Good, Thoughtful Hosts #204: Grocery Design with Kara Eberle-Lott

One of our great shared experiences in life is hitting the grocery store — so we likely don’t think much of it. But designers employ both hard and soft data to shape our experience in the stores. Today we talk with Kara Eberle-Lott about how a well-designed store can serve as an important touchpoint that’s responsive to its neighbors’ needs.

About Our Guest
Kara Eberle-Lott is an associate principal, architect, and project manager working from Cushing Terrell’s Seattle office. Her diverse portfolio features numerous retail and grocery clients, for whom she develops branded design that fully realizes clients’ unique visions. She maintains a commitment to the human-centric nature of design (and business and life); when she isn’t completing client work, she trains and mentors younger designers, participates in Cushing Terrell’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Steering Committee, and manages hiring for the Seattle team. Born and raised in Coeur d’Alene, ID, Kara lives with her husband, baby girl, and rescue cats, and derives great inspiration from the Puget Sound area.

Episode #204 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer 00:00
So I’m going to start this episode with an apology. During the course of this recording, you’re going to hear me say way too many times just how much I love grocery stores. I’m Sarah Steimer. And on this episode of Good, Thoughtful Hosts, I’m going to geek out a little bit, but it’s for good reason. Because when you really like something and you get to learn about how that thing ticks, and what we can expect to see in the future, that’s so cool. So today we’ll talk about how community data can help design a store that’s a great fit for the town that it serves. What some of the upcoming challenges are in terms of sustainability and electrification, and how a well designed store can really help to support those who use it.

Producer 01:17
Today’s special guests.

Kara Eberle-Lott 01:19
My name is Kara Eberle-Lott and I’m an associate principal with Cushing Terrell and an architect. And one of my areas of focus is grocery design. Currently, I’m working with multiple grocery stores that are local to the Pacific Northwest. And I help them achieve design solutions that connect to the specific communities that they’re in.

Sarah Steimer 01:38
Fantastic. So I love talking about grocery stores, I love going to grocery stores, I’m so sad that I have no time this week and actually need to Instacart today. But this is a topic I really enjoy. And getting a little bit of a behind the scenes peek at that sort of design is really exciting to me. So when you and I had spoken previously, we talked about the use of data and grocery design. So I wanted to kind of leap off there. How are you using data in grocery design? How does that come into play.

Kara Eberle-Lott 02:09
And this is what’s really interesting is that, you know, if you talk to the big grocers, they’re using data in a different way than a local community grocer would use data, the big grocers are using your rewards programs, basically to figure out exactly what you’re buying. And then they’re selling your data to you know, other outside parties that are then using it to target you in some way. And the grocers I worked for, they’re looking at it at a more holistic way, they’re reaching out to people in the community, to understand how their grocery store can serve the community. They do this through customer surveys, which are voluntary, events within the store that are either cooking events, wine, tasting events, etc, to just get to know the people in the community. Or they’re doing it by responding directly to feedback that they’re receiving from shoppers, when they’re actually shopping. The feedback that’s derived from these interactions is then channeled back into the store design. And then merchandising strategies within the markets. Sure they do collect data as well as what sells, what doesn’t sell within the stores and make shifts that way. But really, it’s more about community outreach and connecting to their community.

Sarah Steimer 03:17
This is, you know, this really kind of plays a little bit differently from one of the previous episodes we had on the show about some of that use of customer data to really hyper personalize the experience for all individual customers. Whereas with this, it’s a little bit more about it’s sort of that soft data it sounds like and you know, it’s not quite as transactional, perhaps, you know, can you talk about that holistic view of the data and how it’s maybe being used in a grander sense, versus that really hyper individualized sense?

Kara Eberle-Lott 03:53
Yeah, and I think we look at it as there are different groups of shoppers, right? We’re not trying to dive into each individual person, and specifically curating everything to the individual. We’re making sure that we’re approaching groups of shoppers, and that their shopping experience responds to that accordingly. And I think to be honest, that’s a little more comfortable for a person like me that doesn’t want someone diving into who I am as a very individual person and targeting me, it’s more saying, Okay, let’s make sure we’re accommodating the people that are commuting, let’s make sure we’re accommodating the people that are new to the community and don’t know how to approach a store. Let’s make sure we’re accommodating the people that are really wanting to explore every single ingredient that’s in their product. And looking at it more in that scale, rather than getting into the minutiae of each individual person.

