Should Grocers Rethink Their Stores’ Formats?

When news hit that COVID-19 was on track to become a global pandemic, many people quickly stocked their pantries with shelf-stable goods. No longer did consumers have the confidence that their everyday staples would be available and in stock at their local store. Additionally, food shopping habits have changed rapidly, with shoppers turning to online orders or quick visits to pick up key staples.

These unprecedented times have created an opportunity to rethink the design and flow of the traditional grocery store. The slides below walk through our thoughts as to the potential design implications for each facet of a grocery concept.

Online shopping/delivery/pick-up

The increased demand seen during the initial months of the pandemic did not solely emerge from traditional in-store shopping; most online shopping, delivery, and pick-up services saw an incredible surge in demand as well. Suddenly, online ordering and pick-up/delivery services are being used as a way of minimizing health risks as well for the added convenience.

According to the latest Brick Meets Click and Symphony Retail AI Online Grocery Survey, online grocery sales increased by 43% just in April 2020 alone. Fulfilling these online orders presents a new challenge in this era of social-distancing restrictions. How can one expect to have enough space for shoppers to keep their distance from each other when store employees need to shop from those same aisles to fulfill the online orders? The same problem is presented when there is an influx of “third-party pickers,” working to fulfill orders from popular grocery delivery apps such as Instacart and Favor.

We see grocers implementing one-way foot traffic rules because the width of traditional aisles does not allow customers to keep their distance from one another. Additionally, the center aisles, which had previously seen a decline in traffic, are now being shopped more due to the demand for shelf-stable products. As grocery designers, we see how automated systems are uniquely equipped to address these floorplan issues. Creating a dedicated, automated space to stock and fulfill online orders without needing to provide enough space for employees to be comfortably distanced from each other allows the most efficient and risk-averse use of space.

Automated fulfillment could be especially applicable for products that consumers don’t typically care to pick out themselves, such as the center-store shelf-stable products. Moving that inventory into the back-of-house opens up more space to stock the fresh, high-market food while allowing for wider aisles to serve the distance-conscious consumer.

Food prep safety

While food safety and sanitation measures are nothing new, what has changed is the need for the consumer to see and even participate in those sanitation measures. The desire of customers to buy fresh, prepared or fully-cooked meals, and knowing those meals are prepared with food safety measures maintained, will fuel a requirement for more transparency into the store’s kitchen. Additionally, with the demand of pre-cooked meals increasing, it presents an opportunity for grocers’ to fill that space with their own fresh-prepared meals instead of customers selecting meals from the frozen section.

Rethinking the layout

The launch of a holistic approach to online-order fulfillment opens up an opportunity to utilize the often-ignored side-façade of the grocery store to integrate the automated micro-fulfillment center into the online order delivery and pick-up “hub.” By activating another side of the building, the circulation of the site is impacted as well. Currently, many online-order pick-up services are positioned to one side of the parking lot and customers are expected to wade through the crowded, pedestrian-heavy parking area typically used for in-store shopping. By creating dedicated traffic patterns, online-order pick-up is no longer an afterthought but an integrated part of the grocery shopping experience.

A convenience store component would supplement the online order pick-up service by catering not only to customers who either forgot to put “that one item” on their order, but also to the online-order customers who need to pick up something quickly. A c-store like model allows them to shop without waiting for their online order to process prevents the trek across the entire sales floor for those couple of items.

Previously, a typical consumer would have to visit 3 different locations to find these 3 different grocery shopping experiences; the speed of a convenience store, the cost-savings of a warehouse store, and the specialty product found at different grocers. By reducing the footprint of the typical market and adding in the micro-fulfillment and c-store components, the retailer presents the customer with a true one-stop-shop for all their grocery needs.

If grocers explore the options of automating their back-of-house, including the convenience of the c-store, and engaging the side façade with dedicated vehicular traffic patterns, they have the opportunity to improve the experience of their customers and employees not only during the pandemic but in the years ahead.