Top 10 Stores of 2017

While there is no doubt that several store-based retailers are finding the going tough in 2017, I can’t help but think that the obituaries for shops are being written far too early. For many shoppers, and for many categories, stores are still a vital component in the broader path to purchase.

The retail and marketing communities (and the websites and publications that service these industries) have devoted an awful amount of time this year discussing issues such as blockchain, machine learning and AI.

Doubtless, these innovations will have an impact on how the retail industry operates in the future, but my assertion would be that the actual impact of many innovations can be fairly underwhelming. For example, I’m still waiting for RFID or QR codes to revolutionise my shopping experience.

While the bleeding edge of innovation overachieves in terms of press coverage, I think that it is worth reminding ourselves that the overwhelming majority of global retailing comprises of folk walking into stores, buying some stuff in an entirely analogue fashion, paying in an orthodox way and walking out again.

Stores are as important as they’ve ever been and – as evidenced by the number of branded manufacturers and pure-play e-commerce businesses currently opening stores and forging a physical presence – they will continue to play an essential role in commerce for the foreseeable future. Sure: they will need to evolve and adapt to thrive in a rapidly-changing environment, but stores will prove to be a lot more resilient than some commentators are currently opining.

As anyone who is unlucky enough to read this blog on a frequent basis will know that I spend a lot of time out seeing stores around the world. This is a real privilege on a number of levels, not least because it affords me what I hope is a credible point of view of what good looks like and some interesting insights on what retailers can do to create or reinvent their stores to be assets rather than liabilities. Before turning my attention to my favourite stores of the year, I’ll take a couple of moments to assess the ways in which stores can evolve to embrace the future.

Relevance: Relevance can be achieved in many ways, but one of the more successful ways is that of creating a relevant assortment. I won’t use the dreaded C-word here (curation, in case you were wondering), but ensuring that a range is contextualised – by demographic, geography, season or even time of day – will give a store a fighting chance

Technology: I’ve visited several ‘stores of the future’ during my career. Most of them no longer exist and the rest have had 95% of their ‘future’ aspects ripped out. Technology can often fall into the bucket market ‘expensive gimmickry’ and will likely fail unless it makes a shopper’s experience quicker, more seamless, personalised, better educated, inspired, or more fun

Sustainability: Shoppers really do care about the planet and will support retailers who demonstrate a similar level of commitment. Those retailers which take tangible steps to not only lessen the environmental impact of their own stores and distribution networks but also enable shoppers to make smarter environmental choices instore will be doing themselves a big favour

Community: I can’t help feeling that lots of retailers are missing a trick here by not yet utilising their stores as venues for community initiatives or as locations where people with similar interests can come together. This is an open goal for grocery retailers in particular, for whom food-related events would be an obvious opportunity. The other facet of this is giving back to the community in which a store sits: voluntary work; donations; repurposing food waste; education and so on. Retailers can be good by doing good

Health: In the same way as sustainability, retailers can help their customers live better lives (more activity and healthier diets) and make smarter instore choices. There’s a risk here of being preachy or nanny state and having to make some tough commercial choices (e.g. banishing confectionery from check-outs), but TCC’s shopper research suggests that customers would be unflinchingly supportive

Experience: While it would be expensive and time-consuming to transform stores into miniature versions of Disneyworld, some judicious investments could transform stores from a grudgeful chore into places that shoppers actually wish to visit and spend some time. People are demonstrably willing to spend time in stores if that time investment is rewarded with positive experiences

Consumption: Successful food retailers realised a long time ago that the balance between in-home consumption and out-of-home consumption was very much shifting and therefore started to retool their outlets to offer a better proposition in terms of food-for-now and food-for-later. The retail competitive set has been well and truly broadened to include food-to-go specialists and restaurants, so as retailers seek to better equip themselves for this ‘fight for calories’, I’d expect more stores to include pizza counters, rotisseries, sandwich counters, cafes, restaurants, sushi counters, coffee bars, smoothie bars, actual booze bars, wine bars, grazing areas and so on

Design: As with experience, shoppers are not necessarily expecting hugely expensive stores dripping with the latest architecture or quirky decor, but they are expecting stores that look smart, are easy to shop and perhaps provide a touch of fun, aspiration or engagement.

