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Flexstores: The Next Trend in Store Design

New modular concept helps retailers of all sizes adapt their layouts for optimal selling opportunities
Produce is a standout in Sobeys' recently opened store in Orangeville, Ontario, the first North American supermarket to implement the Flexstore concept.

This past November, Canadian grocer Sobeys opened a store in Orangeville, Ontario, that, according to Zurich-based design and shopfitting company Interstore | Schweitzer, “is a completely new brand experience that will break new ground and set it apart from the competition.” The location’s debut marked the first time that Interstore | Schweitzer’s Flexstore concept had been implemented in North America.

In a Flexstore, all of the fixtures used are flexible and ready to plug in, thanks to an elaborate system in which the building services, including water and electricity, are fed from the ceiling into the counters and fixtures. Fresh food counters and refrigerated units can be flexibly outsourced according to this principle, and docked onto other areas as required. For instance, a pizza counter can easily be replaced by a salad bar by simply moving and exchanging the counters. The concept thus enables a retailer to change counters and entire departments quickly and easily, including from service to self-service, without incurring major construction costs.

“The aim of the project was to translate the new brand concept of Sobeys into a suitable store format and to set innovative accents that will flow into further projects in the future,” explains Interstore | Schweitzer, which designed and implemented the new prototype. “The final concept, which relies on a modified customer flow and a flexible store layout, will serve as a guideline for other stores. Hence, the customer journey leads the shopper in a circle through the fresh food departments, which are positioned along the walls of the store. In the center of the store, gondolas with dry goods are positioned where the customers can focus on their rational shopping list.” 

Sobeys Orangeville
The Orangeville Sobeys also includes an easily adaptable prepared food section, where, as in other parts of the store, the product presentation is accentuated by lighting from Imoon.

Adaptability for All Formats

The Flexstore concept brings together a range of ideas, many of which had been used over the years to overcome design challenges for various retail collaborators of Interstore | Schweitzer, including Texas-based grocer H-E-B and upscale U.K. food retailer Waitrose.

“Over the last four or five years, one of the biggest German retailers and food retailers and the biggest Swiss retailer, together with us, decided to go deeper into the technical development of this, what we now call Flexstore, with all these different elements and components, how to solve the issue of drainage for the refrigerated counters, how to work and have the possibility to go around in the store with electricity, water supply and need in the service departments, and things like that,” recounts Interstore | Schweitzer CEO Bernhard Schweitzer in an exclusive interview with Progressive Grocer from his company’s offices in northern Italy. “And so these two major retailers in Switzerland and in Germany financed these developments, and in 2020, at EuroShop, we were allowed to present to the public what we have developed over the last four, five years. So it’s a sum of different technologies.” 

One key motivation in Flexstore’s development, he notes, was hearing retailers continually request: “Please give us a tool, give us something which will allow us … to constantly adapt layouts … with the right equipment, change the composition and the position of certain departments, enlarge certain departments. We have to have the possibility to do that.”

Additionally, the German retailer noted earlier “was buying over 100 big stores, and didn’t want to renovate them completely, but wanted to integrate completely new service departments,” says Schweitzer. “And with this idea of the Flexstore, where everything is plug and play, we were able in a very, very short time to produce these departments, bring them and position them in the stores without changing too much of the rest of the store. So these possibilities to be completely flexible in strategic decisions and be very, very, very fast in realizing these ideas, is for sure today one of the major motivations for retailers to use” Flexstore.

Since the concept features “the kind of technologies that allow us to be extremely fast in the construction period,” he continues, the company was able to reduce construction time on site by around 40%.

Further, while the Orangeville Sobeys isn’t a small-format store, the Flexstore concept can work for retail spaces of any size, including smaller locations. “Especially for smaller formats, flexibility becomes more and more important,” Schweitzer tells PG. “In a big store, yes, it’s important to be flexible, but if you have the wrong assortment or the wrong combination of departments in a smaller store, it really, really can hurt. And to have the possibility to adapt that, it’s quite important.”

Sobeys Orangeville
Thanks to the Flexstore concept, Sobeys will be able to quickly modify the seafood department in its Orangeville store when necessary.

Next Steps in North America

One criticism that Schweitzer levels against certain American grocers is their sameness when it comes to design. “There are a lot of these food retailers who have their own identity, they have created that, but there are some others which have not so much” distinguished themselves, he observes. “That’s something which we would like to bring much more into the United States,” he adds, “and, with the collaboration with Sobeys, we now have a very interesting team and base in Toronto” to do just that. In fact, Schweitzer notes that since the company has been allowed to travel to the United States again after the lifting of pandemic restrictions, it has met with retailers in various states, while several U.S. grocery operators have flocked to Toronto to find out more about the design concept, indicating what Schweitzer calls “a very big interest in these kinds of solutions.”

Asked about retailers’ reactions after implementing Flexstore, he replies that “it becomes extremely important for the future, for the retailers, that they constantly can adapt and change how to present different assortments to their consumers. So, I think, quite positively, very positive feedback from the consumers, because it becomes more of a lighter store environment, with less fixed elements and so on.”

When it comes to specific metrics, Schweitzer points to a German client whose nonfood assortment was too small and whose seafood and prepared food departments were also in need of enlargement. “In these possibilities to make corrections and adapt on that, I think the last figures we heard were … he started with 16% more turnover, and he ended up now around the 28%, 30% more turnover [mark], because he was able to adapt his assortment, linear feet and everything, to what the new sales in that store really were.”

The Sobeys store design also highlights product presentation, accentuated by lighting from Milan-based Imoon that illuminates various departments to create a different ambiance for each area. The technologically advanced light fixtures have resulted in energy savings of 30%-40%, according to Imoon and Interstore | Schweitzer.

Based in Stellarton, Nova Scotia, Empire Co. Ltd. is a Canadian company with key businesses in food retailing through its wholly owned Sobeys chain and related real estate. Sobeys Inc. is Canada’s second-largest retail group, with more than 1,500 supermarkets in all 10 Canadian provinces. 

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