CHICAGO — It was, admittedly, a rush job.
“I think they thought we were joking,” says Ken Johnson, director of marketing operations for Jones Petroleum Co., Jackson, Ga. “We asked if their team could provide us with a finished store design prototype in three months for our travel center.”
Nine months later, after getting the design help it needed from consultant Paragon Solutions, the retailer opened the 24,000-square-foot JP Travel Center (pictured). It has proven to be a home run, exemplifying that compelling store design needn’t take a large amount of time.
The “need-it-yesterday” mindset takes on added meaning in a COVID-19 era where operators have had to scramble to implement ongoing health and safety elements in their stores since March.
Here’s a look at 10 design trends for 2020 that factor in COVID-19-related necessities combined with future-forward strategies to help convenience retailers gain an edge.
1. Functional floors
Most retailers think of flooring as a labor-intensive chore . They can get the best of both worlds across form and function. Joe Bona, c-store design specialist and principal at Bona Design Lab, New York, has experimented with sealed concrete flooring that can be polished or stained. But the pinnacle of retail flooring, he says, is terrazzo: ground chips of marble, quartz, granite and other materials. “It’s costly and takes a couple of years for the ROI, but it has a high absorption rate,” he says.
When Common Man Roadside (pictured) debuted its 3,500-square-foot Common Man Roadside Market & Deli in Manchester, N.H., in July, customers walked on luxury vinyl tile with an epoxy base. “It’s durable and actually resembles wood flooring, but wood gets beat up and adds to labor,” says Brad Pernaw, managing partner for Common Man Roadside, Manchester.
2. Flexible lighting
Tom Henken, principal with retail design service api(+), Tampa, Fla., is an advocate of linear LED architectural lighting. Pendant-mounted LED lighting is flexible as it can be directed to the front or back of the store.
Mike Lawshe, CEO and founder of Paragon Solutions, Fort Worth, Texas, says there’s upside in light variation tied to merchandising areas. “At the coffee bar or foodservice counter, create a warm, homey feel where people aren’t blinded by light. Grocery items and staples in-line might warrant more intense lighting,” he says.
3. Restroom revitalization
Clean restrooms are always top of mind with consumers, more so now during COVID-19. Henken says new technologies can be combined with old-school fixes. “If a retailer has the capital, they can invest in self-opening doors or a doorless entry anchored by a V-shaped vestibule that flows into the bathroom.” One new sanitary restroom innovation is Energy Door Co.’s AMSafe, an antimicrobial hands-free door arm that sanitizes itself.
4. Test drive a drive-thru
In 2019, Paragon Solutions designed for a client a drive-thru window that failed to resonate with consumers. “They might not have communicated it well to customers as it only accounted for 5% of transactions, and they took responsibility for not promoting it better. Then COVID hit, and they increased drive-thru sales to 30%. The point is, with the right approach, you can encourage consumers to adopt new habits,” says Lawshe.
He calls out Irvine, Calif.-based chain In-N-Out Burger as a model to emulate. “The chain encourages customers to stay on-premise in their car to eat food, and even provides napkins and utensils,” Lawshe says. “I think a drive-thru can also be imagined as a walk-up service for those who aren’t driving. ... You have to think outside the box, play to your audience.”
5. Spruce up exteriors
Working with api(+), retailer Parker’s Kitchen, Savannah, Ga., used pavement textures that can hide oil drips from cars in parking lots, disguising a common problem that is unseemly to guests and reflects poorly on store image. “Concrete surfaces are harder to keep clean, so opt for brick that’s fired and is less porous than concrete. While brick is more costly, it’s easier to clean and pressure wash,” says Henken.
Meanwhile, Cowlitz Crossing (pictured) in Ridgefield, Wash., was built with a natural wood facade to evoke the forest of the Northwest.
And to encourage customers not to use exterior decor “as ashtrays or trampling over them,” Bona likes to integrate raised flower beds when possible to keep vegetation out of harm’s way. Henken is of the mind that retailers need to select “super-durable plants that are easy to maintain.”
6. Demonstrate safety
Retailers need to communicate to customers what they do to keep stores sanitized. “We designed a super-cleaning pressure-washing system that employees perform when customers aren’t around,” says Lawshe. “If you’re employing these best practices, shout it to the mountaintop.” For practices that fly under the radar, retailers should place “health and sanitation” decals on restroom doors, mirrors and other high-touch areas to announce them to customers.
“Ad hoc sanitation solutions will become permanent, so brand it,” says Henken. “If you operate Smith Stores, then brand your hand-sanitizing station ‘Smith’s Clean Station’ and integrate it into your experience.”
In addition to wall-mounted hand sanitizers, Bona says c-stores should allocate space for a sleek, compact sink or “hygiene kiosk” right on the selling floor.
7. Outdoor seating
The pandemic made outdoor seating a must for most restaurants. C-stores can jump on this trend, but must be cognizant of design and positioning. “Outdoor seating can’t be just throwing a picnic table or two down,” says Pernaw of Common Man Roadside. Lawshe encourages retailers to make outdoor seating a presentation. “If you can afford the space, it’s a great way to announce you’re in the food and hospitality business,” he says.
8. Curbside enthusiasm
From an operational efficiency standpoint, a successful curbside takeout business will make it quick and easy for customers, but also smooth over any operational hiccups for staff bringing orders to cars. “Create a system where staff isn’t running all over the place to find the ordering vehicle. From a space commitment perspective, start with two to three car slots and expand if needed,” says Lawshe. Grocery chain Aldi established curbside pickup by painting the asphalt with large stall numbers.
Bona offers a word of caution here, saying curbside service “may be short-lived for our industry, mainly because of the limited lot size and limited available parking. I think drive-thru may actually provide a better alternative.”
9. Refresh your brand
Brands and logos don’t have to be stagnant. They can evolve and breathe, says Bona. He points to Coca-Cola as a prime example, evolving during its 130-year history through many subtle changes.
“The brand has tweaked everything from holding shapes to adding an accent wave to a color change—not all at the same time but as small, incremental changes,” says Bona. “Starbucks recently underwent a subtle change by removing the words ‘Starbucks Coffee’ from around the mermaid. After all of the years in existence, the symbol is what stands out and is most recognized … so removing the words was not that far a stretch.” Ultimately, brands that go through a periodic refresh recognize “that new generations of users will always have a new perspective with different expectations than their predecessors,” says Bona.
In the c-store space, api(+) convinced its client Parker’s to alter the chain name to place a more decided focus on the moniker “Parker’s Kitchen,” and thus capitalize on its quality foodservice offer. “They told us they ‘wanted to scream hospitality from the street.’ Our solution was Parker’s Kitchen,” says Henken.
10. Local assets
In working with Paragon Solutions, Jones Petroleum introduced a “Georgia Grown” back wall (pictured) in the new travel center. The 20-foot-wide-by-30-foot-high section is the “centerpiece of the store. It consists of more than 100 all-Georgia-grown SKUs across multiple categories,” says Johnson.
Pernaw of Common Man Roadside says the company “goes to great lengths to make its c-stores look 100-years old while still incorporating future-forward designs.”
The new steel frame building in Manchester consists of refurbished, reclaimed barn materials, an exterior granite facade, corrugated metal roofing and a working water wheel. “It’s a very authentic look. We have been known for having a very rustic New Hampshire style.”