The future of retail store design: Interview with figure3’s Tara O’Neil

The store of the future will look different from what we know today. A store specifically designed to fit seamlessly into our lives may be next, according to figure3‘s Vice President of Retail Strategy and Design, Tara O’Neil. Ms. O’Neil discussed grocery retailing and how in the near future, we may see store layouts modified to enhance the grocery store shopping experience. As online grocery shopping becomes more commonplace (Loblaw is testing it, as is Amazon), bricks-and-mortar grocery stores will correspondingly need to adapt. We can expect an in-store retail experience that is both more ‘exciting’ and ‘personal’, as well as more logical and convenient.

Ms. O’Neil explained how Canadian grocery stores may require a ‘shot in the arm’, design-wise, to re-invigorate the bricks-and-mortar grocery shopping experience. She discussed how the customer needs to be taken into consideration when designing stores, and how stores need to become more intuitively laid out. If the consumer is shopping for dinner, for example, Ms. O’Neil suggests that the protein or meats at the centre of the consumer’s plate also be at the centre of the grocery store experience. The same would go for vegetables, be they fresh, frozen or canned, to make meal planning easier. She then went on to discuss how store planners need to think about how people think, and capture their thoughts and feelings in the store experience. Grouping food categories in one area of the store may be an answer, as they are often separated within Canadian grocery retailers.

Ms. O’Neil discussed an unexpected result of a design research project figure3 conducted, relating to how people conceive buying fresh food in cities. Some urban shoppers described their desire to become more ‘connected’ to the food they buy. Specifically, many shoppers now want to know where their food comes from, how it was grown, and even what farm it originated from. In a world where food may have come from thousands of miles away, many shoppers now want to experience (or re-experience, depending on their age and/or background) a localized experience regarding their food purchases. That is to say that they want to experience a certain level of knowledge (and thus power) regarding their food purchases. The increased popularity of farmer’s markets and the trend of buying local may become more common in grocery stores as surveys reveal this trend.

We discussed figure3’s design of Edmonton’s La Maison Simons store. We visited the West Edmonton Mall location in January and we were very impressed with its design, not to mention its merchandising and readily available, helpful staff. Figure3 put extensive efforts into the store’s design and it paid off – the store has won several awards including, most recently, the EuroShop Retail Design Award for being one of the top three retail stores of 2013 (the first time a Canadian design firm has been recognized for the top design award). Figure3 is also designing the new La Maison Simons stores that will open within the next couple of years at Square One in Mississauga, as well as Simons at Ottawa’s Rideau Shopping Centre.

Canada’s increasing urbanization is another trend we discussed. As Canadian city centres see an increase in their residential populations, grocery stores are adapting by opening smaller-format locations to fit these densely populated areas. We’ve already seen this in cities like Vancouver, where upscale grocery chain Urban Fare has opened 20,000-25,000 square foot stores and in Toronto, where stores like Sobeys continue to open smaller locations catering to local residents.

We lastly went on to discuss the difference between Canadian and American shoppers. Overall, Canadian shoppers tend to be less price-sensitive when shopping, as they are more likely to seek ‘value’ in their purchases. American consumers, on the other hand, tend to be more price-sensitive and it shows: coupon use among Americans is substantially higher than that north of the border. American retailers may have to recognize this difference when moving north of the border, as the Canadian consumer can be considered shrewd and educated.

The future of retail will be an exciting one. Figure3 and other innovative design firms will no doubt be designing stores that will utilize some of what was discussed above. 

[figure3 website]


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Article Author

Craig Patterson
Craig Patterson
Now located in Toronto, Craig is a retail analyst and consultant at the Retail Council of Canada. He's also the Director of Applied Research at the University of Alberta School of Retailing in Edmonton. He has studied the Canadian retail landscape for the past 25 years and he holds Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Laws Degrees. He is also President & CEO of Vancouver-based Retail Insider Media Ltd.

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  1. Ms. O’neil has some interesting ideas here, but they are horribly misguided. Why does she presume the consumer’s path to purchase is dictated and focused on the daily meal? Families make up the majority of the consumer base for grocery mass retailers and to convolute the shopping pattern of the head of the household in this ideal design model is ill informed as to the needs of this consumer. Families don’t shop on a daily basis and Canadian consumers do not follow the european trends of ‘as needed’ shopping. From an operational stand point the increased costs inherent in this build by unnecessarily trenching throughout the space displays a lack of understanding of how stores are effectively constructed. To add unnecessary capital costs during the build stage results in a prolonged schedule of how long those costs must be amortized before the store becomes profitable. The margins in today’s extremely competitive grocery space are dwindling daily and Ms. O’Neil fails to understand that increased capital costs will inevitably be passed on to the consumer as . Would this center plate store design result in higher basket share and increased footfalls to offset this increased costs? Doubtful. Very doubtful. Seems like another example of design for the sake of design.


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