Expert Column: Building Blocks of Successful Supermarket Design

The cornerstone of winning food retail store design is a proficient store planning team. An adept, motivated team understands brand, collaborates well throughout an organization, and holds expertise for the challenges posed. Delivering superior sales results and projects on schedule necessitates a well-honed design function. Quality design work is a structured, deliberate process and takes time. With the advent of a new year, now is a good time to assess how your planning team is assembled and how to maximize the benefit of this valued resource. We will examine the team’s composition, process management and scheduling to optimize results.

Design is an essential tool for a retailer’s success and does not need to be cost-prohibitive. Supermarkets’ needs vary from small capital projects to complex remodel expansions. The design collaborative is typically organized by project size and complexity; an internally managed team is most effective but not essential. While larger retailers have in-house planners or even registered architects on staff to facilitate schedules, smaller merchants may not hold this resource. Should your company not have design support, consider an “outsource” partnership with an experienced design firm that specializes in food retail programs. Selecting a specialized firm with strong experience is an invaluable asset.   

Store planners or designers serve as “point persons,” managing spatial relationships of equipment, display cases, production and support areas such as coolers and freezers. They distill significant amounts of program information -– referred to as “the store experience” – including the look and feel, finishes, décor and lighting. They perform the magic act to assure everyone’s needs are addressed and balanced. 

The planning team’s composition is generally proportionate to a retailer’s sales volume and includes diverse staff members. CAD planners prepare fixture plans and 3-D modeling. Specialized designers are skilled in finishes, lighting and brand work. Department oversight members include managers, directors and VPs of design, who together provide a higher level of experience. These managers act as a buffer to improve workflow and review project quality. Design function also manages the store’s brand or DNA, deploying it consistently throughout the shopping experience.

As design leads the process, merchants are the store’s “retail engine” and the primary client. Each departmental area provides detailed product needs derived from sales programs. Collaborating with merchandising is an iterative process that begins with a checklist such as "I need 32 linear 5 deck feet of wet produce rack." The physical "how" and "what" department composition are  “retail basics”; however, displaying and romancing product is a merchant’s essential art.

Store sales teams are the partners who manage daily operations and are an excellent source of consumer insights. The design plan must align the in-store team with product and sales programs. The store operations team also includes the disciplines of health, sanitation, safety and security. Integral to the process, their input assures department work areas are planned to the smallest detail. Today, more than ever, customer food safety and security is paramount; these team members keep these elements in focus.

An equipment (EQ) procurement team is integral to the specification, budgeting and design process, while maintaining a dialog between design and merchants. This team manages bidding and negotiation and close communications are mandatory. Supermarket EQ budgets equate to between 30 and 50 percent of total capital investment for store infrastructure. Buying varies, with companies using trade agreements or co-ops, and are subject to short- or long-range programs. A retailer’s appetite for innovation may also influence multiyear EQ buys, driving costs.

Construction project managers (PM) may be on staff or outsourced as an overseer of budgets, managing details, and coordinating construction drawings with the team and architect. The PM holds significant responsibility alongside the design department during remodels, managing construction phasing of an operating store.

The real estate team leads the acquisition and approval process of new stores and remodels and is another closely aligned design team partner.

The architect of record is a licensed firm responsible for translating the fixture plan into a set of construction documents for permitting, bidding and construction. Architects ideally should be partnered with early, during concept plan development. Their early input with code compliance, structural and feasibility matters is critical in the remodel scope process. Finding the right firm with specialized industry experience will help the team reduce issues, facilitate the schedule and save costs.

The advertising and marketing department partners are core to brand management. As keepers of print and digital media, they manage the brand mark daily and understand advertising and sales programs. It's critical to closely align this team while the store brand finishes are created to assure a cohesive visual environment.

A branding design firm may help turn the brand into store design. Retailers more than ever understand the brand's power and seek creative guidance. Brand consultants are knowledgeable and capable of expressing the retailer’s core beliefs through graphics, finishes and “look and feel.” Expertise from such a firm should be strongly considered when transforming the brand or launching a new concept.   

An alternate approach to creating a less costly brand platform is capitalizing on the services of a décor vendor. The store décor vendor manages the brand from the conceptual design phase through production while coordinating finishes. There are several capable national firms with significant design branding expertise performing turnkey installations. The primary advantage to this path is that a program is developed around a budget with detailed décor, which saves time.

The senior leadership team, COO, EVP or CEO, is the final approving authority. Delays often occur at this phase, however, due to the highly competitive marketplace, and lost sales are the result, weakening the market position. Senior leaders act as referees during plan reviews, "making the call" as to who gets how much space. It's been said about an “approved store plan": if no merchant is happier than the other, you've accomplished something. Leadership should trust its team, allow calculated risks, and not default to what "we’ve always done in the past."

Quoting time-management guru Alan Lakein: “Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.”

It takes a team: Design is a differentiator; implementing a successful design is attainable and process is essential. These considerations are paramount to remain relevant in today’s rapidly evolving food marketplace.