Good, Thoughtful Hosts #202: Retail Research with Sheri Blattel, Part 1: Conscious Consumption and Last-Mile Delivery

We may be an extremely online culture, but physical retail spaces still influence the way we shop (no matter where the final purchase occurs). On this episode, we chat with Sheri Blattel about the impact of two retail trends in particular: conscious consumption and last-mile delivery.

About Our Guest
An associate principal at Cushing Terrell, Sheri Blattel serves as co-director of the Retail design studio. Her design work prioritizes user experience that embodies the culture, values, and unique aesthetic of each client. Sheri seeks out holistic views that consider context, sustainability, resilience, health, safety, and happiness; and she is a member of the Retail Design Institute, International Council of Shopping Centers, Urban Land Institute, and Shop! Association.

Beyond the design practice, Sheri manifests her passion for advancing justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion by leading Cushing Terrell’s initiatives in this arena, but is likewise invested in the larger AEC industry, which she sees as vitally important for the next generation, including her two daughters.

Episode #202 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer 00:06
The dawn of online shopping marked one of the biggest shifts in the retail experience that we’ve seen, possibly since the introduction of the catalog, or the shopping mall. But even though we’re dropping items more than ever into our virtual shopping cart, there’s still a lot to be said about the physical retail experience. I’m Sarah Steimer and on today’s episode of Good, Thoughtful Hosts, we’re discussing two recent retail trends in particular: conscious consumption and last-mile delivery. And we’re taking a look at how those modern concerns are shaping the way we shop, and the way our consumer experiences are designed.

Producer 01:17
Today’s special guest

Sheri Blattel 01:19
Hello, I’m Sheri Blattel. I am an associate principal here at Cushing Terrell. I also co-lead our retail practice across the entire firm.

Sarah Steimer 01:30
Well, Sheri, thank you so much for joining us today. If there’s something that I enjoy talking about it’s retail. I actually saw a great tweet today where someone said that they get the retail bug more often than ever in February. So this seems like a perfect time to be talking to you about retail because I feel like we all want to stay inside and shop a little bit. So let’s talk today, we’re going to talk about two trends. In particular, we’re going to talk about conscious consumption and last-mile delivery. So starting with conscious consumption, I mean, the name kind of tells us a little bit about what we’re talking about. But can you give us your definition of conscious consumption?

Sheri Blattel 02:08
Conscious consumption, for me, it really is being very intentional about everything that can consume. And that doesn’t just mean what you put into your body, and what you eat, or kind of medications you take, or any of those kinds of things. It’s how you use products. And it’s how you engage with the different products and how they have an impact on the planet. And so if you go and you buy something you typically get in packaging, and people are being more conscious about that. But really, majority of shopping is being heavily driven now, generationally, in Generation Z, Gen Z is what they call themselves. And millennials really are a big part of that buying power. And those generations more so than, you know boomers and older generations, they are really driven by some values that are that are evolving around societal change. And they value trust and authenticity and transparency and collaboration and individualization. But really, they also care very much about their imprint and footprint on the planet. And so that’s what ties them to this idea of conscious consumption, they know that what they’re doing has an impact, not only now but into the future. And they want to take care of the planet they live on, they want to give back to their communities. And so this idea of conscious consumption is really it’s all-encompassing of everything that they do, shopping, eating, transportation, how they engage with the environment. And you know, all of those things is sort of how I wrap up conscious consumption.

Sarah Steimer 03:36
So I want to talk about then, of course, the role that design plays in conscious consumption. Because I think a lot of people first and foremost, probably do — you mentioned packaging — think about that. And I was even just at a store recently with a friend where it was one of those packag-free, eco-friendly stores where you bring your own containers, blah, blah, blah, but there’s still a very specific aesthetic to the store. You know, it wasn’t like it was label-free per se. But can you can you talk a little bit about how design plays a role in conscious consumption, as you have seen it over the years?