Sarah Steimer 04:44
I think you and I are probably pretty similar in that sense. I don’t necessarily want it sort of like when I get targeted with ads on Instagram, for example, that’s always feels slightly trickier to me than just like, Oh, I’m so glad that this need is being met. As far as you know, when I go out and interact with the world, I know you have a great recent example of really how you worked on a grocer that is more local, and what sort of data you use there. I want you to definitely jump into that, because this is a really fascinating case study to me.

Kara Eberle-Lott 05:18
Yeah, so I can speak to the Uwajimaya flagship renovation that we worked on. And this was such a unique project. It was my first project working with Uwajimaya, and I’ll explain a little bit about who they are. They’ve been around for over 90 years in the Seattle area. Their heritage is Japanese American, but they are known as one of the purveyors of Pan-Asian food in the Seattle market. The store is family owned, their chain of stores is family owned. And at the time that I was brought in to work with them, they were undergoing a brand refresh, because the company had undergone a change in leadership and the younger generation of Moriguchi family was coming in to look at what is the Uwajimaya of the future? And who are we trying to reach as a customer? And what does that look like? And so really, as part of the brand refresh, and also the story model, we were digging into, who are the customers? How do we reach them? How do we continue to grow that customer base and make sure that Uwajimaya is relevant for the next 90 years, they hired in partnership with Cushing Terrell a cultural brand anthropologist that had experience working in the retail field, and this anthropologist spent time working in the store. And she surveyed multiple customers through this work that she discovered that there were two major customer types, there was the loyalist, and there was explorer. Things that were important to the loyal shopper were not important to the explorer. And so it was this interesting dichotomy of how do we approach these two types of shoppers, and make sure that the store is reaching everyone it needs to. So the loyalists, they were familiar with the products that were in the store, their end goal was to maintain the type of products, the type of quality that they were used to. And the price point they were used to, they really didn’t want things to change. The explorer, on the other hand, walked into the old store and was confused, they wanted guidance, they wanted to understand how to take their baby steps into Pan-Asian cooking. So that was a really fun design challenge to approach. And we jumped in from there. But that research was really what helped us figure out where do we even start with this design question.

Sarah Steimer 07:27
So kind of jumping in, I want to take these two different customer types separately here and how you interwove the findings from the anthropologist into some of the design choices. So starting with the loyalists, you know, they didn’t really want anything to change you mentioned. So how did you carefully approach that from a design perspective?

Kara Eberle-Lott 07:51
What we looked at was, okay, if they don’t want things to change, and there, we knew they were worried about cost, we needed to make sure that whatever we did in that store did not, A, remove products that were significantly important, and, B, we needed to make sure that we didn’t make it look too expensive. So we kept materiality very simple. We didn’t go over the top with expensive things throughout the store so that they still had that feeling of value. But we also made sure that okay, we keep all of the important product types, yes, we organize them more efficiently. Yes, we leaned into Japanese design, which is very clean, organized, clear intent. But we made sure at the same time that we were not alienating that loyalist shopper that was used to a little more of a chaotic shopping experience and products that were not neatly organized, let’s say.

Sarah Steimer 08:48
Sure. So then I imagine that was one of the first things though you had to be careful with as far as the explorer goes, because that sense of chaos, you’re not going to necessarily want that if you are curious about being able to step into a new space and new cuisine in this particular case, new ingredients. So how did you how did you bear that in mind? For those new customers, that expanding customer base?