And, now, let’s take a look at 10 of the stores that left a positive impression on me during 2017 and how they deployed some of the techniques above to create a compelling proposition. No particular hierarchy here – just alphabetical order:

Carrefour Market (France)

I really like the fact that the location of the Saint Marcel Carrefour Market is displayed on the storefront: this is a nice touch that hints at belonging and being part of the fabric of the community. This is just the first of many impressive features to enjoy as you walk through the supermarket. Despite being housed in an intricately labyrinthine two-floor footprint, Carrefour has managed to preserve a logical sense of flow and narrative as one journeys through the store. Also, overcoming the obvious space constraints, a compelling range has been assembled and there is enough breathing space to accentuate fresh, create deft displays and ensure that navigability is not compromised. With a great deal of inventiveness and pleasing visual merchandising, this Carrefour Market proves that it is possible to combine national scale with local nuances to effectively serve the local community and meet varied shopper missions. The look and feel of the store leans towards the premium, with excellent touches such as exposed brickwork and well-deployed lighting. The fixtures are a mix of contemporary flair and playful retro: eggs are housed in a feature cabinet complete with hens and chickens, while the potential tedium of laundry detergent is alleviated through the deployment of a similar cabinet display festooned with baby clothes.

Continente (Portugal)

This store in Porto is a very impressive affair, with notable features by no means limited to fresh. The general merchandise departments are excellent. The clothing offer is well presented and sits very nicely alongside the health & beauty department. The superlative deployment of bespoke lighting, graphics and decorative touches is a hallmark throughout the store and there is plenty of imaginative verve that has gone into almost every section. Whether it’s the illuminated signage for home improvement, the lovely end-caps in petcare, the 3D graphics in frozen, the awesome Haribo pick n mix fixture or the toilet paper display (yes really), there is an almost endless cavalcade of design innovation that piques the interest or raises a smile.

East of England Co-op (UK)

What I really like about this store in Colchester is that it has managed to create a genuine point of difference in its core grocery offer. As well as a beautifully simple home delivery system, the fabric of the proposition in food and drink is superb. The main attraction for me, aside from nice touches in the store’s fixtures, was one of the best local food and drink ranges from a mainstream retailer I think I’ve encountered in my career. Equally importantly, the store was full of plenty of reminders about the good work that the East of England Co-op does in terms of fundraising for local good causes and raising donations for food banks. This came across in a genuine tone: you get the sense that this is retailer that is intent on being good by doing good.

Leclerc (France)

Visitors to this store are immediately confronted with a number of different food-for-now and food-for-later counters such as Italian, sushi and rotisserie, accompanied by an ample seating area for diners. The look and feel of the store is ultra-modern. Exposed metalwork, industrial racking, pallets used as decorative feature and a punchy colour palette mean that this store is incredibly distinctive. There is an earthy honesty about the ambient grocery and BWS sections – the quasi-wholesale merchandising driving home the value message but also giving the products a bit of breathing space and providing a level of clarity that than often be drowned out by more expensive fixtures. With a smart organic shop-in-shop (including a great PL range) and a fine array of check-out options to round out a pleasing trip, this store is a delightful reminder of how far E.Leclerc has come over the last 20 years. It also reminds us that throwing stupid amounts of money at shop fitting is not always necessary – this store is sleek and beautiful using warehouse shelving, fluorescent lamps and pallets. Tremendous work all round and a recommended store when in Paris.

Lowes Foods (USA)

Lowes, which in the eye of a competitive hurricane in the Carolinas, has sought to defend itself by reinventing its stores as community hubs with hero departments such as the Chicken Kitchen and the Sausage Works. The Chicken Kitchen has received a decent amount of coverage thanks to the animatronic chickens that loom above the department, plus the accompanying chicken dance (look on YouTube) that staff members perform when chicken is removed from the ovens. This is just one aspect of the store that creates a real sense of experience and storytelling that is painfully absent from many other supermarkets. The retailer places great stock in community endeavours, and a timetable at the store’s entrance sets out a lavish array of events and cooking demos for shoppers to participate in. The design skills on display here are top-notch and there are pleasant surprises at virtually every turn. The Beer Den in particular is a cracking addition to the mix while the overall store design (plenty of glass and timber) makes for a striking environment.

Lucky’s Market (USA)

This operator, backed by Kroger, was a very nice surprise this year. Despite a slightly ramshackle exterior, one walks straight into an excellent produce section, with a great smattering of local items and a good mix of organics and conventional.  It was in the gorgeous marketplace area where I was really captivated by the Lucky proposition. Features like service counters, cheese-sampling, a juice bar, prepared foods, an awesome coffee fixture and pick & mix confectionery all combined to great effect. The fact that bacon was smoked, and sausages were manufactured, in-house just added to the feel of authenticity and authority. Things just got better as I rounded the corner and encountered the bar offering a wine or beer to enjoy while I shopped – ‘sip & stroll’ as it was positioned – and also enjoyed other departments such as health and beauty. Exiting the store under a banner reading ‘Good Food: It’s a Right, Not a Luxury’ and having experienced some superlative customer service at the checkout, it was not difficult to see why Kroger had made its investment. This store has oodles of charm, character, humour and finesse.