Sheri Blattel 04:10
Like I mentioned before, our retail practice spans across the entire country. And so there’s a lot of different things that happen in different regions and different states that are driven by federal or state regulations. And so, you know, it’s whether you take your own bag or you get a paper bag, I think plastic bags really are starting to become a thing of the past. Recycled plastic is still kind of in the game. But you know, we’re working with several clients — even just the idea of having your own bag, what that looks like when you enter the facility or the store and is it tucked in your purse or is it tucked in your backpack or you know, where were how does that engage in the shopping experience for you? Are you holding it? Where is it? How are you engaging with products? I know that sounds really kind of simple, but if you think about having a customer that has two kids by hand and they’re having to deal with a bag, you know, what kind of things are you providing, that are going to help that experience, and then gonna go a little beyond that. But with sustainability and conscious consumption, how it shows up in the retail space, it’s how it’s how you choose materials. It’s how you light the space. It’s how you orient the space. And then another interesting thing that we’re really finding is that some retailers are going into spaces as tenants, which means somebody else has developed the shell building. But it’s really incumbent upon developers to create spaces that are also environmentally responsible, because a brand that’s coming in that space is a tenant, their brand is adhering to their own sustainability goals, and therefore the space they go into has to be emulating that same thing. And so it really is an all-encompassing consideration of what every aspect of that experience for that space looks like.

Sarah Steimer 05:57
That’s such an interesting sort of leveling up. Because I think a lot of you know, when we think about conscious consumption as a consumer, it’s sort of those individual choices that we make with something as simple as maybe lip balm or something like that. But really thinking as far as how a retailer is consuming the space itself in which they are building out their footprint, things like that. That’s, that kind of takes it up in a really interesting way and kind of looks at how kind of the entire community of consumption is considering this question. So you kind of gave a couple of examples, but can you can you dive into some more examples of how this looks. And sorry, I think I cut you off a little bit there, if you’re going to respond to that.

Sheri Blattel 06:36
No, and I you know, so it’s not rooted in conscious consumption, but it’s on the edge of it. But when you we talk about, you know, the value of being attached to a purpose-driven brand and spending your money, or consuming from a purpose-driven brand, you know, we talked about taking care of the planet, and it’s definitely about that, but it’s taking into consideration, fair labor considerations, and the eco initiatives that touch lots of different things. And that goes back to the consumption and the packaging. And then there’s this idea of diversity, equity, inclusion and BIPOC representation. And has it shows up in the imagery in the branding inside the retail space, and what the cultural ambassadors or brand ambassadors, which was what we call team members and retail now, because they really are part of the marketing and the branding. But then there’s also these things that are happening, it’s, you know, in the spaces have body inclusivity. And that really plays itself out in design in spaces, how you address and design for changing rooms and dressing rooms and those different kinds of things. And more and more brands are understanding that, particularly Gen Z and younger millennials and then moving into Gen Alpha, gender is on a spectrum. And it’s a fluid thing. And so, you know, you see lots of expressions. I mean, we just saw something the other night on the Grammys, you know, Harry Styles is somebody that really kind of points to that direction. And there’s several others, Jaden Smith does it as well. But they’re not gender conforming, they don’t tie themselves to, you know, boys wear blue, and girls wear pink. And so those considerations have to be taken into account when you’re designing for a retail space. Because everyone has to be invited to the space and have a sense of belonging and be represented in that space. For me, I really feel like this whole idea of being conscious of everything in this ecosystem of being sustainable and aware and conscious. It’s about considering all of those things. And I think that, you know, every one is a unique individual. And shopping in and of itself is a self expression. It’s a way to articulate how you want to show up in the spaces that you live and thrive. And so I think that those considerations are extremely important.

Sarah Steimer 08:41
As soon as you mentioned, especially body inclusivity, he first thing I thought of, you know, you’ve mentioned, fitting rooms and making sure that fitting rooms are comfortable spaces for everyone. You know, I thought of the number of times I’ve probably been to grocery stores and you can barely get two carts to go down a single aisle. And if somebody has special needs to maybe need, like a little bit more space for a scooter, things like that, and making sure that it’s inclusive space where it doesn’t feel like oh, I can only go down the dairy aisle versus trying to get through some of those more slender aisles where it’s hard to get past people.

