Viral Necessities

Grocery and convenience stores have been deemed “essential” in most parts of the pandemic-threatened world. Here’s how some are meeting that need
Posted June 22, 2020

As convenience, food and grocery stores remain open during the coronavirus pandemic, they are struggling with a heightened sense of what have always been their usual priorities: store sanitation, supply chain management and customer responsiveness.

“I’ve always characterized the design of food retailing as a storytelling opportunity, where the shopper is the hero,” says Kevin O’Donnell, Co-Founder and Principal of design firm Thread Collaborative, Los Angeles-based supermarket specialist. “And the villain of the story is whatever need the shopper has at that moment – generally, feeding the family, though it could also be a need to plan a dinner party, say, or to find special ingredients for a particular dish.”

Photography: CallisonRTKL/Anne Chan, Washington, D.C.

These days, the need might be driven by panic or desire for information. And, says O’Donnell, “The store’s role is to guide the hero and offer a plan, a message that there are safe and healthy options in here.”

7-Eleven Inc. (Dallas), the convenience store giant, might have been anticipating the shopper’s changing needs when it created the Evolution Lab Store, its first design refresh in 20 years. The concept, which debuted in Dallas in fall 2019 and in Washington, D.C., in March (shown), is an effort to appeal to shoppers beyond just coffee, cigarettes, candy bars and lottery tickets, according to Billy Plummer, VP at Baltimore-based CallisonRTKL’s Dallas office.

The major change, says Plummer, is an upgrade of the food-and-beverage platform toward fresh selections made on premises and away from prepackaged, cellophane-wrapped sandwiches and salads. As part of an acquisition, 7-Eleven now owns Laredo Taco, which serves handcrafted dishes cooked on premises and assembled before shoppers’ eyes. There will also be handmade pizza, a special brand of fresh-roasted chicken, a high-quality coffee shop, a wine cellar, premium ice cream and cold beverage stations featuring organic Slurpees, in flavors such as blood orange, coconut and cucumber.

Photography: CallisonRTKL/Anne Chan, Washington, D.C.

Locally sourced materials and artwork are good ways to communicate to the local market in ordinary times. These days, it’s part of the reassurance retailers want to project that they’re part of the community.

“All savvy c-store operators are investing in their brands,” says Kraig Kessel, Co-Founder of Kraido (San Francisco), which specializes in the convenience sector. “That means proprietary food service offerings and fresh and healthy options, though still reasonably priced.”

Kessel says c-store retailers are accentuating a “frictionless experience” – in other words, emphasis on the “c” – with easy in-and-out and home delivery.

Around the World

Thread Collaborative’s O’Donnell, who does a lot of international projects, says work is still going on around the world, even in the most troubled countries. Case in point is Esselunga S.p.A. (Milan), Italy’s oldest supermarket chain. The 63-year-old brand created what it’s calling a “global supermarket reinvention” at its newest superstore in Brescia, Italy, designed by Surrey Hills, Australia-based Landini Associates. As in most countries, grocery retailing has been deemed “essential” in hard-hit Italy.

Photography: Andrew Meredith, London

One of the hallmarks of the new format is a glass box of “production” in the front of the store, where the checkout normally is, showcasing a café, deli kitchens and bakery production, all previously hidden from shoppers’ sights.

There’s also film projection in the front of the store, featuring images of the Esselunga food factories. “As they leave through the checkouts, customers are entertained by highlights of the manufacturing plants – masterclasses in food production – that Esselunga has never before shown,” says Mark Landini, Creative Director, Landini Associates.

Photography: Andrew Meredith, London

Landini says the objective of the new format is to “reinvent normal, a process by which everything is challenged, broken down and perhaps discarded. Sometimes this requires bravery, other times just the application of common sense. Perhaps they are the same thing.”

At a time like this, bravery and common sense might be regarded as just as essential to the worried community as continuing to provide food and other products.