Kara Eberle-Lott 09:13
To be 100% honest, this was the tougher one for us. It was, okay, how do we pull in new customers? We were definitely careful to not alienate the loyal customers. But how do we pull in the new and with this, we found there were four different distinct ways that we approached it. The first was introducing a demo station and within the store this might seem pretty rudimentary, but they didn’t have one. And so being able to demo foods was allowing that explore shopper to try something new every time they came in and be open to new food flavors and types of things. We also really strategically located the demo station near beverage, tea, snacks and housewares. These are all products that can be purchased individually and they don’t have to be part of a meal, so that allows an explorer shopper to kind of try things one by one, and not have to commit to something that’s a big purchase to be able to try new things. And that really has seemed very successful. We call that kind of the retail street within the store. We also really improved sightlines through the store and organization as I touched on earlier. So you can see if you, when you walk into produce, you can quickly see back to seafood, you can see back to meat, so that people would be comfortable navigating throughout the entire store in their shopping sequence. The other thing that was different, we organized offerings into defined sections that also had additional layers of information. So for instance, refrigerated noodles were next to dry noodles, and then there was additional information on the shelves actually telling them, why would you choose this noodle over this other noodle for a certain type of cooking. In a store like this, you have 24 feet of noodles, I mean, it’s the significant item in the store. So it was very important to do that. Another way we went about it was if you were going to buy a conventional loaf of wheat bread, next to it, there was this really unique and wonderful Japanese milk bread that you could try. And it really invited you to try new things because it was next to the conventional item that you were there to buy as well. The last thing that was really successful was we designed the store to allow for end caps on the ends of the aisle, that would have a full meal solution with all of the ingredients in the recipes for the meal in one spot. And that was a way to invite customers to say quick and easy you come in, here’s everything you need to make this meal. It doesn’t have to be scary. So those were how we approached that.

Sarah Steimer 11:39
I really, I mean, first of all, I love the idea of having those one item purchases in the sense of you know, it’s like your snack item or your snack aisle rather where you know, you don’t necessarily need to run around the store and find everything. But then also that last point where you have those end caps, it makes me think of Thanksgiving time when we go into the grocery store and you have everything you need for like pumpkin pie on one of the endcaps instead of having to run around the store to find all those individual ingredients. I mean, it really is such a smart way to think and once again, I’d never really thought of it that way before I was just like, oh, well, Thanksgiving, sensible end cap, I suppose. So I love all of these examples that you gave us. What what were sort of some of the results of all these changes? Have they seen that explorer fan base grow a little bit have they, you know, been able to really keep those loyalists customers? What have the results been?

Kara Eberle-Lott 12:32
Yeah, they actually saw an upswing in sales that were even greater than they expected. I don’t know if they’ve done the research on the back end to fully see, is it all new shoppers or you know, what’s the mix. But if your numbers are going up, and you haven’t lost customers, usually it’s going to be the new shoppers that you’re engaging. We heard incredibly positive feedback from the greater community that it had refreshed the market and it was there to stay. It’s at the heart of the International District. So it was just amazing feedback to hear. And I will say they must be feeling pretty successful about it because we’re rolling out similar solutions at their other stores right now. So I haven’t been privy to all the metrics on the back end, but I’m guessing it was highly successful.

Sarah Steimer 13:19
Well, I mean, next time I’m in Seattle, I know where I’m going to be going because I love the sounds of this market for sure. So I wanted to you know, of course, you the use of this sort of data, the use of this sort of anthropological look at the data. That’s really, really fascinating. I wanted to get an idea from you, you know, is this sort of use of I keep calling it soft data. Would that be correct? In my in my phrasing that properly?

Kara Eberle-Lott 13:45
Yeah, I think so. I mean, it’s definitely not hard data, because it’s hitting a larger group of people.

Sarah Steimer 13:52
Right, right. Well, so are you seeing that as a bit of a trend right now? Because we’ve definitely seen more of the hard data trending up, certainly, you know, that personalized individual data digging, I suppose. But are you seeing a trend in that direction at all?

Kara Eberle-Lott 14:07
I’m seeing it trend with the groups that I’m working with. And I think that’s because they’re very invested in working within their local communities and understanding from a local community perspective what their shoppers need, that’s responding to them in a different way than just understanding what they purchase. It’s what are their aspirations, what are their desires for how their local grocery store can meet their needs in a lot of different ways with some of the groceries I’m working with. That means it’s a place to sit down and have a cup of coffee and a croissant with a friend in the morning, or go and have a casual dinner with families because they’re seeing that the only place that you can truly go with a bunch of unruly kids is a brewery and get a bite to eat without people glaring at you in restaurants. So how do we create inclusive environments for families is one of the challenges. I’m working with a grocer to figure out right now. So Oh, yes, the trend is there. And with these local grocers, I don’t know if it’s there with the more high level national ones.