Sheri Blattel 09:17
I really appreciate you bringing that up. Because this idea of inclusivity and accessibility, it takes into consideration definitely those kinds of things that you talked about, abilities and capabilities. And that’s definitely something to consider. But I think what you see more and more and what we’re driving designed towards, least in our practice, is that consideration of space, and exactly what you’re talking about. I travel across the country, and I am an observer of space, you know, my kids are older now. But when they were younger, like mom, why are we in retail spaces and you’re always looking up, nobody else is looking up. And I’m like there’s stuff happening up there as well. Right? But it’s making a space that feels comfortable and that you can create trust and so there’s something called place-making theory and it’s about what your experience is in a space. And if you have a memorable moment, in anything that you do in any space, you will create a strong memory, that’s a favorable memory. But if you have an unpleasant experience, like you’re in a very tight grocery aisle, or you’re in a very cluttered retail space, where you can’t really determine between the hanging racks of clothes, that’s not going to be a good experience, therefore, you’re not going to have a great memory. And therefore, you’re not going to want to go back to that space, because that attachment to that place was not made, there’s actually something called the bump theory. If you’re standing in an aisle and your backside has to bump against somebody else in the aisle, then you’re too close to each other, and you got to move things apart. And as designers, we’re responsible for understanding those kinds of human interactions and the effects that they have. But that we also have a responsibility to create that kind of space so that there’s comfortable and inviting and trusting experiences in the space.

Sarah Steimer 10:55
That’s such a, I had such a visceral response to the bump theory.

Sheri Blattel 11:00
It really is, though, but it is the minute details, you know, I like to talk a lot about experience per square foot. And what that means is that every bit of the space in that experience matters. And those are the reasons why they matter. There’s sensory moments, and there’re moments that make you feel engaged, and welcome their moments that make you feel like there’s a sense of wellness in that space, because you’re cared about, there’s this aspect of you know, retail as being retail therapy, you know, coming out of the holiday season, and we’re kind of in a little bit of a different economic situation than we’ve been in the past few years coming out of a holiday. And people are paying attention to value and how they spend their money. But that shouldn’t affect the kind of space they experience. They’re, they’re shopping, or they’re buying, or they’re, you know, foraging, sometimes you’re just literally out for an adventure or a sense of discovery or retail therapy, you’re probably not going to go home with a bag of anything, because you’ve already checked it out, you’re going to the store or the physical space to feel it or touch it or look at it. And then you’re still going to go back home and buy it online. But it’s about being in that space, because there’s some sense of an experience that needs to happen there.

Sarah Steimer 12:09
I mean, I do I kick myself almost every time I wind up just buying things online, and then I try them on and then they don’t fit. And then I just wind up saying why didn’t I just go into a store and touch it and feel it and get a better idea of you know, even like what the vibe of the store is? Is it my vibe, that sort of thing. I could stay on this end of conscious consumption for a really long time. Because, you know, there are so many aspects of it. And there are a lot of places, I think that are doing it really well. And some places that probably have a ways to go, but and get ready for the clunkiest transition I’ve ever done. But well, I didn’t want to go.

Sheri Blattel 12:46
Well, and I did want to that was a great segue because it did want to mention a little bit about this try in-store and then buy online at home. You know, there’s a lot of people that when they do that, though, then there was it. It’s the return process and what is the return process look like? And then are you taking a box or a package to some actually their retail outlet or obviously, you know, Amazon has a very well established return policy. But there’s a package that arrived, you’re doing something with it, there’s a package that goes back out packages are bouncing everywhere. And so there’s a piece of conscious consumption that’s that’s about the receptacle or the thing or the box or whatever. And, you know, I think some of that is going to tie to some of the other things we’re going to talk about. But those are serious considerations when you talk about shipping products all across the country or all across the globe, and where they’re coming from and how they’re getting there and what they’re in. And don’t get me wrong, I have Amazon packages on my front door all the time. But I have a teeny tiny box of the product that comes in a box. It’s 10 times as big as it is and stuff with paper and plastic. And so there’s a real thought process that happens when that occurs for me because I’m like, Okay, wait a minute, how many other things could have gone in that box? Or couldn’t there been a smaller box? Or could there have been different packaging. And so this is sort of a bridge and a parallel over to talking about this whole supply chain and how things move and why they move and where they move do.

