For Supermarkets and Big Box, a Change of Scene in Design

About 80% of shopping is still in store, so store design still matters a lot
Esselunga, Italy’s oldest supermarket chain, located baking upfront in glass-walled area.

Better designs for large-format stores are essential for success during the pandemic recovery phase in 2021 and long after. That’s one reason new retail setups and renovations are such a strong focus now.

Recent work on new concept stores with Aldi, Walgreens, McDonald's and global leaders such as Loblaws, Emart, Glassons and Esselunga confirm the benefits. First, note that about 80% of shopping is still in store, so store design still matters a lot. Second, many retailers find that targeted store renovations and redesigns can contribute to increased online sales, up by 60% as shown in some cases.

What’s driving new designs? The post-pandemic comeback will include more localization, expanded fresh offerings, cheerier surroundings and more in-store manufacturing and automation for an increasingly hands-free experience.   

Better ideas for store operations, planning and layout, signage and customer processes show the bottom-line benefits of "reinventing normal" rather than falling back on stale formulas and outmoded purchasing experiences. 

Examples include:
Swapping checkout areas with fresh food displays and onsite manufacturing:  For Esselunga, Italy’s oldest supermarket chain, a recent revamp moved the cash registers to the side and located bread baking and food production in a prominent spot by the store entrances, creating a glass-walled display that shows arriving shoppers where their where food is coming from.

 • Automating picking and packing: New ideas in hands-free, contactless store operations, including shopping with integrated smartphone apps, have emerged as a trend that analysts predict will grow widely in the post-pandemic retailing scene. 

Alibaba’s Hema was among the first to pick up on this, debuting app-based product scanning and conveyor-belt delivery -- plus robotic table service in its Shanghai restaurants. 

Mixing in local brands with global product brands near storefronts: In this way, old-style groceries are coming back, but with these new twists of technology and localization.

There are other challenges and changes to expect, too. Among the most important is the floor space quandary faced by big-box retailers, department and other large-format stores. Their big footprints make their developments a "hostage to their history," space-wise, and some of the global leaders are reviewing this and thinking how better to use the increasingly redundant store area.

A few chains are readapting these volumes, in part, as distribution centers for more localized home delivery, which is often being done in unimaginative ways. (Though Alibaba's Hema has offered a refreshing contrast.) Others are looking at how to repurpose this excess of space in other ways. Some are subletting; others are inventing new products, offers and services. A few have created fitness centers or places of culture.

Ultimately, however, the best reinventions will consider the shopper’s time and convenience first to guide investment in store redesigns. First, retailers must face the truth about online shopping: More often than not it’s a time-consuming bore. 

Second, sometimes the physical shopping trip can be a relief, an enjoyable break from home quarantine with pleasant stimulation and discovery. The outing should be rewarded with a friendly, curated experience that not only presses the right buttons but that also shows how easy it can be — fewer steps needed, and layouts that speak for themselves. Smart retailers will think about how to give just 15 minutes back to these exhausted families and individuals, many who think little about themselves or their personal needs. This is very important.

The post-pandemic comeback will include more localization, expanded fresh offerings, cheerier surroundings and more in-store manufacturing and automation for an increasingly hands-free experience.

Aldi did just this with their Asian and Australian reinventions. Realizing that the typical discount store environments are generally uninviting and cold — reinforcing consumer perceptions of low-cost shopping as a dreaded chore — Aldi boldly upgraded the store environment and made a hero of the quality of the products. The totally replanned floors articulate certain categories for greater consistency, with key products placed at aisle entries alongside appealing messaging. 

Also, the produce, bakery, alcohol, and health and beauty departments were redeveloped. A palette of budget-minded yet real materials such as concrete, plywood, oriented-strand board (OSB) and rough sawn timbers bolster the perception of freshness throughout the store.

With new, glare-reducing LED lighting and witty, on-brand graphic illustrations reinforcing core themes of great value at low prices, quality and freshness, the new setup encourages customers to shop across the whole store while respecting the brand’s positioning as a low-cost budget option. The experience is moody, warm and modern, a pleasant and immersive customer journey guided by handwritten, illustrated signage rather than the shouty, noisy marketing one associates with discount chains.

Bigger changes demand vision. Retailers who are brave enough to adopt tomorrow’s winning design ideas have embraced a focus on "reinventing normal," which is ultimately all about applying common sense. It's a rational process that starts by articulating a desired outcome, then challenging whether history is the best way to achieve it. For example, when supermarkets were first introduced after the Great Depression, no one minded lining up at checkouts, because things were so much cheaper when bought in bulk. But three generations later, is this really the best use of the shop’s entrance? It’s hard to believe it could be so.

Looking at Esselunga again, their new floor design rotates the standard supermarket layout by 90 degrees, allocating payment to a cheaper zone and replacing the most prominent floor space with that glass box of production, previously hidden in multiple unseen places.

The prices didn't change but now the shop's window expresses what the grocer does best, which is making great-value fresh food. And, by the way, moving the on-site manufacturing teams into one place also makes the operations more efficient.

The Esselunga project team adopted the redesign proposal, created by Landini Associates and dubbed Dimmi, Italian for “show me” or “tell me.” Once agreed, this one word drove everything in a brave redesign. The results challenged normal and then “reinvented normal” -- for the better. If one really thinks it through, it all just made sense.

Mark Landini is creative director of Landini Associates, whose global team of designers and strategic thinkers deliver multi-skilled works melding strategy, architecture, interior, graphic, product, furniture and digital design. The firm works across all aspects of retail (including food) and hospitality. 

Previously, Landini was creative director of the Conran Design Group, a role he inherited from Sir Terrance Conran, and Fitch RS, the world’s largest retail design consultancy.

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