By Carol Radice
As profit margins remain slim, retailers are pulling out all the stops to catch consumers’ attention. Looks count. In today’s world where consumers want it all—an attractive store, clean environment and wide assortments—retailers have increasingly come to accept that if their stores are not up to snuff consumers will simply go elsewhere to shop. Industry research predicts that consumers will continue to trim expenses throughout 2014, eliminating unnecessary purchases and following conservative purchase patterns. Observers say retailers will need to leverage every advantage they have to keep customers coming back. One way retailers can stand out is by finding design inspiration from their local surroundings, says Tony Camilletti, executive vice president at D|Fab based in Madison Heights, Mich. For instance, if a store is in a bucolic area, the D|Fab design team will often look to the sights and sounds the locale is known for to provide the creative design palette. The goal, he says, is to design a space customers will be comfortable shopping in. “Throughout our years of experience we have found leveraging one’s sense of community is the best way to build loyalty among a consumer base,” says Camilletti. Regardless of where a store is located, observers say the focus as a designer is to use the most effective design elements available and within budget to build brand image. Juan Romero, president and CEO of Tampa, Fla.-based api(+), says this often can be achieved by getting to know the store’s owners and its history. By tapping into a retailer’s passion and vision, Romero says designers can sculpt a brand personality and point-of-difference that truly reflects the owners and their heritage. Dan Phillips, a managing partner with Bellevue, Wash.-based Phillips Enterprises, a food market design firm, says one of the biggest changes affecting supermarket design is the increased number of smaller stores being built or remodeled. He says many of the design proposal requests Phillips Enterprises receives are from retailers with footprints of 30,000 square feet or under. “Lease rates have risen dramatically, as have energy costs, so retailers are trying to do more with less space,” says Phillips. “As a designer that creates more pressure to accomplish everything that needs to be done in a tight space and on a limited budget.” These constraints, he adds, put a new spin on the word “creative.” Phillips says that when tasked with working in a small space, designers are compelled to utilize every piece of real estate that they possibly can. In fact, many spaces often do double duty. Retailers with stores of this size, for instance, will often combine labor-intensive areas to keep costs down and maximize employee time. “There are ways to leverage space and tricks of the trade that we often call on to make the most of the space we have,” he says. “Using tall refrigeration cases and custom cabinetry are two of our more popular go-to moves. Taking advantage of cross merchandising opportunities and combination cases also helps.” The key, he adds, is knowing where to spend and where to hold back. Limited budgets are a fact of doing business and observers say the “sky is the limit” rarely, if ever, applies today. Even with modest budgets most retailers inevitably face the reality that not everything on their punch list can be immediately tackled. In these cases, designers say it is better to spend the money in areas the public sees and, if needed, cut back a bit in areas where functionality can take precedent over aesthetics such as the backroom. Increasingly, retailers have also come to understand that even small design changes can make a big difference. As designers are quick to remind, retailers do not necessarily need a huge budget to freshen the interior appearance or spend months renovating. Sometimes something as simple as updating department signage or changing out tired graphics can make an impact. Project: Hiller’s Market, South Lyon, Mich. Design team: D|Fab, Madison Heights, Mich. Hiller’s, a longstanding family-operated grocery chain in southeast Michigan, wanted to create a new store environment that reflected the surrounding rural community of their newest store location—an area rich with fruitful orchards and equestrian farms. The 53,000-square-foot South Lyon store features prepared foods, a wine/beer/coffee bar, demo kitchen, international and local foods and a specialty dietary assortment. D|Fab delivered on the authentic, customer-centric “Hiller’s Brand Promise” by creating an easily-navigated, comfortable atmosphere that highlighted areas of the brand’s expertise—quality, variety, specialty assortment and good taste. “We didn’t want to be overtly obvious with our design homage to the local flavors of orchards and equestrian stables,” says Camilletti. Instead, Camilletti and his team chose to reflect some of that character through subtle textures, a warm palette and abstract graphic icons. The store design took an artistic approach, using stylistic graphics in warm earthy hues and leathery textures intended to create a comfortable, enveloping shopping experience. Large-scale abstracted graphics (eggs, cheese, fish, apples) in tonal wall stencils with layered dimensional elements visually unite the store interior without the use of department titles on the walls. The centrally located produce area, for instance, was enhanced and defined with an overhead suspended structure of abstract, intertwining branches and apples, reflecting the orchards’ influence and local product sourcing. Custom graphic drum lights were used throughout the store to highlight focal departments, adding light enhancement and creating a boutique or restaurant feel. Translucent graphic curved panels highlight the entire length of the international aisle drawing attention and interest to this in-line aisle. Finishes included a random matte and polished mix of wall tile in the prepared foods areas with accents of glass tile. A polished concrete floor further enhanced the concept with a simple, clean look. Distressed, aged textures in millwork and graphics, such as wood and worn leather, give a nod to the equestrian community. Leafy, apple branch silhouettes were used throughout the store as a uniting graphic brand element in the produce overhead structure, wall stenciling and drum light graphics. Barn-roofing metal canopies located at the service departments also served to highlight these specialty categories. Additionally, a coffee, wine and beer bar was joined with a demo kitchen at the front of the store for maximum exposure