Sarah Steimer 15:08
Got it. So speaking of trends, I wanted to get a feel from you as well, you know, are there maybe, let’s say about three trends we’ll say, that you you’re seeing in terms of grocery design right now, and I’m sure the obvious one with everything at the moment is sustainability. So we could start there.

Kara Eberle-Lott 15:26
Sustainability is a big one, and especially in you know, your more progressive cities, you need to respond to that to make sure that your customer experience is meeting what is important to your customers in the sense of, are you preserving water? Are you leaning into solar and energy conservation? I will say, that’s a challenge for grocery stores, and it’s one we’re proactively working on. And I’ll give an example of why it’s a challenge. So in Seattle, our energy codes are super progressive, and they are requiring electrification of buildings. And in the grocery world, that’s challenging because a grocery store is an energy hog. And so in the past, natural gas was considered the most efficient solution for heating and cooling. Well, now they’re saying, Okay, you got to electrify the heating and cooling. And what that’s doing is, it’s requiring us to upsize our actual electrical service in the store, which is an incredibly costly, time-consuming process. And so I think we’re gonna start having to look into how do we use photovoltaic arrays and different things to actually make this work? Because A, the grid’s not going to support it, but B, it’s just cost-prohibitive. So that’s a trend that’s happening. And I’d say, in the entire west coast and any of the more progressive cities across the country is how do you do this economically? Another thing that we’re seeing is that with the rise of inflation, there’s a huge focus on value and not being perceived as too expensive. So all customers are out there, they want a wonderful shopping experience, they want to feel like they’re in a clean, well lit, engaging environment, but they don’t want it to feel expensive, because this is groceries and everyone needs them to survive and eat and move forward. And so it’s something we’re actually really struggling with a little bit because a lot of the groceries I work with, it’s a higher end experience. But with the continued cost of inflation, and this thought process of oh my gosh, my grocery bill is $200, $300 when I go, we’re trying to find that sweet spot in design of of how do we make it feel like a lovely experience, but not too expensive? Oh, gosh. And the third one? I think it’s continuing to lean into the the trend of groceraunts and I touched on this briefly with the, Where do you take your family with your rowdy kids to go dinner? But that also leans into the cost of eating out? So is there a way to have a really lovely meal in a grocery store that maybe is not quite as expensive as going to a restaurant? And you can sit down and have your, you know, your local brew as well. And what does that experience look like? How does it tie to the market? So I’m working on that with a couple of clients right now too. And it’s a really fun design problem.

Sarah Steimer 18:18
So a little bit beyond the, let’s say Costco hotdog, I suppose. I want to jump back though, to the idea of you know, wanting to have that clean store, that clean look, you know, have it be engaging, but not make things look too pricey. And it’s funny because I as soon as you said that, you know, I’ll use national chains as an example. But when I think about Whole Foods, everyone always of course used to joke that it was whole wallet. Because you do you walk in and everything does feel very sharp and clean and fancy and this and that and whatever. But then you have the opposite experience at a place like Aldi’s perhaps where half of — not half of the items, but most of the items are in the box that they came in, the shipping box that they came in, and it’s obviously a much different experience. And you know, you’re not going to spend nearly as much as you would at Whole Foods. Do you think that with the design that you did for the grocery store in Seattle with those really clean lines that were very reminiscent of Japanese design, do you think maybe some stores will start leaning toward that more simplistic design so that it doesn’t lean too heavily in an Aldi’s or a Whole Foods direction?

Kara Eberle-Lott 18:23
I think stores are going to move more towards, yes with the simplistic. I don’t know if they’ll go quite as clean. I think more and more stores will lean into making the product the star and that that doesn’t mean that there’s going to be as much decor on the wall or tile here and there etc. It’s going to be how do we make the product the absolute star and have the background be a supporting character to that because people are there to buy the food, they’re not there necessarily for all of the supporting cast in the background. So still needs to be clean, still needs to support it still needs to create a lovely environment. But it doesn’t need to be loud.

