On a continuum of design complexity, grocery stores top the list. Unlike an office where the flow of work is usually very specific to certain functions, the activities of a grocery store are fast-paced and multifaceted. Staff prep food, checkout customers and bag groceries, accept deliveries, stock and clean. Customers park their cars, walk in, browse the aisles, pick and choose, and ask questions. All of these things occur simultaneously and repeatedly through the course of a day.
“The most important thing about a store is its function,” said store planner and designer PJ Hoffman, who has 20 years experience as a grocery store designer. Prior to designing stores, he also spent 18 years in retail food co-op management. Hoffman now works withCDS designing food co-ops through a collaborative agreement with United Natural Foods Inc. (UNFI). He knows store design from virtually every possible perspective.
“Of course you want the store to look right, but the store also has to achieve its goals in terms of sales, labor and efficiency. Good store design is based on how a shopper shops and a worker works,” Hoffman said. “The rhythm of work and shopping in a grocery store is different than for any other building.”
A store’s design can make shopping your store a pleasure, attracting higher sales, or an awkward experience that hurts the bottom line. During expansion planning, it’s important to give early priority to store layout and design if you’re considering a specific site.
Of all the primary activities of food co-op expansion planning, one of the most critical roles is the store planner and designer. The store planner has many insights into retail work space use and consumer shopping habits that will inform whether or not a given site can be considered doable or could operate efficiently.
What does a store designer assess about a potential site? For an existing building the planner looks at such things like load-bearing support walls and posts, floors (are they even) and flooring materials, door locations, windows, receiving areas, staircases, bathrooms – things that could potentially be changed, or not, that may or may not hinder the flow of retail activity. For a teardown or empty space, a planner will look at the configuration of the property and land, and consider traffic patterns to and from the site.
If Hoffman is able to look at the building in person that’s a plus, but it’s usually not necessary or cost-effective to make an in-person evaluation. Most store designers can look at photos, a floor plan or blue print to get a sense of the space. “A year ago I worked with a co-op that was very excited about a space, they saw something big and beautiful, but I saw it as a disaster. The site had no parking, the wood floors were a problem and the building wasn’t up to code,” Hoffman said. Sure, it was disappointing that it wouldn’t work out, but that analysis helped save them from wasting time or money on an unworkable site.
Hoffman said that bringing in a store planner sooner than later will also help things go that much more smoothly in later stages of a project’s execution because a dialogue about the co-op’s needs has begun. It’s not unusual for a co-op’s project to go through 3-5 design iterations before it’s complete, and that takes time. Once a store planner creates the basic floor plan, other members of the design team – architects, engineers, and other designers – can get busy with their part.”
“An expansion is not just more space,” he said. “What programs do you want to expand, improve or create? You can always change your mind about the salad bar, but it’s important to know what it is you want to achieve and what services you want to offer to your customers.” At the beginning of the expansion process, Hoffman suggested general managers get any and all input they can from customers and staff, and balance that feedback with practical experience running the business.
Francis Murphy, general manager of Neighborhood Co-op Grocery, in Carbondale, Ill. said that their newly expanded co-op is the result of a visioning process begun four years ago. The board’s expansion relocation policies were part of the outcome of a meeting with members and the community. In turn, Murphy’s work with store planner Hoffman was to set about making their expanded co-op vision a reality.
The co-op grew from a 1,800 square foot store to 7,300 square feet, and every department got bigger. In particular they added more depth to their food service departments like produce, and added new departments like meat and an expanded deli with a bakery. In addition to working with Hoffman, the co-op also worked with Chris Ryding, national prepared foods manager with NCGA. “They worked well together. I told them the programs I wanted and they sourced the equipment and planned the kitchen in order to build the capacity we wanted,” Murphy said. “We ended up with a totally outstanding design.”
Murphy said dollar-for-dollar working with Hoffman was also good financial benefit. “He saved me a lot of money on equipment, and the store planning fee was the best money I spent on the whole project.”
Ultimately a co-op’s expansion plans are all about what the members require, and before your store designer can be most effective, those desires need to be prioritized. At Viroqua Food Co-op in Viroqua, Wisc., general manager Jan Rasikas said her co-op held a stakeholders meeting to get an understanding of what people wanted. “The stakeholder meeting was a huge part of the process,” Rasikas said. At the meeting they did the following:
- Identified common values and beliefs
- Envisioned the future of the co-op
- Asked how they could better serve the community
- Determined how to measure success when it was completed
A committee worked with all the specific feedback and balanced the needs and wants with what they had for their budget. Then Viroqua Food Co-op worked with Hoffman to create the store plan and design that was the result of their vision. “Before pencil hits paper you want your community and staff to have a chance to say what they want the store to be,” said Hoffman. “Then it’s up to me to distill it into a workable program.”