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A Grocer’s Guide to Remodeling

Experts weigh in on what a retailer needs to consider before, during and after the renovation process
Terrell's work at Town & Country Markets
Cushing Terrell's work at Town & Country Markets included an attractively organized deli section. Photo Credit: William Wright

There comes a time for every grocer when they realize that their equipment or décor could use updating, but what’s the best way to go about remodeling a store or stores while keeping one’s budget (and sanity) on track? To find out, Progressive Grocer sought out a few experts for their insights in this area.

“While every grocery retailer has aspects developed over time that make their brand unique, there are many common items that a retailer contemplating a remodel should consider,” notes Kara Eberle-Lott, associate principal, architect at Seattle-based architecture, engineering and design firm Cushing Terrell. “Far from resulting in conformity to other retailers, these commonalities can simplify the process and help achieve anticipated successful results.”

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“It can depend on the grocer or the operator, on what they want to achieve with their layout,” observes Dan Phillips, owner of Langley, Wash.-based Food Market Designs, which mostly works with independent grocers.

“In any remodel, retailers should be thinking about both the brand expression and brand experience elements that will effectively deliver the brand and business strategy and engage shoppers,” says Amanda Skudlarek, executive creative director at New York-based global growth consultancy Clear, an M&C Saatchi company.

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Metropolitan Market
At Metropolitan Market, Cushing Terrell created a unique ambiance through an exposed ceiling and hanging lights. Photo Credit: Kevin Scott

Establishing Goals

The first step should be figuring out exactly what one wants to achieve with a remodel, and the steps it will take to get there.

“Retailers at any experience level are well served by identifying what they want to get out of the project,” advises Eberle-Lott. “While the list may be any length, the aim of any effective remodel should be to increase customer count and boost sales. A remodel should also include operational improvements, energy savings improvements, increased opportunity for customer-staff engagement, brand enhancement, and connection to the latest trends and offerings in food retail.”

She continues: “These targets can be supported by fundamental information retailers should be aware of: Category performance — especially as it relates to location and adjacency — shifting demographics, consumer habits and opportunities for community engagement will impact decisions.”

“There are a lot of items that come up in a grocery remodel, and it really is a la carte on what that operator is looking to improve on and what they want to do energy-wise, and what they can afford, to be honest,” notes Phillips, adding: “When you get into improving your store, you’re going to have to go through the permit process. A lot of the times, these old grocers have old systems, old electrical wiring, and [there are] new codes that have to adhere to things.”

“An effective remodel should balance the higher-level brand vision and aspiration — including an intimate understanding of how to deliver for their target shopper — along with operational and commercial drivers to establish a vision for the ideal state,” asserts Skudlarek. “The future of retail is more hyper-experiential than ever before: a combination of intuitive, easy-to-navigate departments with dynamic lifestyle and entertainment offerings that provide new and exciting reasons for shoppers to come into the store again and again.”

Uwajimaya's flagship Seattle store
Uwajimaya's flagship Seattle store was reimagined by Cushing Terrell and Hoshide Wanzer Architects with a goal of reaching a broader audience while maintaining loyal customers. Photo Credit: Kevin Scott

Choosing Partners

Another important consideration is finding the best companies to work with to bring your renovation vision to life. 

“With the complexity of remodels, selecting the right firm to work with is critical,” stresses Eberle-Lott. “Experience in grocery store design is a key element to choosing both a design and/or architecture firm. Equally important is a good cultural fit and anticipated working relationship between the retailer and the design/architect partner. The retailer should feel that the design partner is a trusted advisor, and the design partner must trust the retailer’s expertise in their business model to help drive the design.”

She goes on to note: “Similar considerations are true in selecting a construction partner. Retailers should seek a construction partner that understands how to create a safe environment for shoppers and actively engage in sales protection if pursuing an occupied remodel. HVAC, plumbing, electrical and refrigeration subcontractors are also incredibly important to a successful project, due to the significant amount of equipment and systems required to build out a successful grocery store.”

