Lighting — and lack of certain lighting — is one of the biggest keys to good store design.
A few points have been well established in today’s supermarket industry. You need to embrace the fresh perimeter as a way to stand out from the pack, you absolutely must pay heed to the time-starved shopper looking for a meal and you need to do so in a way that creates an impactful experience.

The fresh perimeter is king and shaping how stores act and feel now and in the future. 

But how does store design fit into all of this? Or, perhaps a better question: how does all of this fit into store design?

“Given that the center store is shrinking, fresh has the opportunity to become animated,” says Lewis Shaye, owner of Grocerant Design Group. “You can really activate fresh to become theatrical and it can take on a real personality for the store. And then we like to leverage theatrics as part of an opportunity to grow guest satisfaction. We connect with emotions and we try and use that connectivity to create differentiation.”

Everything from the store entrance to lighting to décor and materials can work in unison to put the fresh perimeter in — pardon the pun — the best light possible.

“There’s this hybrid relationship created between food retail, foodservice and restaurants. The whole grocery experience is changing,” says Deborah English, founder and president of D.L. English Design, a California-based firm that counts Whole Foods, Bristol Farms and more among its clients. “There’s a demand for it to be a highly social space and very experiential. You have to find a way to get people off their couches and into their stores. 

“Heighten the experience inside the store to where they don’t have to come, but they want to come. That’s the environment that we’re trying to create. It’s the shift from ‘have to’ to ‘want to’ that’s really driving what we do.”

Lighting the way

It might be the last thing a consumer notices, but it’s arguably the most important aspect of store design, especially when it comes to the perimeter. 

“A big piece of the puzzle is lighting,” says Brad Knab, partner at Wisconsin-based Mehmert Store Services. “Grocery stores in the past have been about lights on and making everything bright so a consumer can see everything. But with it being more of a feel and experience, mood lighting is key. Subdued lighting that might highlight certain areas and allow décor or materials within the design to speak to different departments.”

Shaye doubles down on this point.

Lewis Shaye

“Lighting is absolutely critical to creating emotional connections with people,” Shaye says. “In as much as the food offer is also paramount, I would say that lighting is next to it in terms of importance. You can ruin your entire offer with poor lighting.”

What does he mean by poor lighting? For starters, lighting that is broadcast widely over a space creates no emotional connection, he says. Dynamic lighting can create highs and lows. Appealing food can be accentuated while empty space can fade into the background.

“We want our focus on our food, but we’re not interested in focusing on the floor,” Shaye says. “We want to make the ceiling go away. We want to put a hot spotlight shining on beautiful produce, but adjacent to that, we may not want to show anything on the side of a counter.”

It’s also important to consider the color tone of lighting, ranging from bright daylight to very warm lighting. Different tones will fit different foods. 

“All these things matter and they matter big-time. They matter significantly to the overall experience,” Shaye says. “Oftentimes I’ll walk a store and I’ll see lights out in cases, I’ll see people highlighting things that should absolutely not be highlighted, and in many cases, I see foods that seem to have been forgotten. They’re not showcasing these beautiful foods. Don’t eliminate things that are important.”

|||READ MORE: Building a local connection|||

Store design must reflect the neighborhood that surrounds it.
Building a local connection

There are countless ways to interact with the community during day-to-day operations, but the connection your consumers felt to your store when they first walk in can be priceless, experts say. 

“You have to create a dynamic space that’s integrated and holistic, if you will,” English says. “We’ve got these big brands we work with and we have to keep their brand identity intact and honor that brand. But then we have the community that we work with and we try to understand how they tick.”

When tasked with designing Whole Foods’ first Hawaii locations, D.L. English began the process with the typical thoughts of sun, sand, surfing, beaches and how to pull that feeling into the store designs. But when meeting with the community in the early stages of the design process, it was quickly clear that wouldn’t work.

Deborah English

“We get into a room with the community and they didn’t want that at all,”English says. “They were looking for shade and shelter. They have the sun all day. They’re looking to get out of the sun, not walk into a space that feels like the outside.”

So the original plans were scrapped and replaced with the sensibility of darker, deeper, richer colors that conveyed a sense a shade and shelter.

Knab says that Mehmert’s store designs typically begin with community interaction, building a conversation and understanding the region’s dynamics. 

