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Grocery stores were already in flux. The pandemic could change them forever

The grocery store is about to look and function differently than it has in the recent past.

Grocery stores were already in flux. The pandemic could change them forever
[Images: wir0man/iStock, maytih/iStock, Bet_Noire/iStock]
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In the modern world, few places are as linked to our survival as the grocery store. As the main source of most people’s food, it is the definition of an essential service—and one that’s become even more important during the pandemic.

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The increased reliance on grocery stores has coincided with emerging trends in retail that are physically changing the way grocery shopping happens. Architecturally, the grocery store is about to look and function differently than it has in the recent past, from store entrances to customer interfaces to the interior layout.

Eric Price is the studio director of commercial and hospitality projects at Lowney Architecture, which has worked on several grocery store projects in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Hawaii, including with the West Coast Safeway chain. Over the last several years, Price has seen stores trending smaller and becoming more neighborhood oriented, with some incorporating more flexible floor plans and areas that can double as community event spaces.

“We’ve been building for the past 50 years more of the supermarkets and hyper-marts that were 60,000, 80,000, 120,000 square feet, and now they’re getting a lot smaller, certainly in urban areas,” Price says, adding that the pandemic has only accelerated that shift.

Other changes are more directly related to the immediate ways daily life has been shaken up by the safety protocols the pandemic has necessitated. “The biggest change we’ve seen come into play is this split between customers who are coming into the store and the customers who are just there for a pickup,” Price says, adding that the trend has led to a bifurcation of stores. “We’re starting to see stores where there’s an in-store shopping experience entry, where people walk in through the entry, there’s produce, there’s the frozen stuff, it’s all the usual, and then there’s this other side where you enter and it’s more about getting in and out,” he says. Many stores already had two separate entrances, so this change has been relatively easy to make.

Stores are also using their ample parking lots to create loading areas where customers can pick up orders placed online without having to go into the store at all. This approach, Price notes, has some downsides, as workers are left to weave through rows of cars to find the correct recipient. A more orderly system is the fast-food-style drive-through, which Price says is beginning to be implemented at some Safeway locations and could be a permanent feature. “That will almost certainly over time start to change the way site organization and site entry works.”

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The safety protocols of the pandemic will likely also lead to bigger changes inside stores, according to Price. For example, the days of the salad bar are over. Food and health safety concerns are leading to the elimination of the kind of self-serve and hot-food bars that were once a customer-centric feature of many grocery stores. Price says this may lead more stores to shift these types of food services to the back of the house and use the former self-serve space for prepackaged meals and snacks. And with the rise of grocery delivery services, some stores are even designating specific staging areas where their grocery pickers can prepare customer orders.

Health concerns may also end up affecting a part of the grocery shopping experience that’s been in the midst of its own evolution: the checkout line. In recent years some stores have shifted from the old model of several lines leading to several checkout counters to a centralized approach where there’s one single line, and maybe an express line, and customers all wait for the next available checker. But this may be a short-lived experiment.

“It creates a backup that snakes through the store, creates obstruction, creates customer conflict, and creates congestion challenges with these six-foot distancing rules that are currently in place,” Price says. With the pandemic’s duration far from certain, the added spatial requirements could make the snaking-line approach a thing of the past. And, with emerging “no-checkout” technology being developed by Amazon, the front of the grocery store may be seeing an even more dramatic transformation in the near future.

For now, though, Price says all that’s really clear is that the pandemic is accelerating big changes in grocery store design. “Bottom line is there are opportunities to study, and things to change,” Price says. “Up until now, grocery stores were kind of the same old format. Pretty slim margins and they kept doing things the same way they’ve always done them.”