BI Design Awards 2005 - Organic Ambience

March 1, 2005
Winner in Retail Interiors: Home Economist Market, Charlotte, NC, submitted by Little Diversified Architectural Consulting
Situated in a former 1950s supermarket-turned-furniture store, the newest location of the Charlotte, NC-based Home Economist Market offers its customers a comfortable, relaxed place to shop.Its new site, located in a major thoroughfare leading into downtown Charlotte, makes the store part of a neighborhood revitalization project, with a light rail station planned through the area and dense residential districts already emerging. Retaining a solid group of devoted customers, the organic grocery store was doing well in its original spot – but sensed that the time was right for a transformation. “We felt we needed to appeal to a broader market segment,” explains Tom Zerbinos, president of retail operations, Tropical (Home Economist Market’s owner), Charlotte, NC. While the store wanted to expand and increase market share, this transformation required a delicate balance: Home Economist Market wanted to attract new shoppers, but also retain its current customers. And it wanted to look upscale without giving the appearance of being overly expensive.Starting with nothing more than a blank sheet of paper, the designers at Little Diversified Architectural Consulting worked with Home Economist Market, asking questions, conducting surveys, and holding planning sessions to determine the features that were envisioned for the store’s updated appearance. “To a certain extent, [we were] psychologically profiling the company,” explains Daniel Montano, design director, Little, Charlotte, NC. Its other two existing locations were very basic, with inconsistent signage, crowded displays, and restricted shopping quarters. Zerbinos explains that there weren’t very many “frills” or even any consistent design configurations applied to the stores.The collaboration between Home Economist Market and Little, however, resulted in not only a different location, but in new design standards and a fresh identity that will be used as a template for future Home Economist Market stores as well.Establishing the AtmosphereBeing familiar with the needs and wishes of its customer base, the store knew that many loyal shoppers were concerned with labels and ingredients – and those shoppers needed space to pause in an aisle, read product information, and ask detailed questions. “Most of the stores in our industry are still cramped, and [are] a maze to shop in,” says Zerbinos. But Home Economist Market shunned this trend; this Charlotte location offers customers wide aisles, allowing plenty of room to compare and read about the merchandise without interfering with other shoppers. Low-profile shelving throughout allows customers and employees to see across the entire store, encouraging interaction and making it easier for workers to check for those needing assistance; the shelving systems also make it more convenient for shoppers to recognize and reach available products.Playing off the store’s merchandise, Home Economist Market wanted the experience of an organic environment to prevail. “We used a lot of natural materials that did not require painting or thinning. We used a lot of masonite and natural raw wood materials. We [also] used a lot of unpainted surfaces and metals. We truly tried to minimize the amount of visually ‘un-organic’ elements – which means being as natural as possible,” emphasizes Montano. Wood floors, interesting tile patterns, and copper signage add light and warmth to the shopping floor. The removal of 10-foot laid-in ceilings uncovered the original steel and wood structure of the building, further adding to the desired atmosphere.Working with an older building was “a great surprise,” according to Montano. But along with great surprises come great challenges: “The [building’s design] didn’t intend for the vaulted structures [beneath the ceiling] to be seen. By removing the ceilings, we exposed a larger volume of air – we had to make sure … that the foaming and the insulation was going to be strong enough. Adapting a building of that age to the needs of a modern grocery store was a true challenge from an engineering perspective,” Montano says. As a result of recovering and putting extra insulation on the roof to allow for the exposed ceiling, the store is now benefiting from energy savings on heating and cooling. In addition, management has invested in a computer system to control and monitor energy usage from lighting systems, refrigeration systems, HVAC systems, and more. Merchandise shelves are also kept away from the front of the store (which is faced primarily in glass to permit natural light to shine through), allowing for added energy reductions.

The Only One of Its Kind“One of the biggest differences between this store and a regular grocery store is the lighting,” says Montano. “It’s quite complex.” An integrated, three-layer system provides suitable lighting for the various tasks being performed in each part of the store. Indirect lighting bounces off the ceiling’s wooden trusses, creating general ambient light. Specialty lighting is located throughout the store to highlight end-caps and individual product displays (e.g. round pendants draw attention to the produce section, and track lighting systems highlight specialty merchandise). A more traditional high-bay system incorporating T5 fluorescent lamps is positioned above the registers and check-out areas so customers and store employees can easily exchange payments and receipts.The 18,000-square-foot facility also offers other amenities to both its shoppers and workers. A training/conference room exists for on-site seminars, demonstrations, discussions, and community group meetings; an informational kiosk located in the store displays useful, health-related information to interested patrons; and an easy-to-follow, intuitive signage system leads customers through the store – incorporating custom WPA-style murals, a commission that was awarded to a local Charlotte artist. The facility also offers a full-service meat and deli counter, an organic produce department, and a juice/coffee bar – services that Home Economist Market’s two other locations don’t have space to supply.Design with a PurposeThe store’s new design and identity is unquestionably serving its purpose. “Customers love our new look and enjoy shopping in an open environment,” says Zerbinos. “It’s a format that makes customers feel comfortable and extends their shopping stay. We emphasize customer service. The layout has a good flow, and encourages the shopper to shop the whole store instead of only going down a few select aisles, missing product or even whole departments.” The design of this Home Economist Market location has allowed the store to achieve its goal of appealing to a broader customer base.“This looks like a national store,” says Montano. “It will really allow [Home Economist Market] to defend its market share against the bigger newcomers.”Leah B. Garris ([email protected]) is associate editor at Buildings magazine.Best PracticeThe collaboration between Home Economist Market and Little Diversified Architectural Consulting resulted in not only a different location, but in new design standards and a fresh identity that will be used as a template for future Home Economist Market stores as well. Playing off merchandise, the store wanted the experience of an organic environment to prevail. “We truly tried to minimize the amount of visually ‘un-organic’ elements – which means being as natural as possible,” emphasizes Daniel Montano, design director, Little, Charlotte, NC. The removal of 10-foot laid-in ceilings uncovered the original steel and wood structure of the building, further adding to the desired atmosphere and creating energy savings.

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