Big Box

Catch up with Neville

As TDC&Co’s Creative Director for over a decade, Neville Wills plays a vital role in maintaining the quality of The Design Company’s creative output. Transitioning into interior design from branding, his deep knowledge of consumer behaviour and retail trends – and its shifting nature – means that Neville is instrumental in helping our clients incorporate the customer experience into the design of their retail spaces.

In 2017, TDC&Co completed two high-profile big box retail projects. Each sought to reimagine the hyper store format by integrating it into their customers’ lifestyles. We caught up with Neville to talk us through the latest developments in big box retail – both in South Africa and globally.


What is big box retail?

Traditionally, it’s value-drivenwholesale retail, so it could be a supermarket or any retail space that’s a couple of thousand square metres. It often involves bulk goods – stack it high, watch it fly – that sort of mindset. The term, big box, really comes from the days when suppliers and brands dictated what people bought. Now, with the era of transparency and easy access to information, the customer is telling brands what to do.

What are the challenges in designing for big box retail?

The world’s become so fast paced that people don’t want to spend hours walking the aisles anymore. So, we as designers need to make the spaces much more experiential and entertaining. But at the same time, people want everything quickly. It’s a bit of a conundrum! How do you merge that convenience with experiences that get customers to a.) come to the store, and b.) get them to linger? To me, the biggest challenges in big box retail are:
  • Changing the way these stores operate can be a bit like doing a handbrake turn with a super tanker. The silo mindset makes it very difficult for big businesses to change course.
  • Making big volumes feel intimate to the customer. When you walk into the fresh produce section of a big Checkers, for instance, it’s got to have that neighbourhood market feel.
  • Getting a creative at the ExCo table. If you look at the top Forbes 500 companies, like Apple, Google, Netflix and Uber – they’ve all succeeded at making design central to the way they operate.

What are the opportunities?

I think it comes down to editing ranges – finding out what the customer wants to touch and what they don’t. Imagine a supermarket. People want to shop for fresh, so they want to touch and feel fresh stuff – vegetables and meat, for instance – they want to select it for themselves. On the other hand, baked beans are baked beans. You don’t have to walk the aisles for that. You can just order those online.

We just have to up our game, so they become places where you can sit down and meet people, you can buy what you need there and eat it there at the same time. You can go with friends. There are celebrity chefs there cooking for you. You’re creating a community. Food retailers are probably one step ahead of everyone else, because bikes and power tools you can buy online. I believe the biggest opportunities in big box retail are:

  • Creating fulfillment centres on the ground. It becomes so much easier to integrate digital into the in-store experience when you’ve designed spaces that facilitate that.
  • Creating a one-stop shop. If people have limited time, adapt your infrastructure to cater to a wider variety of your customers’ needs in one place. If they get hungry, for instance, do they need to go somewhere else? If you keep them in the store, there’s always an upsell opportunity.
  • Integrating hubs into the space that can be used for other purposes than to sell products. Workspaces for independent professionals, for instance, gives them a place from which to check emails, plan their day and buy your products while they’re at it.

Creating endless aisle experiences, where, whatever your customer can’t find in store, there’s a touchscreen tablet within arm’s reach where they can order it to be delivered.

What innovations are taking place in the world of big box retail?

The big retail stores are changing to more of a click-and-collect approach, effectively downsizing their stores to holding spaces. One of our big box clients, for instance, are looking at halving the size of their stores, which will still be a big store, but the whole experience will be more digital, so you won’t have to walk the warehouse anymore. They’ll be more like distribution centres.

Technology is also starting to play a bigger role in the retail experience. Keeping up with the age of transparency where customers want to know where their food comes from, some retailers are attaching QR codes to their products, so you can see who the farmer was, where it was farmed, how it was culled, and so on.

I say people don’t have time, but it’s really just a question of what they choose to spend their time on. Yoga classes, for instance, or drumming communities. It’s all about creating hyper-personalised experiences to local communities. The days of designing a cookie-cutter store, sticking it in a neighbourhood and hoping people will come are over.

Where does South African stand in terms of these innovations?

The main thing we need to sort out before we can catch up with current innovations in retail is our staff. Too often, you’ll walk into a store and ask, ‘Have you got this in my size?’ And they’ll go, ‘I don’t know.’ They need to be better trained, but you can also empower them with mobile devices that make it possible for them to quickly check their stock. At the same time, they can ring up your goods with that same device, you pay them then and there, and you’re done. I suppose it all comes down to changing our mindsets to be more experience driven.

The other issue is that there’s a lot of confusion around digital. Everyone is still figuring it out. South Africa is still very conservative, so integrating first-world concepts into the way we do things can be a challenge. There’s a lot of mass-market distrust. A lot of the lower LSMs simply don’t want to buy online, because the concept is still intangible. When you buy something online with your hard-earned money, what guarantee do you have that you’ll ever see it?

How are digital experiences being integrated into the in-store experience?

User experience has been quite big in the digital world for a number of years now, but it hasn’t really translated into mainstream architecture and retail design yet. I think the new wave of environmental design will be heavily driven by user experience; understanding who the customer is – what they want, where they shop, where their pain points are, their journey to a product, their fulfilment of a product, their return of a product – will drive how we design stores, how we design those experiences.

But in the end, it’s important that we still design beautiful spaces – because people gravitate towards beautiful things – but it can’t be a superficial experience. There must be depth to the experience.

To what extend are we seeing these omni-channel experiences being created in South Africa retail?

We know we need to be there, but we’re still very ops driven, so it’s all about square-metre rate to build. You hear words like digital and omni-channel all the time, but it’s really difficult to break through that operational mindset.

There are a couple of organisations that are moving ahead, like the Massmart Group and some of the younger big box retailers that haven’t been around long enough to be held back by legacy systems. Some of our household retail brands are also making amazing progress with their omni-channel experiences, but often, their in-store experiences let them down.

What does the store of the future look like?

It would certainly be a hybrid experience combining digital, online and bricks and mortar. People still want a place to go to, but it should be about more than just products to sell. So, if you’re a men’s fashion retailer, for instance, offer grooming, a bar, a coffee shop, someone giving fashion advice or advice on grooming.

They might even offer things that have got nothing to do with their products. I think there will be a lot of collaboration between a fashion retailer, for instance, and a hair dresser working together in the same space.

Big box stores will shrink. We’ll see more fulfillment and distribution centres. Click and collect will become the norm, but I think free delivery will become a thing of the past – no one’s making a profit from that.

How far away are we from that?

I think we’re pretty close. Based on some of the work we’re doing now, I think in the next 12 to 24 months we’re going to start seeing this really good mash-up of online and bricks and mortar. And it’s going to be experimental and it’s going to change and it’s going to be loud. Then, it’s suddenly not going to be about department budgets and performance bonuses. It’s a big change for operators, but everyone will get on board, because it’s going to be about people.


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