“What might work in the Midwest doesn’t always work on the East Coast or in the Southwest. We try to understand the regional culture and try to adapt that look and feel of the community into the store,” he says. “In many parts of Pennsylvania, you’ll run into 20 or 32 feet of sweet tea. You wouldn’t see that in the Midwest. Being aware of those nuances is certainly important.”

Shaye points out that the local connection also goes a long way in the consumer’s feeling that the fresh perimeter really is as fresh as possible.

“What people want is that feeling of connectivity to their store. They want a relationship,” he says. “They want it easy, but they also want to know that they’re connecting with their local environment. They believe that fresh and local are synonymous.”

The creation of more local mentions, more local items, anything that gets the consumer closer to the source, allows the consumer to feel the connection to the store from entrance to the point of sale.

“Keying into the heart and soul of what the community is looking for, even experientially, is super critical to the success of our stores,” English says. “We’ll go in and try to find two or three words that help define that community. It could be something as simple as the word ‘uplift,’ or ‘soar,’ or ‘aspirational.’ Then we’ll design a store that in all contexts, from the physical point of view, looks like that.

“It all meshes, so when the consumer walks into the store they feel like they’ve been there. They get it.”

|||READ MORE: Creating a social space|||

Sophistication in design is appreciated by consumers. 
Creating a social space

When it comes to building a comfortable area that invites the consumer to relax, browse and interact, a little respect can go a long way, Knab says. 

“Instead of big letters on the wall that say ‘produce’ or ‘deli,’ you might see a little more sophistication in the design to reflect those departments,” he says. “Shoppers tend to appreciate that touch.”

After all, the perimeter really is the opposite of the center store in many ways. While consumers look for specific items in numbered aisles, the fresh perimeter provides areas of reprieve and discovery.

Brad Knab

“You want them to be able to easily get through departments, but you also want to design certain areas that disrupt the shopping flow with something that’s interesting,” Knab says. 

Good design on the perimeter also creates a social space, a vital piece of the puzzle as millennials continue to age and supermarkets take on the feel of the food halls that have dominated Europe for years.

“It’s a blend between the millennials and the need for socialization. We’re experiencing a generational culture shift,” English says. “We’re undergoing the socialization of just about everything, including the once mundane trip to the supermarket. Just thing about it: you used to go walk your dog and now you take them to the dog park. You have to have dog friends. It’s totally different now. Everything revolves around socialization.”

That socialization can be emphasized by the consumer-employee interaction, especially when it comes to food prep. Shaye advocates for high-quality jewel box display cases for prepared entrees, allowing for more transparency and minimizing barriers between the food and the consumer.

“In prepared foods we think of it as landscaping products in a prepared foods vase on various trays and platters,” he says. “Let the food tell the story with a little bit of garnish and let that freshness come through to the guests. They see it right there and it’s enticing enough for them to buy it.”

That can be complemented by eight-to-12-foot areas where guests are involved with the preparation of the food.  “They see you making things fresh throughout the day and they get involved with that preparation by customizing the product as you go,” Shaye says. “The supermarket is now competing equally with all quick service restaurants, fast casual, etc. What we’re trying to do through design in grocery stores is create that restaurant experience.”

Bringing the inside out

While the majority of your store’s design focus understandably falls within the walls, it’s vital to convey that same sense of connection and familiarity on the exterior.

“The first question I always have on a remodel is have they considered doing something to the exterior,” Knab says. “If you’re doing some updates on the interior, it’s a good idea to update the exterior as well.”

The exterior is the first recognition of the brand, English says, and the old adage about first impressions hasn’t stuck around this long for no reason.

“The exterior needs to speak to the brand values again and how they want to go to market,” she says. “Do they want to seem more value-driven or upscale or open or friendly?”

At the same time, English says, don’t overlook the simple design point of clearly identifying your entrance. “From an architectural design point of view, we try to emphasize where that entrance is, whether it’s with a tower or some sort of structure,” she says. “You want them to understand the space before they walk into the store.”

If done correctly, it’s the first piece of a puzzle that runs through the entire store and builds a cohesive, immersive experience that consumers want to relive regularly.

“I always view design as a thread that’s continual. You want it threaded from the outside of the store, all the way through,” Shaye says. “You want all these things to read the same way. Good design has a relationship where all things are relatable. You’re building a lot of points that have meaning and create an emotional connection.”