Small-Format Stores Still Need to Prioritize the Customer Experience, Advises Retail Designer From HFA Architecture & Engineering

James Owens encourages retailers to engage in early-stage, multidisciplinary brainstorming on tech, backend engineering, and other key details of small-format stores

BENTONVILLE, Ark., June 20, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — Smaller store formats give retailers access to new markets like college towns and urban shopping districts. But in pursuing such strategies, they need to stay focused on the customer experience, advises a veteran store designer with HFA Architecture & Engineering.

“New prototypes shouldn’t feel lesser than what came before,” writes James Owens (AIA, NCARB), a Vice President with the Bentonville-based firm, which has worked with chains such as Walmart, Target, T.J. Maxx, Nordstrom and Walgreens. “Retailers need to find ways to motivate and inspire shoppers in all their spaces—even the tiny ones.”

In the newly published Expert Viewpoints piece for Chain Store Age (“Three Design Tips for Small-Format Stores“), Owens notes that store formats are shrinking fast—from Express Edit, Market by Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s Bloomie’s concept, to diminutive offerings by the likes of Kohl’s, Ikea, Publix, Barnes & Noble and Sprouts.

Against this backdrop, he offers three tips for creating a best-in-class customer experience through thoughtful, integrated approaches to design, architecture and engineering.

Make it a ‘big tent’ conversation
With smaller footprints, retailers need to think even more carefully about how to approach checkout, merchandising/fixtures, consumer-facing technology, and back-of-house equipment and mechanicals, Owens advises. “To maximize productivity and punch from every square foot, retail execs should consider engaging in a multidisciplinary conversation about the look, feel and function of the store.”

This big-tent brainstorming with architects, engineers and interior designers could include third-party or in-house researchers with access to customer and traffic data. By sharing such research with the design team, Owens notes, retailers can help them develop useful patron profiles and create a journey that speaks to customers in the niche market.

The store designer sketches a scenario in which an outdoors retailer wants to grow market share among young people by rolling out smaller stores in college towns. “Are backpacks the highest-selling item with this demographic, or is it trail-running shoes?” he asks. “Designers have precious little space to work with. The answer could make a material difference in how they craft the customer journey.”

Consider how tech could shape the store
Architects and engineers also can support retailers’ use of in-store technology. “Let’s say the plan is to have roaming store associates use iPads to check customers out,” writes Owens. “This could allow the retailer to eliminate the cash wrap and claw back some square footage, but how will this approach affect traffic flow and the journey in a tiny store, in particular?” Designers can work with retailers to find an approach that preserves a fun and convenient experience.

Rethink backend systems
Engineering plays a big role, too. Owens notes that smaller spaces can be heated, cooled, powered and fire-protected more efficiently than junior-anchor or big-box stores, thus allowing retailers to advance both their ESG and cost-reduction goals.

“In some cases, retailers should explore their options for things like heat pumps, solar-plus-battery storage, or next-gen refrigeration,” he writes. “Specialized engineers can run the numbers, study the building codes and convene with utilities to suggest the best equipment.”

Providing details on government breaks and incentives might be part of the mix as well. “The retailer could then use the savings to pay for better-quality lighting and more attractive color palettes and finishes, adding oomph to the overall experience.”

Creating a better experience, the architect concludes, should always be a top priority. “Multidisciplinary teamwork is a great way to get the job done—whether the space is a cavernous big-box store, or a retail ‘jewel box’ the size of your bedroom closet.”

The full column is available at:

SOURCE HFA Architecture & Engineering