Sarah Steimer 14:10
I will say too, and speaking of returns and things like that, I don’t know if I should give a brand shout out. But I cannot tell you how much I’ve appreciated companies that use Happy Returns, if you haven’t heard of it, where it’s you can just you don’t have to print out a label. You don’t have to do anything. You just have a little QR code on your phone, you take your return to one of many drop off locations. I can walk down the street so I don’t have to get in a car and drive. I don’t have to print anything out myself. It’s like the best thing in the world.

Sheri Blattel 14:38
I have recently just had that experience and it is great. You know, and again, that’s another place where you know, at some point, we can talk about technology. But there’s that piece of technology, the thing the pandemic did for the QR code. It’s remarkable because that simple little gesture right there. Like you said, no label, no box, no package. It’s the item and it’s the QR code and I think it’s brilliant. So I appreciate you mentioning that because those are considerations, somebody took that into consideration. And they saw an opportunity to really help the supply chain in that way.

Sarah Steimer 15:10
Absolutely. And so, again, we could, we could keep talking about this forever. And I do want to mention, too, that we are going to have a second episode of you and I talking about technology. So we’ll put a little bit of a pin in that for the time being. But let’s, let’s go ahead and move on to our second topic, our second sort of retail trend here, which I don’t have quite as much experience in, you know, maybe understanding, but probably I’m involved somehow, I’m sure. But the concept of last-mile delivery, if you could give us a definition, Sherry.

Sheri Blattel 15:41
Okay. So automation has become a big part of retail. And you say, what does that mean? There is the buy online pick up in store or pickup curbside, and that is one aspect of last-mile delivery. And that really is an evolution of what traditionally, for a long time has been sort of this hub and spoke, there’s a warehouse, everything comes from the warehouse that goes all out to the places it needs to go. But as we’re starting to talk more and more about this immediacy of this society in the spaces that we live in now, and this ability for the products to literally go that last mile, whether they’re coming out of the back of a retail store, or they’re coming out of you know, a regional distribution center, or an automated center, it’s what happens in that last mile, who’s driving that last mile is there an automated robot is driving that last mile, what’s happening there, and it’s about the speed of that delivery. It’s about how that delivery occurs. But it is a big part of that supply chain. And I think that we saw in the pandemic, some really significant fragilities with our supply chain. And so that ability to move product in that last mile to the consumer, is really significant to all retailers, whether they’re grocery retailers, or product retailers, you can order something just about anything now. And you can get it in as quick as 20 minutes, outside of food, because food is a whole different thing. And you know, at some point in the future, we could talk about food experiences and ghost kitchens and delivery for food and then find any experiences in the intersection of that that could be a different time. But it really is what happens with that product in that last mile of it getting to the consumer. And how’s that happening.

Sarah Steimer 17:23
So let’s talk about the role that design plays then in this concept of last mile delivery.

Sheri Blattel 17:29
Yes, and so it’s coming and bringing things down to either a smaller scale or a larger scale. And so for instance, we have several retailers that we’re working for, and we’re actually enlarging their footprint in all of their neighborhood locations. And the reason we’re doing that is because that square footage is going to the back of house because they’re creating the order fulfillment in the back of that store, because it’s going to go within a you know, two-mile radius from that facility. And so it’s how we’re considering evolving and expanding space, what automation or what systems are going in that space? How do delivery trucks or delivery drivers or the different kinds of delivery partners, how do they access that particular part of the building where that function is happening? It’s then considerations for the site planning and how traffic is coming in and out of the site, separating that kind of traffic from just vehicular traffic, which is the consumer coming to shop in the physical space. And so it’s a lot of minute considerations like that of how things are moving. And that’s how products moving and how people are moving. And then what are the mechanisms that you know, sort of connects the two.