from the street level and from within the store. This special store space is unique in the market area and is designed to create a space for the community to interact and build loyalty among customers. “Hiller’s newest store in South Lyon embodies our vision of the future of grocery retailing—a full service emporium with something to offer every member of the family,” says Jim Hiller, owner. “The store is a genuine destination for the community, with space for meetings and classes, a scratch bakery, a hardwood meat smoker, full service meat counter with hanging beef and even a wine and craft beer bar where grocery shopping can be confronted more collegially with a glass in hand.” Project: Yummy Market, Toronto Design team: api(+), Tampa, Fla. Yummy Market was founded in 2002 to fill a need for familiar foods desired by the growing number of Europeans living in the Toronto area and by adventurous foodies seeking new experiences. Founders Alexei and Anna Tsvetkov had a vision of bringing a European food experience to as many Canadians as possible. The result of their commitment is evident in their two locations today. Yummy Market offers a broad selection of European foods including hot prepared meals, fresh baked breads, buns, cakes and pastries. The chefs at Yummy Market are trained in traditional European kitchens, ensuring that the flavors customers bring home will take their taste buds on a continental tour of old and new favorites. When the Tsvetkovs set out to open their second Yummy Market location their design goal was to create a fully branded European-style environment and to define the Yummy Market brand essence, focusing on brand personality, brand promise, point of difference and tone of voice. However, the building site they selected, located in Vaughn, a Toronto suburb, posed a unique design challenge. The space was previously occupied and heavily branded by a large, well-recognized grocery store chain. Rather than gutting the building, api(+) avoided replacement costs of high quality pieces by integrating some existing architectural and design elements into the Yummy Market design. The floor, ceiling color, decorative headwall tiles and some refrigerated cases remain as they were, but the previous store’s branding and style do not. The design team created a fresh, new color and materials palette around the original pieces. Additionally, the bakery was moved toward the front of store, creating a new architectural feel and a focal point for shoppers. Prominent design features that help express the Yummy Market brand essence include images of European landmarks, curved bulkheads, materials that mirror the high quality of products and an open layout. Design, accompanied by Yummy Market’s broad selection of European foods, has created a full European experience for shoppers. “Our authentic European recipes, freshly baked breads and a large assortment of European delicacies, paired with the European-inspired store architecture and interior design, take our customers on a European culinary adventure,” says Alexei Tsvetkov, CEO of Yummy Market. “Moreover, api(+) was able to translate our European shopping experience vision into a design that captures our brand essence.” Project: Coborn’s, multiple locations Design team: Coborn’s Design Team, St. Cloud, Minn. Coborn’s is an employee-owned company featuring 120-plus locations, including 48 grocery stores throughout the Midwest. Its mission and vision are simple: “Be the best place to work and the best place to shop.” Coborn’s officials say they do this by providing superior value to their customers and working ethically to do what is right. With shoppers making a majority of their buying decisions at the point-of-sale, Coborn’s wanted to display front end seasonal signage in the produce area, while continuing to promote their “fresh” messaging. With the majority of their stores having high open ceilings the challenge was creating an easy-to-implement signage program that could be quickly changed out on a regular basis. Coborn’s called on Lake Geneva, Wis.-based Yunker Industries to assist with this effort. “Yunker has been a valued partner, providing innovative ideas and solutions for the challenges we face in our graphics and display projects,” says Aimee Asp, advertising manager for Coborn’s. Yunker designed a system that eliminated the issue of hanging signs from the high open ceilings to something manageable. Not only can signs be changed out for various promotions more easily, it has eliminated the need for employees to be on high ladders to perform the task. Bold four-color dimensional graphics create a subliminal message and sense of excitement for the season as shoppers pass by. “The staff at Yunker is incredibly helpful and handles all our jobs with excellent follow through and fantastic workmanship,” says Asp. Since the beginning of the program Yunker has provided Coborn’s with several seasonal décor packages utilizing various materials and die cut shapes to keep the program interesting. They offer services from industrial design, creative and prototyping all the way through production, custom packaging and distribution. Looking good Each year, as retailers seek to expand their prepared foods program and ratchet up their offerings, they search out new and inventive ways to keep the presentations exciting. From equipment and display cases to signage, grocers are stepping up their game, say observers. “Today, there is a lot of pressure on retailers to have a signature look and be unique,” says Alain Lebret, national sales and marketing director for 1515 Design & Manufacturing based in Inglewood, Calif. “Everyone wants to have the look of an upscale market whether they are or not.” 1515 Design offers a wide range of rotisseries designed to fit into any space. The company is also known for creating, designing and importing custom displays with a European flair. According to Lebret, 1515 Design uses high-quality materials such as granite, metal and wood and then adds unique colors and finishes to create a customized look. He says the end result is display cases that both stand out and hold up over time. “Increasingly retailers are investing in cases such as these because they know if consumers are drawn to how something looks they will linger and hopefully buy more,” says Lebret. Looking forward, Lebret expects retailers to take even more risks with the look and feel of their stores. “As the pressure to be different and look different continues to escalate in the next several years, retailers will be open to trying out new looks and concepts,” he says.