by Kelly Pate Dwyer
The winners of the 2007 Delicious Living Retail Store Makeover contest had hoped their expansion and remodel would be nearly complete by now. Alas, they've spent most of 2008 meeting with architects, contractors and consultants, which has amounted to many plans, delays and lessons learned about building design and construction, and the patience needed to stay sane.
With luck, by October the Nature's Food Patch store in Clearwater, Fla., will have some dust and noise to give long-time Store Director Laurie Powers-Shamon and General Manager Rich Packman tangible proof that the project they've been dreaming about for years—to update systems, aesthetics and gain needed space to handle increasing sales volume—is underway. "The Patch" was selected last fall at Natural Products Expo East in a blindfolded drawing of independent retailers who could demonstrate need for a store makeover. The Patch won $1,000 and the advice of three industry experts.
Need can't be overstated in this case. The 14,000-square-foot store is spilling out into the parking lot, where back stock of bulk foods and bread are kept in a refrigerated trailer.
Plans call for expanding to 20,000 square feet, and adding new heating, ventilation, air conditioning, plumbing and electrical systems. The most popular departments will get bigger. Most apparent to customers, the dated décor at the Patch will be replaced with a clean, sophisticated look, incorporating elements of American craftsman and Zen garden styles.
The Patch's managers (the store's second-generation family owners are not involved in daily operations) say they aim to fund renovations through revenues. If necessary, they'll borrow money, confident their investment will pay off with a loyal and growing customer base.
At press time in August, The Patch looked no different, but Powers-Shamon and Packman were excited about a recent activity: Their architect, local firm Klar & Klar, had presented final design plans, allowing them to file permit applications with the city. And their general contractor, local firm Harbor Key Development, had started collecting bids from subcontractors. They expected permitting would take about two months and bidding about 30 days.
Ah, you can almost hear the power saws now.
As they get closer, Powers-Shamon and Packman share what they've learned along the way—knowledge that may help other independents headed down the same path.
The lessons overall: Take time to find experts who are not only qualified but who understand your goals and whom you can get along with. (You're going to spend lots of time with them.) Stay flexible. There are lots of moving parts and surprises in such a sizable undertaking. Ask employees and customers to share their ideas for what will make the store better, and update them on progress; they need some payoff through the inconvenience and mess.
The Patch first enlisted the help of United Natural Foods' P.J. Hoffman, head of the distributor's store development services, to design the store layout.
"He's been a great resource," Packman says. "He knows the ins and outs of the business." Then they consulted with a panel of experts provided through the Delicious Living contest: Jay Jacobowitz, president of Retail Insights in Brattleboro, Vt.; Zedrick Clark, owner of Nature's Food Market in Berlin, Ohio, and chairman of the board for the Independent Natural Food Retailers Association; and natural products retail marketing expert Debby Swoboda of askDebby.com in Stuart, Fla.
Jacobowitz provided big-picture advice, and emphasized the importance of aesthetics that create an amazing shopping experience. Such an aesthetic—which implies spending a good deal of money—also would put the store in a better position to compete with the likes of Whole Foods, if it comes to the area. Clark focused on logistics and aesthetics of supplements merchandising, and Swoboda concentrated on the store's messaging—from advertising and marketing to logo and signage. (For more on their advice, see NFM, March 2008).
The Patch's managers aimed to take a design-build approach, in which the architect and general contractor jointly design a plan and work as a team, but Packman says architect Steven Klar "wanted to run with plans and do as much as he could before bringing a contractor into it."
That was a change he says they were willing to make. Klar & Klar demonstrated savvy in navigating the city's planning-and-zoning processes, a relief to the store managers. Steven Klar and his wife, architect Roberta Klar, shoppers at the Patch, "share our values," Packman adds, noting they do green work when possible. The firm also is providing interior design services.
Architects Roberta Klar and Vera Porter-Liberti "understand we want to use natural materials and create an ambience in the store that reflects harmony and beauty and warmth," Powers-Shamon says. "I love art and balance and find I work better in beauty, and find people like to shop better in beauty."
The architects said they would need three to four months to finish plans, Packman recalls. That turned into five months.
But Packman notes he and Powers-Shamon have been overly optimistic about timetables. "I think the structural engineering is a bit complex—we're taking out a load-bearing wall," Packman says. And, as often happens, "we requested changes late in the process."
Midway through the design process, the Patch hired Harbor Key Development as general contractor. The firm favors green building, and the Patch's managers liked its approach. "They're very willing to work with us on ways of doing things," Powers-Shamon says. And while the architect is handing off plans to the developer, she says everyone is working as a team.
The Patch plans to stay open through months of construction, but if it needs to close on certain days the contractor "said they could use our staff for things like moving product off the end caps," Powers-Shamon says. "There's going to be a lot of shifting. We love our staff, and we want to make sure they keep getting a paycheck."
She and Packman also like Harbor Key's project superintendent.
"I've been told," Packman says, "it's key to the project to have someone working here who is a good communicator and keeps us up to date and hears our concerns on how things will impact our operations."
All that said, the store managers didn't plan to sign a contract with Harbor Key until the firm could guarantee a maximum price based on final plans from the architect and subcontractor bids. Working with Harbor Key, Powers-Shamon and Packman also get a chance to review the subcontractor bids and compare them with estimates UNFI's Hoffman provides. Might the lagging economy translate into lower costs?
"From what I hear, the prices might not go down, but we'll get the top-quality work," Packman says. "The marginal contractors are dropping out of business and just taking jobs. The better contractors still need to pay their employees the same living wage they were paying them."
Meanwhile, the Patch's store sales are increasing, albeit at a slower rate in recent months, Packman says. Through it all, the store managers say they've tried to include employees and customers.
"This is their store," Powers-Shamon says, noting that she will post a storyboard inside the store that shows architects' drawings and elevations as well as details of color scheme, finishes and store logo.
The managers "coach cashiers on things we'd like them to share with customers if they get conversational," Powers-Shamon says. "As areas of the store become inconvenienced—you can't get to part of an aisle to get something—someone will be on standby with a hard hat on to go and get it for you."
While they wait for construction to begin, Powers-Shamon and Packman are busy with details like pricing out new computer, phone and security equipment. They're redoing menu boards and sampling new products. The expanded store could up its product selection by as much as 40 percent, Powers-Shamon says.
"It's so overstimulating," she says. "I have so many plates spinning right now." "The whole thing has its ups and downs," Packman says. "Some days the prospect is exciting, and some days the prospect is exhausting. I look forward to this wonderful store in the end."
Kelly Pate Dwyer is a Denver-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 10/p. 57