Perhaps never before in the history of modern food retailing has there been fear and trepidation from consumers about going to grocery stores, which are poised to experience permanent changes in a post-pandemic world, where online food shopping, click-and-collect and store configurations will likely undergo radical changes.
To help retailers navigate and plan for the next generation of complexities that will be necessary to address sooner rather than later for a reordered grocery world, WGB caught up with Chad Ott and Brad Knab, co-owners of Pewaukee, Wis.-based StoreMasters, to discuss the hottest topics on the minds of many at present.
Meg Major:The COVID-19 outbreak has presented a new set of challenges for food retailers in the realm of store layouts and configurations that, for many, have made it difficult to properly ensure safe social distancing. Do you think this will have any lasting effects on store design schemes of the future? How can grocers think strategically about store design as it pertains to these challenges?
Chad Ott:This is a very tough question. The short term and long term answer is yes, definitely. To what degree is the conundrum. A good number of retailers are already insulated based on how they go to market. Those include stores without self-service food bars and service departments. That of course defines stores with little to no experiential departments, generally grocery-dominated stores. Changes in these types of stores will be limited to signage educating and reminding patrons and staff to mind their sanitary Ps and Qs with a few more hand-sanitizing stations throughout the store.
Stores with service departments and food bars have a new challenge moving forward. As things get back to normal, a new normal will be established.
Short-term solutions could be more hand-sanitizing stations, along with the requirement to utilize them before self-serving at a food bar. Enforcement will require additional staff temporarily until the habit becomes the new norm. Some long-term implementations could simply be to add hand-washing stations (HWS) for patrons. HWS are already a part of store operations, but not so much a part of the shopping experience. Strategically placed patron HWS will provide a sense of security and show a store’s commitment to user cleanliness at self-service food bars, beverage bars and cafes. The idea of these types of experiences going away entirely for some retailers may make sense, but for most, it is big part of their business and hurdling the communication barrier that the bars are safe will be the challenge.
The popularity of click-and-collect is surging right now to untold gains. How are offerings such as click-and-collect and delivery being incorporated into store designs?
Brad Knab: Click-and-collect has been around for quite some time and delivery has been around much longer. Most stores deliver but don’t necessarily advertise because it could overwhelm them. Ways these services are being implemented are through remodeling the front end to accommodate for storage of click-and-collect orders, with a direct route for patrons to pick up or for staff to deliver curbside.
Not all stores have that luxury, so creating a space in the backroom where orders can be processed can work as well. Another way ... click-and-collect is being incorporated is through the use of refrigerated and frozen food lockers, whether curbside so staff can easily fill them or out in the parking lot like some retailers are already doing to liberate an already busy front end from added click-and-collect commotion. The key is technology. For example, integration into the front-end system, onboard scanners for picking orders and logistics software to route deliveries efficiently.
With a pandemic upon us and possibly more to come as the years pass, how can stores quickly pivot their design into pandemic mode while operating normally otherwise?
Ott: Stores have already implemented pandemic mode and have done so in record time. In the future, they’ll take from what they’ve learned and be able to implement them faster with preparedness. Personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff, education and signage to patrons and more hand-washing and hand-sanitizing stations will be part of the plan as the new standard.
If grocers are giving more space to click and collect, what is being reconfigured in the usual store design layout to make room for this?
Knab: Oversized customer service counters and offices are first to go along with backroom seasonal storage areas. If lockers are being implemented, then a bit of sidewalk or parking lots [are borrowed]. In the future, a smaller center store is very conceivable as smaller independent grocers concentrate improvements on the perimeter and perishable departments. Designs will shift to show the perimeter departments, as well as e-commerce implementation, expanding into the center store as more categories get downsized due to online ordering. In addition, with center store potentially downsizing,some store designs may shift space to the backroom.
Ott: The thought behind this would be that stores sales would shift from center store dollars to delivery and click-and-collect dollars. That would reduce retail floor space in exchange for backroom space for storage and staging.
What can small operators learn from big grocery chains, and vice versa, when it comes to store design?
Ott: The biggest thing to learn is to get into online grocery. Some smaller retailers hang their hat on the personal touch of delivery, but most are taking these orders over the phone. Of course the expense of an app or third-party app all adds to the cost of operations. However, if anything hasn’t shown retailers how vital the online presence is, the COVID-19 outbreak has. For example, one retailer has seen phone-in orders go from 50 per month to 50 per week. Managing that on top of all the other issues they are facing is more difficult than it needs to be. What larger retailers can learn from smaller retailers is to be nimble, even in a large footprint. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Oftentimes larger retailers have more opportunities to test new departments or strategies before implementing them companywide.
Taking these calculated chances to make stores better, more experiential and more interesting top the list. Lastly, smaller retailers hang there hat on good ol' customer service and for some larger retailers, customer service is their Achilles heel.
When the coronavirus pandemic is behind us, what do you believe are the top three most valuable store design/equipment investments food retailers should consider?
Knab: Added PPE for staff, added hand-sanitizing stations throughout the store, and HWS in vestibules and stations in vestibules for sanitizing carts.
We’ve recently heard that your company has recently rebranded and evolved. Can you tell us a bit about your new organization’s top priorities and areas of specialization?
Ott: StoreMasters is new but the over 30 years of experience in the grocery and retail markets is not. We pride ourselves at being the experts in design, construction and decor for independent grocery and retail customers. We have been focused on this market for a long time, and our team is built around experience. In 2017, the ownership of Mehmert Store Services, Steve and Shelley Mehmert, brought both Brad and I on as part of the ownership group. This was the first step in the succession plan. In 2019, we took over the company and the Mehmerts moved on to other ventures. Now in 2020, we have released our name change and rebranding to the public.
Knab: StoreMasters is not just a name, it is a culture that speaks to how we work for our clients. We are continuously learning and evolving as the ever-changing grocery and retail markets progress. So with respect to who we are and what we do, it’s business as usual. We continue to be experts for our independent clients and work diligently to make their stores competitive. As StoreMasters continues to move into the future, we are looking to enhance our team with more talented and experienced people while expanding into more markets like c-stores, restaurants and other retail stores.
Food is always going to be a part of retail, whether it’s digital, brick-and-mortar or a complete reinvention of today’s stores into what they will be in the future. Our focus on trends, technology, energy efficiency and great design sets us apart from competition and allows us to be masters of our craft.