Sarah Steimer 18:41
Okay, so of course, my favorite part to better wrap my head around all of this is, if you could give us some examples, maybe something that you’ve worked on that you can kind of point to as maybe your favorite, whether you’ve worked on it or not. But your example of a design project that considered this last mile delivery?

Sheri Blattel 19:01
Well, we have a lot of clients that we’re not able to talk about their work. But I think that what I would do is I would point to types of clients. And they are the ones that are putting together food orders in grocery, I think grocery does a really great space of it. But it’s when grocery is allocating the appropriate back-of-house space to do that, because what’s happening in this space of online ordering and then delivery is that while the everyday shopper is pushing their cart, like we talked about before, aisles are even more congested now because they have a shopper, I forget what they call them now, but as the shopper who’s fulfilling that online order, and they’ve got their cart and they’re shopping for five different orders. And they’re parked in the middle of the aisle as well. And so it’s making space for those things to happen. And so grocers are really starting to figure that out, but they’re also starting to apply automation, which is improving what’s happening in those operations. There are also grocers out there now using robotics that are going out and doing that picking from the shelves, or the picking from the back of the house, you know, maybe we have commodity products in the back of the house that you pull for orders and then the perishables, you go out and you have some robotics fulfilling that, and you’re trying to streamline how the space is used. So think that that grocery’s kind of starting to help figure it out in some of those ways.

Sarah Steimer 20:22
I always love, we’ll definitely have to talk again sometime about grocery stores, because I think I’m one of the few people who actually really, really loves going to a grocery store. Now, I don’t know how much I love robots being in my same space while I’m at the grocery store, but TBD on that. Anyhow, Sheri, we covered so much here. So I’m going to go ahead and put a pause on this conversation for now. But we still have a lot that we’re going to cover. So I’m going to thank you for your time at this point. And I’m going to promote, promote, promote our next conversation, which is going to talk about, which is really something we already began talking about today, is the role of technology within this space and the internet and all that good stuff. Because we are we have for years and years now really moved into online shopping as one of the main places that people do a lot of their shopping, we just talked about, you know, our Amazon deliveries that are piled up and everything. I’ve got an Amazon box right behind me right now, I’ll admit, but yeah, well, we’ll continue this conversation. So for now, Sheri, anything else that you wanted to add about the two concepts that we discussed today?

Sheri Blattel 21:29
One thing that we didn’t touch up on, and it’s really, again, generationally driven, this idea of the circular economy of the thrift and secondhand industry, that’s huge. And so what it’s about is it’s not investing in buying a new product, that there had to be energy put towards, there had to be material procured, it’s going out. And it’s reusing something that already had a life and giving it a second life. There’s also retailers, I’ll use Levi’s as a brand and they have a buy better wear longer campaign, they make really good products, a lot of us own a pair of Levi’s that we’ve had for years and years years, because they’re made really well. There’s this history to the brand. And that’s what they originally were made for was for cowboys, so they would last but they really care about, you know, not so much about profit, but they’re making a product that’s going to last longer. And so there’s a whole investment in the second hand economy where we’re reusing products to give them a second life or even a third life.

Sarah Steimer 22:25
I mean, what’s always kind of interesting to me about the Levi’s secondhand economy, if you want to call it that is that Levi’s themselves are actually reselling used Levi’s, whereas normally you only get it elsewhere. So that’s Oh, God, I truly I can talk about retail all day. But for now, Sheri, thank you so much for taking some time with us today. I really appreciate it.

Sheri Blattel 22:47
Thank you so much, Sarah. It was so much fun.

Producer 22:55
Music for Good, Thoughtful hosts was written, produced and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold and a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening.

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