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Eric Feigenbaum

Whole Foods Whetting the Appetites of Post-Pandemic Shoppers

Visual merchandisers rely on eye and olfactory appeal to make visiting the grocery store a satisfying experience

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ALTHOUGH THE CAULIFLOWER pizza I ordered was replaced with a box of spinach linguini, I still love answering the doorbell in the morning and finding a week’s worth of groceries neatly packaged at my doorstep. And while I might not have chosen that soft and blackening avocado or that tomato with the nasty bruise, I’ll continue to order my groceries online. Though online grocery shopping is here to stay, with grocers enjoying years of projected sales growth compressed into a single quarter, it’s becoming cool again to visit the supermarket.

As we move beyond the uncertainties of Covid, the relationship consumers have with food has entered previously unchartered waters. Even though shoppers physically visit grocery stores less often, they’re buying more than they did in the past. During the darkest days of the pandemic, people spent much more money at the supermarket than they did at restaurants. Seventy percent of Americans now prepare most of their meals from the comfort of home with the kitchen becoming the center of everyday life. Shoppers of every socioeconomic stripe installed dooms-day pantries of biblical proportions to see them through even the worst of storms, famine or pestilence.

At first, comfort food from Ding-Dongs and Jell-O pudding to Pizza Rolls and PopTarts, became the order of the day as people yearned for the treats that sustained them in their youth. Grocers such as Stop & Shop responded to the nostalgia of the halcyon days prior to the pandemic by offering all of their throwback snacks in one section of the store.

As the Covid-induced hibernation continued, home kitchen adventures and experimentation became the next trend; a necessity to maintain a reasonable sense of sanity. Bread baking became a preoccupation for those trapped in confinement, along with casserole concoctions, curry creations and everything kale. Millennials and Gen Z shoppers, in particular, became passionate about developing new cooking and baking techniques. Newfound kitchen escapades were so stylish, that kale became the new black and carrots the new snack.  A new culture is now emerging as neophyte chefs develop strong and enduring relationships with their ovens, cooktops and pantries. Social media is playing an important role in this phenomenon as #recipes flood the Internet. As a result, sales of pasta, baking supplies and cooking ingredients, as well as beer and wine, are skyrocketing.

Grocery stores are responding to the needs and concerns of consumers by converting the challenges of the day into solutions and opportunities. Whole Foods recently opened its 12th Manhattan store in NoMad (North of Madison Square Park), a historic district in the city. The branded experience begins with a welcoming open glass facade that engages the customer while they’re still across the street. With an understanding of sensory merchandising (an evolution of visual merchandising) most successful grocery stores, from Whole Foods and Kroger to the local deli and corner bodega, tap into the psychological triggers that change moods and move emotions.

Studies indicate that the dynamics of visual engagement begin with color. The eye is naturally attracted to bright reds, blues, greens and yellows. This research, together with today’s need for cleanliness and freshness, makes the placement of live plants and flowers at the front door a sound strategic design decision. In addition to eye appeal, the perfume of the flowers activates the olfactory system, suggesting a sense of freshness. The aroma wafting through the air also sets the tone, putting people in the mood to spend. This subliminal technique is employed throughout the Whole Foods customer journey as botanicals are strategically positioned at key focal points throughout the store. Sensory merchandising and logical category adjacencies continue to influence customers with the calculated placement near the entrance of a colorful cornucopia of eye-catching produce.

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The next showstopper along the way is a large overhead sign that simply reads Kitchen. Recognizing the delicate psyche of the post-pandemic shopper, Whole Foods taps into the warmth and comfort of home and hearth. This area offers a bakery with all of its inherent aromas as well as several onsite dining opportunities including Za’atar and its Mediterranean fare; an assortment of coffees from Café Grumpy; and Nomad 63, a welcoming bar offering beer, wine and a range of side dishes, including home-made fish-n-chips and cauliflower nachos.

An integral component of the 54,000-square-foot experience is the merchandising of locally sourced products throughout, including produce from more than 20 local farms as well as locally sourced pasta, cheese and preserves. Also key to the appeal of the store are the oversized polished concrete aisles, providing open spaces and comfortable levels of social distancing.

Adding international flavor and cultural diversity to the evolving supermarket concept is the arrival of 99 Ranch to the Metropolitan New York area. Founded in1984 in Orange County, Calif., 99 Ranch is the largest Asian supermarket chain in the United States with 42 locations in California, Nevada, Texas, and Washington State. The new 50,000-square-foot store in Jersey City, just across the river from lower Manhattan, celebrates Asian culture with aisles of exotic foods from countries such as China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Taiwan.

Upon entering the store, the eye of the enthusiastic culinary explorer is delighted by a rainbow of exotic produce including aloe leaves, jackfruit, daikon and baby bok choy. Providing an additional shot of color to the aesthetic is the candy aisle, displaying a vibrant array of popular Asian candies, cookies and chocolates. Not to be missed is the live seafood counter, a hallmark of Asian cuisine. Here, customers can choose from a wide array of seafood delicacies such as Dungeness crab, conch, crawfish, and oysters. Noodles, rice and myriad sauces abound, as well as shelves of spices, wasabi, dried mushrooms and dried seaweed for sushi rolls. In addition to the traditional grocery store assortment, 99 Ranch also offers an international array of in-store dining options such as dim sum, ramen, Hong Kong BBQ, and other Asian culinary delights.

The store also features wide aisles, yet the aesthetic surrounding the broad assortment of Asian cuisine is more industrial with a weathered concrete flooring treatment. Whatever the aesthetic, the results are consistent. To reach today’s customer, understand their wants, needs and concerns. Add a bit of spice to their lives with offerings from your kitchen to their table. Whet their appetites with wholesome delights that will warm their hearts and feed their souls.

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Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.

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