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Interview: Ben Belkacem of the Co-Op on the future of grocery store design

Customer expectations of grocery retailers will continue to grow in the future just as levels of loyalty fall, according to Co-Op store and POS design manager Ben Belkacem, who will be speaking at POPAI UK’s next Retail Marketing Conference on 8 February.

“Retailers who put the customer first, and adapt to how consumers interact with their store, will see the biggest rewards in the next few years,” says Belkacem. “The expectations of customers will continue to grow and if their experience is not truly convenient or right for them, they will walk away whilst loyalty will be driven by the authenticity of store teams and the environment.”

Convenience is likely to remain a key battleground for meeting customer demand, and one where store formats and in-store communication will be a vital component. "As a convenience retailer, one of our main goals is to make shopping easier and more pleasurable. We have more than 2,500 stores covering the length and breadth of the country and we understand that our customers visit us little and often, so we need to make that journey around the store as easy as possible,” Belkacem adds.

Numerous innovations are becoming available to grab customer attention, but retailers should beware bombarding customers with irrelevant messages, says Belkacem. "With a lot of initiatives vying for support instore, that can bring new and exciting ways of doing things, and I have to filter all of these and think - how does this help the customer journey. A consistent approach is important so not to bombard customers,” he says. “We want to inspire shoppers to encourage incremental sales as well as show that we can satisfy all their needs - from a meal for tonight, something new and interesting, food on the go or a fabulous bottle of wine and some flowers to take to a party.”

On a practical level, these strategies have translated into the retailer trying to locate a till near to meal deal cabinets; clear price messages; adjacencies such as locating gift bags near to wine; and meal solutions for ‘no cook’ nights.

"Our instore design also looks to smooth out and hone in on the friction points our customers have. If we keep on top of consumer insight and continue acting on what customers tell us they want, we know we’ll be on the right track,” adds Belkacam.

That is not to say that technical innovations have no role to play. Co-Op will be using high-tech solutions to replace paper displays with screens, for example. "Digital methodologies can help us to put the user experience first and test iterations of most viable products in alpha and beta trials. But wider than that, their methods can help businesses push through change that might ordinarily have stalled as we wait for insight, or to trial in a concept store,” says Belkacem.

That said, priority will still be given to customer experience over the temptation to simply be at the leading edge of technology. “You can have the most tech-smart tills in the world but if shoppers have to queue to get their lottery ticket, the feeling of annoyance is still the same," he says.

Ben Belkacem will be speaking at POPAI’s Retail Marketing Conference on 8 February