Retailer of the Year: Only the Essentials

Store operators (and their front-line workers) who gave their all in the face of the pandemic are recognized with 2020’s VMSD/Peter Glen Retailer of the Year Award
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Posted September 14, 2020

Typically, the VMSD/Peter Glen Retailer of the Year Award recognizes a single brand for its innovative design, operational excellence, and strategic growth – or all of those traits. But 2020, the year of the COVID, has been anything but typical.

In recognition of that difference, VMSD’s editorial advisory board has chosen to honor these “essential retailers” as recipients of the VMSD/Peter Glen Retailer of the Year Award. The award is named in memory of Glen, a retail industry observer, motivational speaker, author and longtime columnist for VMSD. The annual award recognizes a retailer that best exemplifies Glen’s three core retail values: innovation, service and intelligence.

This year’s honorees are being lauded for their above-the-call-of-duty efforts to meet their customers’ basic needs while keeping their employees as safe as possible in the face of a fierce and fast-spreading disease.

For consumers, virtually nothing is more essential than food. Given that, grocery stores have taken center stage throughout the pandemic. Due to the many restrictions on people venturing out of their homes, Under Armour Senior Director, Global Store Design and Development, Sharon Lessard says accolades should go to food purveyors who worked hard to go the “final mile” by bringing groceries directly to consumers’ doorsteps.

Specifically, she has praise for Amazon (Seattle), which provided such services through its Whole Foods Market and Amazon Fresh units. “Those operators provided the essentials we need on a daily basis, and the safe and efficient delivery of them,” says Lessard. 

Kroger (Cincinnati), the largest traditional grocery retailer, also gets a nod from the board, including Amanda Sarver, the chain’s Senior Interior Designer. “I strongly feel that the company has done a remarkable job pivoting [and] reacting quickly throughout this entire pandemic,” says Sarver. “It’s been an industry leader in setting up cleaning procedures, dedicated times for high-risk customers, mandating masks for both shoppers and associates, waiving the fee for ‘Kroger Pick Up’ service and much more.”

Rather than operators, it’s front-line grocery store workers who should be the honorees this year, says David Kepron, Founder-Owner of the Retail (r)Evolution LLC retail consultancy and Owner of NXTLVL Experience Design.

“In addition to having to deal with the usual unruly customers who often can be most unreasonable, full of demands and carry an air of entitlement, grocery store workers had to battle those who decided that the rules of health safety, such as wearing a mask, didn’t apply to them,” Kepron explains. “In most cases, the employees stood by what their brand stands for, which is taking care of their customers’ best interests by asking those who refused to abide by the rules to leave. Better to lose a customer than to lose your stance on what your brand stands for.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Gensler’s Kathleen Jordan. “I recall hearing a story in April about a grocery store worker who died from COVID-19,” says Jordan, a Principal at Gensler’s office in Charlotte, N.C. “She caught it while working, and those who knew her shared how she did such things as carry groceries out to people’s cars and was a very caring person. She was scared but worked anyway. Given that kind or heroic effort by many such workers, I think the employees should get the award.”

In addition to the extra demands the pandemic placed on purveyors of food, the work-from-home (WFH) policies many employers instituted to slow the disease’s spread sparked a DIY boom. A true star in that sector, Embrace Design (New York) President Eric Feigenbaum believes, is Lowe’s (Mooresville, N.C.).

“Lowe’s efforts included social distancing and traffic-flow control with the placement of icons on the floor, the installation of plexiglass barriers, implementing touchless transactions, and providing clean and sanitary surfaces,” Feigenbaum notes.

More importantly, he says, the home-improvement retailer stopped selling hard-to-get N95 masks from its shelves and instead began donating them to first responders and healthcare providers across the country. “That alone makes them more than worthy of being included in this year’s set of retailers of the year.”

Finally, in a sentiment that’s likely shared in many quarters, Bergmeyer’s Eric Kuhn said he believes all retailers and their workers deserve to be honored this year.

“The industry has responded to this situation with creativity and vigor,” says Kuhn, Design Practice Leader in Bergmeyer’s Boston office. “From small businesses to large chains, the resourcefulness they’ve shown inspires me, which makes it impossible to single out a category or chain or individual business. They’re all in the same boat. And my wish is that they collectively can support each other to make it through to the other side of this pandemic.”

Amen to that, and onward.