Supermarket Nightmares: Keeping your Distance

Ken Towle Keep your distance

“Life is summed up on a floor sticker” Comment and image from tweet (11 April) by @kentowle, CEO of @NisaRetail

In, what seems like an eternity ago.  I got into a degree of trouble for suggesting that food retailers, for good or bad, were ‘social engineers’ and we needed to recognise and understand the implications of this.  This was on the back of some work done by Steve Burt and myself for Food Standards Scotland on the ways we could enable healthier purchasing in food retail stores.

The fundamental point was that food stores are not neutral environments and that consumers have their behaviours manipulated in store.  Many did not want to believe this had much effect on purchasing and behaviour, or that the retail space was that manipulative.

Well, the world has changed and we are all having to get used to new ways of food shopping, panic or binge buying, restricted choices and vaguely familiar brands. The  food shopping experience is now fundamentally different.

Visually, the obvious changes are the floor lines and queuing to help people get used to, and adhere to, social distancing.  One way flow systems, directional aisles and the like are also being seen.  Barrier systems to protect cashiers from consumers and the almost abolition of physical cash are further manifestations of how the world has changed almost overnight.  And in the future we may be forced to wear gloves and face masks in order to enter the store – or even have our temperatures taken.

All this begs a number of questions over what  can be done or will have to be done in this ‘brave new world’. How could food retailers redesign their stores to make them feel safer (but not off-putting) but also to encourage the spending breadth and depth of before?

For large store food retailers, this is an alien and possibly existential concept.  Large food stores for decades were built on the idea of maximising dwell and interaction times. They aimed to be engaging and experiential. The location of items, the end aisles and other promotions, the cafe and the checkout offer were all designed to engage, provide interest and to sell.

But now, the aim is to get people to shop safely.  This means being apart, doing it quickly and seamlessly and avoiding interactions and groups.  The more people interact, backtrack, talk or handle products the worse – this is the antithesis of the development of large scale food retailing over the last 60 years. If you browse and touch some products then you could be accused of being anti-social or worse. Welcome to the nightmare world of modern food retailing.

So, given a blank store, how would you lay it out?  How would consumers flow through it?  What would be the order of products and their handling and payment?  What should take place in store and what should take place away from the store?  The answers to this point to a changed solution – a fulfilment factory of basic standardised products being handled as infrequently as possible.  The online offer in a different guise; the Morrisons box writ large; an Argos catalogue for food; dark stores rather than palaces of consumption.  All of which ask why we need to go to such stores to shop at all; the store can do this work; collection or delivery becomes the only point of consumer engagement (oh, and paying).

Twenty eight years ago Paul Freathy and myself wrote about Henry Ford’s retail commissary idea and practice.  Being an automated, regular, production line type operations, this failed experiment of the 1920s-1940s has some things in common with where we might end up in food retailing.  Likewise Clarence Saunders’ 1940s ‘Keedoozle’ automated store, a long ago and mostly forgotten forerunner of Amazon Go, may have elements of design for our future large stores.  But then, maybe online will be the answer to many of the issues, if it is actually scaleable. After all,  consumers may not want to risk their health by going shopping. Many will be fearful of the experience and the risks; commodity shopping should not be this painful. Ending the lockdown does not mean we go back to normal.

The thought that large store food retailers are going to look and operate the same as they did a few months ago, is in my view a little fanciful.  Both consumers and retailers supply and demand have altered and patterns of behaviours are now different, both generally and in-store.  As things settle down so the ramifications of this will redesign how, where and when we shop for food.  And the assumption that large stores that we travel to in cars are as important in the future as they have been in the past, is no longer a given.


Thanks to a tweet from @LiamDelaneyEcon for mentioning a post by @Ideas42Designing for Effective Phyiscal Distancing in Essential Public Spaces  and thus prompting me to think a little more about what large food retail spaces might become.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh
This entry was posted in Academics, Amazon Go, Behavioural Economics, Consumer Change, Consumer Choice, Consumers, Dark Stores, Design, Employment practices, Food Retailing, Food Standards Scotland, Health, Panic buying, Retail Change, Retailers, Social Inequality, Supermarket, Uncategorized, University of Stirling, Well being and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Supermarket Nightmares: Keeping your Distance

  1. Fascinating article Leigh. Really useful insight and thinking. Iain

    Sent from my iPad


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