According to Phillips: “The only way to identify what the project is going to cost is contacting someone … that can put their project together, [include] their wants and desires, lay their store route, put together the equipment they’re going to need for the project, and then work with their architect and contractor on construction costs. And then it’s a matter of value engineering to the point of what they can do. … The first and foremost thing you do in any remodel situation is to contact your store planner first, design out the store how you want it, and then contact your contractors and architects to start putting together the projects.”

As for how an independent should go about selecting which firms to work with, he says: “They’ll contact someone like us and see if we fit, and [we’ll] see what they want to do and see if they fit in our schedule. …. There’s not a lot of people that do what we do, … which is project manage design and supply equipment and coordinate all that, and also the interior design and do decor design and lighting.”

“In choosing a design or architecture firm, it’s essential that the company has a strong understanding of the brand and puts shoppers at the heart of the design process,” counsels Skudlarek. “The aesthetic elements must be held in balance with the strategic needs for the experience and aligned to commercial objectives. Good design just isn’t good enough, and award-winning stores don’t always indicate long-term success and financial return on the remodel investment. It’s about orchestrating and delivering a complex experience ecosystem in a brilliantly creative and strategically sound way to drive commercial impact.”

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She adds: “In construction firm selections, retailers should be looking for creative problem-solvers who are passionate about executing the design in a cost-effective way, able to think through the trade-offs of each decision, and open to ongoing inputs and feedback from the brand and design stakeholders. In other words, ones fully committed to fully realizing the vision for the remodel.”

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Amanda Skudlarek
Executive Creative Director Amanda Skudlarek says an effective remodel should balance the higher-level brand vision and aspiration along with operational and commercial drivers to establish a vision for the ideal state.

What Not to Do

Just as important as knowing what to do when planning a remodel is knowing what not to do.

“I was always taught that if I didn’t know something that I go find somebody that does know,” notes Phillips. “I get a lot of calls from people that try to do it on their own because they’re really trying to save as much as they can, and they get into it, and they find out that they don’t know … what they’re doing. I would say really plan your store. Store planning is numero uno.”

Another sage piece of advice from Phillips is “don’t be cheap. There are things you can do, but try and invest it, and try and think of the return on investment of that. … My recommendation is that when [you’re] putting together these projects, expect high costs, expect more than what you anticipate, and … kind of go with the flow of this. … There is a cheap way to do things, but you really want to find that middle ground of what you want to do, and the only way to do that is to work with your store planner, work with your contractors, find what’s going to work for you from a cost standpoint, design-wise and construction-wise.”

For her part, Skudlarek identifies the issues of “tensions that exist between consumer desires and business realities, between brand opportunities and operational challenges to deliver,” and “the inherent loss of value in the ‘hand-offs’: from the brand/strategy/marketing stakeholders to the facilities/design teams, from the design teams to the architectural/implementation teams, and again from those to the construction team,” with each “prioritizing different objectives for very different reasons.” 

To avoid these problems, she suggests developing “a comprehensive experience map as the foundation for the remodel design, one that analyzes and prioritizes the breadth of insight-driven opportunities alongside operational realities to deliver,” and engaging all stakeholders, internal and external, “across the full remodel design and implementation journey.”

Seeing Success

When these guidelines are established, grocers should be able to achieve the remodels of their dreams.

“When complete, your remodel should reflect your initial goals — or targets that [were] adjusted based on new information,” says Eberle-Lott. “To gauge the success of a completed remodel, look for improved customer reviews, improved staff morale and pride in the refreshed store, increased community engagement, increased sales (across the board or in targeted categories) and energy savings [in the form of] decreased utility bills.”

She adds: “With these metrics, and your intuition as an experienced retailer, you can be confident that your remodel was worth the investment and exceeded your — and your customers’ — expectations.“ 

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