When the Vancouver-based grocer Nada set out to open its first store, founders Brianne Miller and Alison Carr knew the design couldn’t just be something off the shelf. As a packaging-free grocer, where customers use empty pickle jars and salsa tubs to bring home the goods they buy, Nada’s ethos of reuse had to be integrated into the way the store looked and felt.
“We are big proponents of making use of things that already exist. It’s one of the best things we can do for the planet,” Miller says. “We really wanted everything we did to reflect that.”
So along with designers from the firm ZAS Architects, they began scouring the market for secondhand materials to outfit the space. At the same time, a Sears department store in the area went out of business. Suddenly the market was flooded with retail store furnishings.
“It ended up being a bit of a perfect storm,” says ZAS Architects’ Leigh Collyer. “They were literally closing their doors at that moment, so they put pretty much everything in the store up for sale at extraordinary pricing—all of their shelving units, all of their fixtures and displays.”
Just like those old pickle jars that are now holding granola or fusilli, what was once the inside of a Sears store has become the new face of Nada. Items from the Sears were used to outfit almost the entire front-of-house operation at Nada, from product racks to display tables to lights. Collyer says the deals they got at the closed Sears led to significant savings for the project. “They sold this track lighting for $5 a head, which is peanuts,” says Collyer. “We probably saved 80% on that lighting.”
Miller says she ended up walking through three different Sears stores to hunt down potential materials. We walked kilometers of the stores and found so many goodies,” she says. One favorite was a box of LED lightbulbs she found on an empty third floor in a Sears in an empty mall. Typically retailing for $15 per bulb, she bought them for 25 cents apiece. Over the whole project, these savings added up enormously. “It was hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she says.
The used fixtures were more than just a good deal. They also ended up defining the spare, modular design of the store, and its mostly movable shelving units. “Once we knew that we were going to be able to get all of these fixtures from Sears we used that as the basis of design,” Collyer says. “We looked at the aesthetics of those pieces and how we wanted to refurbish them, and then that drove the design of the pieces that needed to be purpose built.” The blocky metal frame of a Sears rack became the bottom of a table, for example, and also inspired the salad bar-esque structure of the custom-designed units that hold bulk goods bins. Instead of falling into a landfill somewhere, the bits and pieces of a dead big box store are becoming the building blocks of entirely new businesses.
Reused items are all over the store, from secondhand walk-in refrigerators in the back to the construction materials making up the structure of the store. The space Nada moved into previously housed two tenants, with a wall in between. That needed to be taken out, but tossing it into a landfill was antithetical to company ethos. “We were looking at can we reuse that drywall, can we reuse those studs, can we reuse the insulation. Which we did, for all of those things,” says Collyer. “So it started from the first step.”
Miller and Carr even got involved, keeping an eye out for objects and furnishings that might fit into the store. “They would spot something and send a photo and say can we use this?” Collyer says. It’s a hands-on approach Collyer says should be more common in architecture, giving clients more of a say in how their design takes shape.
When it comes to secondhand store fixtures and furnishings, there will likely be more opportunities to do just that.
“As unfortunate as it is, post-Covid or due to Covid we’re going to see more of these major retailers that are either going into bankruptcy or downsizing or consolidating stores and they’re going to have a lot of fixturing that’s available,” says Collyer. “For designers and architects, this is a gold mine.”