Sarah Steimer 20:15
That makes sense. It does. Yeah. I wanted to find out from you though, too. And maybe it was a project that you have worked on? Maybe it’s not. But is there an example of a grocer that you think they are really just hitting the nail on the head as far as design goes, but also, as you know, when I say design, I mean, of course, what the shopper is experiencing, but also maybe as far as being smart about electrification, or being smart about energy use, things like that.

Kara Eberle-Lott 20:45
I will say, I don’t really want to name names, to be honest, because I feel like all of the groups I’m working with right now are doing different things really, really successfully. In the past, I will say, you know, Whole Foods was very progressive on the front of making sure their stores are sustainable, and where they need to be. I’m not privy to what they’re doing today. But they did really pave the way for everyone to look at that. More than anything, I think energy codes, and a lot of our cities and states are driving everyone to look at this. And then there are certain grocers that do have sustainability departments, I will draw attention to Town and Country Markets, they have a whole sustainability division that looks at their waste streams, looks at their energy usage. And they’re making improvements every day. And I really do applaud them on that, because it’s highly important that we pay attention to it, especially with these, these big buildings that hog a lot of energy.

Sarah Steimer 21:47
Right, right. And I just thought of this, too, you know, when we talk about energy use, I also think about cars, and parking lots and things like that. And there’s something that I did want to bring up because I thought this was such a fun fact, when you when you answered this question for me off camera, we’ll call it: what is the deal with Trader Joe’s parking lots? Because I thought this was fascinating, if you could explain the drama is the Trader Joe’s parking lot.

Kara Eberle-Lott 22:17
So my understanding with Trader Joe’s is that their offering is so in demand because it is at a price point., it’s a type of product that’s not common in other locations, that they don’t have to worry so much about all of the constraints of a parking lot and making things so convenient that most of the other groceries do. If you go to a Fred Meijer or a Safeway, they’re both going to have a lot of the same product. So they’re really competing for the convenience factor and getting that customer there because they’ve got something that the other one doesn’t in some convenient way. Whereas Trader Joe’s, it’s the opposite. They have a product that is different from everybody else. So they’re not having to compete as much in the convenience space, which is why it’s pure chaos. If you ever tried to go on a weekend or weekday sometimes at Trader Joe’s.

Sarah Steimer 23:10
Yeah, I’ve done both, I can’t figure out the best way to go and half the time, I’m just biking there. So it’s still, it’s still kind of a crazy situation. Well, thank you so much, Kara, for spending a little bit of time with us today, I can’t emphasize enough how interesting this topic is. It’s one of those things where to be able to kind of distill all of these little nuggets down into a greater understanding of a totally everyday, what you would think of as an average experience. And to kind of explain all of that a little bit better. I love, you know, one of one of the last things I did want to ask you and then of course open it up to you if there’s anything else you wanted to add about grocery design. You know, I wanted to know what you feel is the impact on the community of a really well designed grocery store.

Kara Eberle-Lott 24:00
That’s a really great question. I will speak to a particular store that I worked on, and this was a Town and Country Market. It’s their store on Bainbridge Island in the downtown Winslow area. That store is truly considered the heart of the community. If there’s ever a power outage, if there’s ever a big storm or anything, the community gathers there. They know it’s a safe zone and they know it’s a place that’s going to support them. And that is what a well designed store — a store that is integrated into the community can be I’ll also say because these particular stores that I work with, they source products locally when COVID-19 happened, and it’s still happening, but we had all of the product shortages that you couldn’t get chicken, you couldn’t get certain things at most of your standard stores. You could still get them at Town and Country Markets, Metropolitan Markets, Uwajimaya. You could because they work with local resources to get that food in the market. And that also creates that sense of community that I don’t think is happening everywhere else.

Sarah Steimer 25:08
I love all this. Like I feel like we could do like an eight part series just for like my benefit. Well, again, Kara, thank you so much. Is there anything else that you wanted to mention before we sign off for this episode?

Kara Eberle-Lott 25:20
I don’t think so. But thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed my time.

Sarah Steimer 25:24
Right. Thank you.

Producer 25:32
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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