CHICAGO — Convenience-store design is much more than a personal preference on what suits the space. CSP spoke to design experts and learned that it’s about representing a brand, providing seamless customer experience, incorporating sustainable materials and connecting through storytelling.
It all comes down to brand identity, and when a retailer is in control of its narrative with a clear understanding of who they are, each design element points back to that.
In 2021, retailers strove to accommodate customers’ preferences and well-being during every step of their experience. When accomplished successfully, retailers gained trust and returning customers, design experts said.
Navigating the North Star
Establishing the ‘who’ and ‘what’ of a brand is necessary in finding the underlying difference from its competitors and ultimately forming a successful design, according to Michael Lawshe, president at Paragon Solutions, Fort Worth, Texas.
“What we try to do is to create what we call a North Star,” Lawshe said. “All of these design elements—the site, the branding, the interior, the exterior—should point to the North Star. And that's not an easy get, by the way, but once you really understand that, then at least you have a target to shoot for.”
A brand’s North Star, for example, might be a farm-to-table, locally sourced, sustainable food program in place of relying on a vendor. Because this is what makes the brand different from its competitors, Lawshe said, the store’s branding should all point toward that central focus of food.
“It certainly starts with the brand—with the image, with the color selection, with the way that is presented—but it gets down to some really organic details,” he said. “What does that customer see, feel and ultimately taste when they are exposed to the North Star?”
Nadine Geering, executive vice president at D|Fab, Madison Heights, Mich., offers specific design trends that retailers can use to show off their brand.
“Many interiors feature bold typographical brand messages, and custom brand decor is being achieved with 3D printing, such as storytelling elements and custom pendant shades,” she said.
Designing the Customer Experience
Every customer has different needs, whether their purpose is a visit on a long trip across the country, a quick stop for breakfast on the way to work or a chance to grab a six-pack before a party.
In 2021, c-stores appealed to the intentions of different customers through design by problem solving.
“You really have to think through not only who you currently have as a customer, but who you don't have—and should have,” Lawshe said. “We're pointing to that North Star, inviting them in and giving them the solutions that they need. That's what people talk about.”
Lawshe said that customer experience begins in the parking lot.
“I drive a pickup truck and if I pull into one of these 9 by 18 [foot] spaces I literally cannot get out of my truck—there’s no room,” he said. “Let's get all the trucks and figure out what the dimensions are. What is it when the doors are open? How easy is it to get in and out? Because that's really the beginning of that customer experience.”
Beyond parking spots, Lawshe suggested widening sidewalks to 12 to 16 feet.
The next way to appeal to all types of customers is offering amenities before they even enter the store. This could include bike racks, covered outdoor seating with misters and heaters, walk-ups for ice cream or pet parks. According to Lawshe, these add-ons create a great appeal for aspects that customers wouldn’t have even known were missing.
In terms of creating solutions for pets, Lawshe said that in recent years, accommodations have expanded past a simple patch of grass.
“We've got off leash dog parks, dog washes and we've expanded the offerings inside as far as dog food and snacks,” he said. “You’re inviting that four-legged customer into your space.”
Additionally, the traditional habit of fitting as much as possible into a small store has been reevaluated. Having a less crowded 8-to-12-foot entry helps customers smoothly progress into the store.
“When a customer transitions from outside, he's going from light to dark or dark to light; cold to hot; hot to cold; wet to dry,” Lawshe said. “Whatever that transition is, or all of the above, you have a new opportunity to talk to them.”
Creating an entrance with custom or unique features, local products or sale items instead of the traditional gondola can introduce a customer to something they have never seen before, said Lawshe. Having that unique edge over competitors is advantageous.
In 2021, food-centric designs were another way to win customers over, said Whitney Burns, director of interior design at Paragon Solutions.
“Health is continuing to be important to a lot of customers,” Burbs said. “Feature those healthy food items, let them see where the food comes from, how it's made, illustrate that concept of food made fresh here or made by these people or that the ingredients came from these locations."
These design features translate to a smooth customer experience, according to industry experts.
“As you traverse through the store and you start thinking about these touchpoints, you start thinking about these opportunities to really change the dynamic and change the perception of that customer,” Lawshe said. “Always pointing to your North Star.”
Materials, Sustainability and Storytelling
Even though an uncluttered entrance has been a successful design trend, when it comes down to it, the small nature of c-stores mean they are compact with merchandise, and they also have high traffic, Geering said.
“The store layout and sightlines need to be a quick read from the entrance so that customers can efficiently navigate through the space,” she said.
Geering says choosing materials that are easy to maintain, such as LED lighting and clean exteriors with natural finishes, make for a warm invitation to enter the store.
“If remodeling or building new, design in flexibility that can allow easy future updates that keep the customer experience fresh,” she said. “For example, using magnetic graphics or a rail system for changeable food category or vendor brand logos.”
Lawshe said that using recycled materials such as reclaimed wood, EV charging and solar canopies is a great opportunity to connect with customers. With sustainability, authentically telling the story of where the materials came from lets customers know that the retailer cares.
“But then the missing ingredient is how do you communicate that,” Lawshe said. “It’s not just through signage. It really is through your entire brand communication.”
Educating employees on the details on where materials come from is an efficient and natural way to get the message across, Lawshe said.
“I liken it to the oral tradition,” he said. “You've got to be a storyteller. Tell your story again and again. Whatever that story is ties back to your brand. Tell that in your social media, in your one-on-one relationships, that to your vendors, to everybody. Say ‘here we are, and we're different.’”
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, store updates that prioritize customers well-being have taken precedent.
“Self-checkouts and walk-out technology are becoming ubiquitous in the convenience-store market,” Geering said. “I’m surprised it has taken this long to automate payment transaction in convenience stores, but today’s employment market has certainly accelerated the use of this technology.”
Lawshe said that designing spaces that make cleaning easier can be accomplished through rounded edge bullnose tile, proper drainage systems, using only tile and hard surfaces and staying away from sheet rock and paint.
“Along those same lines, family restrooms are becoming a huge deal and that, to me, points out that you care for that customer as much as anything,” Lawshe said.
The pandemic also brought to life the expectation for stores to offer a drive thru, curbside pickup or delivery. While one aspect of these offerings is incorporating the right technology, the design of the front and back of the store needs to promote seamless functionality.
“It's really a paradigm shift in design because now we have to think of another multiple methods of delivering product and services to our customer,” Lawshe said. “You want to have happy customers and happy employees, so you really have to be intentional about how you design it.”
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