Markthalle (Germany)

This store, part of the Real hypermarket network, is simply awesome. The fresh food and counters area is quite possibly the best I have experienced in 20 years of visiting thousands of stores around the world. If it isn’t the best, it certainly joins the pantheon of awesomeness alongside the likes of AH XL, Jumbo Foodmarkt, certain WFMs, Wegmans, the odd Carrefour and a few other favourites in markets such as Finland and South Africa. The look and feel is astonishing, underscoring the importance of often neglected store features like flooring, ceilings and lighting as well as more obvious components like fixtures and merchandising. This store is a good reminder than a bit of gloom alleviated by state-of-the-art lighting is visually tremendous, a nice reminder for supermarkets in the UK which seem intent on making their stores resemble floodlit squash courts, resulting in a soulless sterility which fails to support the food offer. There are too many highlights to single out individually here and my limited vocabulary would be challenged to the sheer number of superlatives that this would require. However, special mentions must be extended to the bakery, the cheese counter, the produce section, the world’s greatest meat counter, the wine bar, the oyster bar and the wonderful central food court / salad bar / restaurant area.

MediaMarkt Digital (Spain)

The interior of this store in Barcelona is beyond striking. Awash with features such as digital screens, video walls, 3D printers, kiosks, touchscreens, vending machines and virtual reality, the environment is futuristic and stimulating. It’s not all space-age gimmickry though; one gets the sense that these features are there for a reason. Whether that reason is education, inspiration, demonstration or actually selling stuff, the overall impression is that this store is actually intended to make money rather than exist as half tourist attraction / half marketing initiative. Unlike some other ‘store of the future’ visions that have been doing the rounds lately, this concept seeks to embrace, not eradicate, human beings as part of the instore experience. Certainly, the incredibly kind and patient lady who gave me an impromptu tour of the store and the tablet-enabled shop assistants that were helping out other punters were testament to the enduring importance of actual real-life people within retail. The human aspect is also enhanced through a very full calendar of instore experiences and workshops on topics such as smartphones, photography and robotics, as well as shoppers being able to use VR headsets and participate in gaming. While the store might appear a bit clinical, in reality is was overflowing with humanity and interaction.

Metcalfe’s (USA)

This is one of three-strong chain of family-owned supermarkets in Wisconsin that oozes class and many of the qualities that good food retailing stands for: provenance; localness; service; consummate visual merchandising; and experience. There are many things that mean that this store will linger long in the memory, but I think that provenance and localness are the two features that will be the most abiding. Loads of retailers bang on about local sourcing, but I can think of about two in the world that undertake the endeavour of supporting local producers as meticulously as Metcalfe’s. Point of sale throughout the store boasted of Metcalfe’s dedication to the mission of ‘bringing local home’. In other hands, this would be the sort of hollow promise that I’ve seen from countless retailers: stocking about a dozen local SKUs while the rest of the store is a morass of national brand sterility. Not so here. At every turn, there was genuine evidence that this is a business that cares about the environment, cares about local farmers, cares about food and – as a consequence of the above – cares about its shoppers. I hate being preachy, but this stuff matters and Metcalfe’s is an exemplar of how to do it.

Pingo Doce (Portugal)

The Pingo Doce stores that I’ve in encountered on my travels in Portugal in the past have tended to be fairly run of the mill: standard neighbourhood or urban stores, often with quirky or constrained footprints, which have meant that my experience has been broadly neutral. Nothing wrong in terms of availability, range, quality, price or service, but nothing massively energising or aspirational either. The store in the Telheiras suburb of Lisbon was totally renovated two years ago and has changed my point of view somewhat. Trading from a hefty 6,000 sq. m., the store would most likely be characterised as a hypermarket bey any other retailer. However, Pingo Doce has a minimal assortment in terms of general merchandise – its stores might typically offer a smattering of media, toys and kitchenware. So, in this store, there are no departments devoted to sports, fashion or electronics. Instead, what we have is a remarkably spacious food store with lavish amounts of square footage afforded to fresh, frozen and ambient grocery; a superb array of service counters; a 300-seat restaurant; an excellent showing in specialty areas like organic and free-from; and some frankly awesome supplier promotional space. I’m a million miles away from being remotely qualified to discuss topics like graphic design, architecture, or fixtures & fittings, but my lack of authority should not undermine my opinion that this store is drop-dead gorgeous. Features such as the tessellated tiling above the fish counter bring to mind the ocean; the dropped ceiling in BWS evoked (to me, at least) bubbles; and the rest of the store was full of similar design touches that really enhanced navigability and shopper experience.

So, there we go. 2017 was a vintage year for store visits for me. Here’s hoping for more of the same in 2018.

Bryan Roberts

Global Insights Director

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