Pewaukee, Wisconsin-based supermarket design firm Mehmert Store Services Inc. focuses exclusively on independent grocers. One key to the firm’s success is that each job is tailored to the individual client, says co-owner Brad Knab.

“Almost every store we do is a one-off,” he says. “Every retailer is a little bit different. The first thing is we want to do is to understand them, their communities, how people shop, the little nuances about neighborhoods and regions that make stores who they are.”

The first questions Mehmert designers ask are, What do you best, what do you worst? “Then we kind of define either where there are gaps or where there are overruns, and how can we adjust.”

Maybe, he says, a store has a decent prepared foods department, but a great hot sandwich program could take it up a level. Or what if retailer X put a juicer right in the middle of its fresh produce department, or added something fun like a popcorn machine or a gourmet chocolate department-within-a-department? Maybe the instore deli could make room for a demo station.

One thing Mehmert doesn’t want to do, Knab says, is to overload its clients with ideas.

“We can come with a full tool belt of all the different things we’ve seen, but it can be pretty overwhelming for a retailer who’s looking for direction to put all that on the table,” he says. “It’s why it’s first and foremost important to sit down with a good listening ear before ever putting pen to paper.”


Creating experiences

When it comes to a good design, it’s all about experiences, Knab says. People need a reason these days to take the time and energy to visit a brick-and-mortar store rather than just buying their groceries online.

“What can retailers offer on the front face of a deli, or in hot foods, whatever —what exactly are you selling?” he says. “Are you selling this sandwich or fresh piece of steak or are you selling an experience and a relationship with the person behind that case, interacting with the customer.”

Online grocery is growing, and it will continue to grow, Knab says. What keeps people coming back to the physical store are experiences and customer service. And design can play a key role.

“It all goes back to that experience — what does the food look like, how can we create excitement, educate the shopper, and really get them involved in knowing what they’re buying.”

The choice of cases, lighting, flooring and a host of other design elements all contribute to that. But everything must be done with the individual retailer —and its budget — in mind.

“We might have a client who says, ‘I want to do a service case, but, man, I can’t keep loading this case full so it looks nice because the shrink is calling me,’” Knab says. “So instead of having a large service case, maybe we’ll say, OK, let’s go to a combination case —a smaller service case on top and a self-service front, which decreases your service case capacity.”


New design, double-digit growth

For Mehmert, the proof is in the pudding: some of the firm’s designs have led to double-digit percentage sales increases in perimeter department sales.

For one of those stores, Albrecht’s Sentry Foods in Delafield, Wisconsin, Mehmert revamped the deli, cheese, salad bar and sushi departments and added a grill, wing bar, olive bar and other features —many of those things they already had, but they “just weren’t organized in a fashion where either the flow worked well for shoppers or operationally it worked well for employees,” Knab says.

Another store, Gooseberries Fresh Food Market in Burlington, Wisconsin, is a perfect example of a designer helping a retailer bring a little fun —and a sales spike —into the perimeter.

Gooseberries got a liquor license and added a bar in the middle of the prepared foods department, which serves “awesome sandwiches” and drinks that take customer interaction and the experience factor up a notch.

For its mimosas, for instance, customers are served a glass half filled with champagne. They then take the glass to the instore juicer and add their own orange juice to taste.

“These are retailers that are very creative and passionate about food,” Knab says of many of Mehmert’s independent customers. “They know how to create excitement, and they take risks. It’s key for independent retailers to separate themselves from what’s happening around them in big box brick and mortar and even online.”