As the petroleum retail market becomes ever more competitive, the winners in today’s economy will be the ones who go beyond service to deliver a satisfying shopping experience. And one way to do that is through innovative store design.
A Noticeable Shift
Ask yourself what attracts you to your favorite retail store? Is it the choice of products? The level of customer service? Or the functionality of the space? Today’s c-stores often lack the store design “wow” factors that improve consumers’ shopping experience. From cluttered POP displays to confusing traffic flow, many c-stores leave store design at the proverbial front door.
According to Patrick Fiedler, president at Fiedler Group in Los Angeles, the main challenge areas with older c-stores is the overall size of the sales area and the location of the cashier area and food service areas.
“The c-stores that were constructed in the 1980s and 1990s tended to be in the 1,000 square foot to 1,800 square foot range. The c-stores of today are in the range of 2,400 to 4,000 square foot range,” Fiedler said. “As retailers try to implement their current strategies for food service and customer flow that their prototypical designs are based on into the smaller existing stores, they find themselves forced to scale back the offering.”
In addition, the philosophy of customer flow through the c-stores has changed over the years.
“In the 1990s a number of c-store companies located the cashier area in the middle of the sales area,” Fiedler said. “ Today we see the old stores being reconfigured to locate the cashier either off to one side of the store or along the back wall of the sales area. By doing this the effective area of the sales floor is maximized and the distance the customer travels inside the store is also maximized.”
With an intimate knowledge of retailer needs and consumer habits, Brian Weltman, owner and creative director of Retail Habitats, a firm specializing in retail store design, utilizes various techniques to optimize store layout and traffic flow, creates functional spaces that are aesthetically pleasing.
Although traffic flow and design can vary from store to store, Weltman understands that the key to creating an effective retail environment comes from a solid design that not only looks great, but also serves the ultimate purpose of every store: to sell merchandise. “Layouts of these stores often incorporate such elements as fast food franchises, create a ‘fresh market’ setting by offering produce, and almost all are featuring higher quality coffee stations,” Weltman said.
Additionally, many c-stores are re-thinking their layout as it relates to traffic flow and are beginning to re-design retail interiors to achieve a better flow for customers.
“This often leads to better customer satisfaction and increased purchases. Adding new design elements and incorporating more than just traditional c-store offerings are the largest key trends in the industry right now,” Weltman said.
When laying out a store, it is important to consider traffic flow. In fact, one of the most common problems inherent in older c-stores is that they lack “flow.”
For example, typically the service counter is located immediately to the right of the entrance. “However, individuals naturally gravitate to the right side of the store first,” Weltman said. “Just as we drive on the right, we also shop on the right. If the counter is located to the right, the design does not encourage customers to walk around the store and shop.”
Because of this unconscious “shop to the right” behavior, it’s beneficial to plan for a feature display just to the right of the entrance. Then, a combination of flooring, lighting, and signage can be used to create a pathway around the perimeter of the store that guides customers from right to left, putting "destination" items in out-of-the-way locations towards the back.
“In this model, it is advantageous to place the service counter on the left side of the store. If all has gone according to plan, shoppers will work their way around the entire store, hopefully picking up more merchandise along the way,” Weltman said.
Eric Daniel, executive creative director at WD Partners, a customer experience expert for retail and food brands, has broad retail design experience, including designing the Sheetz store while with his previous firm. Currently he works with Travel Centers of America, BP and ExxonMobil and from Daniel’s perspective, most c-store layouts are similar and lack the design elements that help consumers navigate their store.
“The fact that the cold vaults are the destination in most stores is a drawback to the basic layout of 99 percent of c-stores,” Daniel said. “We have conceptualized several ‘c-store of the future’ projects for major brands, where the store design offers merchandised areas that simplify the selection of multiple products, and encourages true shopping, rather than ‘mission’ trips.
This fundamental problem arises because most stores are tended to by the branded products’ field personnel rather than by the retailer’s employees. No one is looking at the big picture and intentionally creating a positive customer experience. I’m fond of saying that there is always an in-store experience, it just may not be the experience that you’d want.”
Daniel stressed that for those that have the opportunity to open a new store, Sheetz is an example of how store layout can positively affect customer perception. Sheetz Convenience Restaurant demonstrates essential design principles about the separation of convenience and food, and the centrality of the draw of coffee and the power of cross-merchandising to upsell.
“We advise our clients to use the layout to guide and direct customers in and around the store—create specific merchandise zones that make it easier for customers to understand how to shop the store,” said Joseph Bona, president of the retail division of CBX, the New York-based strategic branding, design, and consultancy agency. Bona directs the retail environmental design and merchandising/operations consulting division of CBX. “We’re also seeing more open flow and open storefronts, a greater emphasis on foodservice, as well as growing use of merchandising ‘pods,’ such as four-way fixtures, versus traditional straight-run gondolas Additionally, we’re also in the early stages of seeing some self-checkout.”
Store visibility and interior décor are two “top of mind” layout elements for many c-store owners and operators.
“The visibility to the interior of the c-store is critical for both sales and security,” Fiedler said. For example, the recently completed ARCO am/pm station that Fiedler designed in Santa Ana, California has the pump islands perpendicular to the store so as the customer fuels they are looking towards the c-store and has complete visibility to the inside of the sales area.
“We also have seen some retailers that adjust the interior décor of the c-store to reflect the surrounding community,” Fiedler said. “A great example of this is the Shell station we designed in Moorpark, California. The station is located at the intersection leading to the local community college. The retailer incorporated a collegiate theme into the sales area that included custom-made wallpaper that has all of the major college pennants.
