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Comment: Off the shelf design is no longer relevant to retail says Andrew Dabbs of architect WCEC

Andrew Dabbs

Changing shopping trends and price wars have sent the UK’s supermarket chains on a rollercoaster ride that is showing no signs of slowing down in 2016. This fight for our custom has changed and continues to change the face of retail, particularly in regards to supermarket design.

Faced with such fierce competition, a store’s design can play a pivotal role in its success. Creating a store that can both attract shoppers and run efficiently requires a holistic approach and a genuine understanding of an operator’s current and developing aspirations.

The large white box located out-of-town is no longer a priority. Instead, customers are focusing on convenience, ordering over the internet for delivery or expedient collection, favouring smaller stores or heading to the high streets. Consumers want to shop faster, fresher, more frequently and in a more appealing context.

The rapidly increasing ­­competition from discounters is clear for all to see and the superstore operators are starting to realise that the rules have changed. The perception of higher price is no longer directly linked to higher quality and the historic price wars are fading into insignificance as superstores try to redefine their USP.

In response Superstore operators are working hard to re-engage and safeguard their custom whilst reappraising the most effective way of utilising their existing large (and in many cases inefficient) floor space.

One approach has seen a number of stores remodelling sales floors to install new, attractive, interactive and diverse offers, seen both through smaller concessions and the sub-letting of substantial areas of floor space (for fashion, furniture, holidays, coffee, toys, pharmacies etc.) This strategy certainly creates a distinction between the offer of the superstore and the discounters, but pressure from planning departments to protect the endangered high street will be a critical factor in this being a sustainable approach.

Exponential development in technology will continue to change the way we think and act, so for any retailer to truly compete in this market they will need to be pro-active, reactive and open to continual modification.

Convenience shopping driven by the utilisation of new and increasingly accessible technology is also requiring operators to react to the growing demands on their infrastructure. The response to this demand has seen substantial areas of existing retail space in food stores being converted into warehouse and distribution facilities, particularly in relation to internet shopping. Click and Collect, home delivery, recipe-based ordering and personalised shopping are just some of the innovative ways retailers are trying to set themselves apart. Time is increasingly precious and the more retailers work to make our lives easier the more likely they will secure our custom.

Designers need to understand how to safeguard any building’s ability to adapt and evolve effectively so it can stay relevant in the market place, without the continual need for extensive, inefficient and unsustainable re-investment. Implementing an intelligent and meaningful ‘BIM’ (Building Information Modelling) strategy can add significant value throughout its life. This effectively means developing designs in an intelligent digital environment that represents and incorporates the physical and functional characteristics, taking into consideration the lifetime costs of operation, maintenance and implications of any required adaptation.

Off the shelf design is becoming a thing of the past. No longer can a one size fits all approach be considered appropriate when so many interchanging factors drive the relevance of any development proposal. As we try to design the store of tomorrow, operators and designers alike must understand that the goalposts will keep moving. They must therefore build in the inherent flexibility that enables effective and expedient adaptation to suit the ever-increasing demands and expectations of customers.  

Andrew Dabbs is design director of architect WCEC