Expert Column: Designing Grocery Stores to Interface With Consumers


The demographics of grocery shoppers and the means of communicating with them have radically changed. Print ads, though still effective, have one purpose: to drive traffic to the store. The bigger challenge today is marketing to consumers while they're in the store. The ability to do this is affected by two major factors: 1) the number of channels of outreach, many of them through social media and smartphones, and 2) store designs that incorporate technology to maximize the shopping experience.

Rise of the Millennials

Today's dominant segment of the marketplace is known as the Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000. Leslie G. Sarasin, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute, puts their numbers at 82 million, significantly higher than the 77 million Baby Boomers. She writes in the June 2014 FMI blog that grocers and other food marketers have to accept the new reality that represents Millennial shopping: "No surprise here — they expect their mobile devices will become an integral component of both their in-store experience and out-of-store shopping."

One of the best examples of the growing role of mobile technology adopted by Millennials is the use of the quick-response (QR) reader in their cell phones that can help them take advantage of discounts and other incentives while in the store. Their social media links can also provide location information for a specific product.

But what about the real-time technology that should be offered in the design of today's markets? Deborah English, president and CEO of Pasadena, Calif.-based DL English Design, believes grocers need to be conscious that their store design resonates with this powerful and technology-oriented group.

"It's all about the hybridization and socialization of food retail," English says. "Because of all the different food categories, there are more design opportunities where stores can enable customers to use devices to make better shopping decisions."

Applying Digital to Grocery Shopping

A 2014 study by Accenture that examined buying habits of Millennials found that the "sensory experience" is every bit as important to their grocery shopping choices as is product availability. Millennials responding to the survey questions made it quite clear that they aren't interested in a grocery that looks no different than it did in their parents' era. That's enough of a rationale to design for the nontraditional.

One example: the beer cave, which when introduced was quite novel. Now it's generally regarded as essential. The same can be said for the increasing number of grocers offering juice bars and coffee bars. While not necessarily digital, these specialized areas are all part of the sensory experience.

But it's the digital offerings within the store that create the "cool" factor that turns on this sensory-attuned demographic. One example is an intelligent sealed glass door with an embedded translucent panel for refrigerated or frozen food items. What sets off this newest adaptation of technology to real-time grocery shopping is the presence of a wireless connectivity media player at the top of the door. Instead of the usual opening and searching — always an issue when it comes to frozen foods — consumers can access up-to-the-second product availability information.

Whole Foods Market has jumped aboard the digital bandwagon. The Austin, Texas-based company recently revealed plans to offer customers digital device payments through Apple Pay, a mobile payment system designed for the latest model, the iPhone 6.

The digital grocery is also an informational resource. Information delivered through technology while the consumer is in the store contains nutritional data of foods and beverages. It's much easier to access this way than having to grab individual packages and lose time studying the printed data on the package listing calories, carbohydrates, sodium and sugar.

This is, perhaps, the biggest benefit of digital store designs for ownership and customers. Through the use of technology, each individual need is addressed and saved in a database. When this particular consumer returns, the store can provide messages, coupons and other sale information that's individually relevant.

Design Matters

According to English, more conventional stores are changing with these digital times — and they should. "I think design matters and the ambience makes up an enormous part of the decision-making process for shopping," she notes.

Digital-oriented design has gone well beyond a "cool" factor. It's a necessity for today's competitive environment.

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