Additionally, older stores tend to have cheap, off-the-shelf fixtures, usually consisting of beige metal gondolas with pegboard backs and a service counter made from melamine (that has almost always seen better days). “These unappealing fixtures and materials along with insufficient lighting, little or no way-finding signs, dull linoleum flooring, and dirty outdoor bathrooms are not conducive to repeat customers,” Weltman said.
Bold, primary colors and a clean, crisp white are most appealing colors to the majority of retailers, as well as consumers. “Also, if there is a designated coffee shop or coffee service area within the c-store, that area may be delineated with warmer, more neutral tones, reminiscent of the Starbucks model,” Weltman said. “These color schemes along with LED, compact fluorescent and metal halide light fixtures, and upgraded tile flooring go a long way in ensuring the retail environment of the space is more appealing and inviting, and will keep customers coming back.”
What’s Old Is New Again
There are some great examples out there of c-stores that are integrating new layout design elements. For example, Weltman said the newer AM/PM stores have service counters that are located in the center, left, or back of the store, as opposed to being immediately on the right. This encourages customers to make their way around the store, which often leads to more purchases. “This unique layout design, along with an entrance oriented at a 45-degree angle, encourages flow around the entire store, from right to left, while also cutting down on the bottleneck syndrome of the queuing area,” he said.
One common misperception about c-stores is that they are utilitarian—but just because the retail space is a gas station or c-store doesn't mean it can't or shouldn’t look good. Custom fixtures and an aesthetically pleasing space can really go along way in separating your business from the next.
“We are seeing the trend towards combining texture and materials into an overall color palette to create atmosphere and interest,” Bona said. “Specifically, we’re seeing greater use of stone, wood and metal in very contemporary ways versus using big bold colors and graphic elements to define spaces. The use of natural materials helps to create warmer and more approachable environments that help define and project a greater sense of place that results in a more enjoyable and memorable experience.”
A great example of store design and layout trends is apparent in the growing prevalence of green elements found in today’s c-store environments. C-stores are revamping their public image across the board by focusing on cleaner and more environmentally conscious fuel at the pump, as well as the materials used inside their stores that also reflect this new, accountable corporate culture.
For example, LED lights are one of the biggest ways to go green. Retailers can incorporate these lights into their design and not only go green, but also reduce energy and maintenance costs for their business. Use of recycled, reused, or reclaimed materials such as reclaimed wood floorboards and ceramic tiles, recycled glass countertops, non-formaldehyde adhesives, and natural paints are other great ways to go green.
The most innovation Fiedler has been seeing in the design of c-stores is the implementation of energy and water conservation elements into the design of the stores. “These elements include solar tubes to illuminate the sales areas and backroom spaces during daylight hours, motion sensors to control the lighting in the backroom, restrooms and offices, LED lighting for walk in coolers doors, higher efficiently HVAC units, low water usage water closets and lavatories and highly reflective roofing material,” Fiedler said.
In fact, green elements are here to stay. The new California 2011 building code has incorporated may of the performance standards that are found in the USGBC LEED certification program. The new building ode sets targets for water conservation, water consumption, dual plumbing systems for potable and recyclable water, energy efficiency, and diversion of construction waste from landfills.
However, Bona stressed that “green” is still in its early stages of development and not easily understood by both retailers and consumers.
“I believe that when costs come down, green will increasingly become a standard way of doing business as opposed to a hot topic or current trend,” Bona said. “Manufacturers will continue to make more efficient refrigerated equipment, lighting companies will produce more energy efficient lighting, daylight will be used more during daytime hours to help reduce energy loads, solar will find a place even for small applications, and air conditioning and heating systems will get more efficient as well.”
Daniel added that because “green” doesn’t often resonate with your typical c-store customer, it may make sense to use your sustainable design budget where it positively affects your business. Investments in the building envelope, mechanical and electrical systems will pay back through reducing your operational costs.
“The retailers that are truly green are the ones that are investing in reducing their resource usage and other internal operational efficiencies that may or may not be visible to the customer,” Daniel said. “If the retailer wants to be sure that the customer understands that they are committed to green design, then they should think about educational signage that communicates what they are doing. Those kinds of messages are welcomed by customers.”
“Green” elements aside, experts agree that the retail environment will continue to move more toward highly experiential spaces with more focused destination departments. “Consumers’ expectations have been greatly enhanced over the last decade or two and convenience stores will have to do a lot to catch-up,” Bona said. “This is especially true because competition is increasing. In particular, drug stores are quickly becoming the c-store of choice for moms and female shoppers with bigger and brighter parking lots, drive-thru windows, cleaner and better experiences inside the store, and grocery merchandise offers that are becoming more fresh focused. C-stores will continue to struggle with legacy networks that were built to 1970s standards and will have to continue to balance the cost of upgrade vs. the cost of doing nothing. Staying relevant to your customer base is essential for survival and store design is one key element of any strategy for growth.”
Trends in Stand-Alone Retail Store Design
The architectural nuances of stand-alone retail stores are fairly consistent—box-shaped enterprises that consumers have come to recognize. However, Michael Smyth of Kistler Buildings is seeing a shift to pre-engineered post frame construction (pole barn style). The reason? “These types of structures are a third to half the construction costs of traditional construction style,” Smyth said. “The cost savings allows customers to put more of their budget into the interiors of their building like parabolic lighting and ceramic tile flooring.”
For a recent structure being build, Kistler Buildings had a small amount of square footage (1200 square feet) to stay within. “We decided to cantilever the coolers out of the side of the building sitting on an enclosed insulated slab where only the front doors were in the store. This freed up a tremendous amount of space inside the 1200-square-foot store.”