design in the next five years?

As we explored consumer complaints, we realized there will likely be a paradigm shift in order for grocers to keep existing customers and win new customers as well.

Ultimately, the many operational and programmatical changes that need to occur will impact the physical layout of these spaces. For example, to better address their omni-channel savvy customers, architects and grocers need to rethink how the food comes in and out of stores to maximize efficiency. One option could include moving the “back of house” to the side of the store to make it easier for fulfilling drive up orders as well as keeping the in-store shelves stocked.
As self-driving vehicles continue to clear regulatory obstacles, I think we can expect grocery delivery to explode in popularity. I also expect the presence of augmented reality apps offered by retailers to enhance customer personalization causing them to become more common and expected. I believe we are in an amazing time as both grocery retailers and grocery designers; we’re on a threshold of a radically different way to go about our everyday lives.

About the author:

Doug Livingston, Associate, AIA, graduated from Washington State University with Bachelor of Architecture degree. Doug has 30 years of experience working on a variety of project types, including grocery, big-box retail, mixed-use and fuel stations. Before joining BRR, he spent 11 years working on the client side, leading internal design teams for regional and national building formats. Day to day, he works with multiple grocery account teams to create and implement design solutions that achieve client goals, as well as consider what customers want and store employees need. Email him.