(Nov. 19) Wouldn’t you love to sit in a time machine hovering above the retail landscape scanning the present and future store horizons simultaneously for clues on future designs?

Though you can’t go there, you can head toward the future on the wings of the trends that have already taken off in that direction.

For now, assume that consumers will continue to focus on health and convenience while you focus on cost and labor savings. Put those needs together and you can catch a glimpse into the next decade.

Discover what experts believe to be the store of the future.

DEPARTMENT GROWING

The produce department will grow larger, but may not always be the first department shoppers see when they enter the store.

The trend toward produce first is giving way to deli, bakery and meals to go. “Produce has taken a back seat,” says Dinesh Doshi, chief executive officer and creative director with design company Architectonics International Inc., Farmingdale, N.Y.

He estimates that half of the stores he helps design are placing produce behind the other perishable departments. “They are trying to grapple with meals to go. (Stores) are going through a transition,” he says. He sees the larger chains leading the industry in that direction because profit margins are higher in prepared foods, deli and bakery.

Yet he notes that many independents and smaller chains still rely on the fresh, vibrant look and feel of produce to set the store image by placing it first in the store.

Meanwhile, space allocation for produce will continue to grow. Doshi credits increased ethnicity and consumer interest in organics for the department expansion. Increased variety, therefore more product and space, is necessary to meet these consumers’ needs.

INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

Technology will change the way departments convey information.

“There’s a lot of buzz about electronic signs for … pricing,” says Bethel Blakesley, vice president of Washington Poster Sign Systems, Centralia, Wash.

The company is looking into digital price signs, although she admits that the technology isn’t there yet. “I don’t think stores will go for it unless it looks nice, especially in upscale gourmet grocery stores,” she says.

The main point for it will be labor savings. “They could type in prices from the manager’s office and have it done and over with rather than manual changing numbers and names,” she says.

In the future, fixtures could have price readers and electronic price display windows. Employees could punch the product code on a touch pad and the price would come up rather than having to print a sign, says Craig Nickell, president of fixture supplier The Marco Co., Fort Worth, Texas.

There’s also been talk of developing computer touch screens to fit on the front of fixtures for customers to access information like how product was shipped, packed, where it was grown and what chemicals were used on it, he says.

Lee Crenshaw, director of perishables procurement for the seven Central Market stores owned by H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio, Texas, isn’t sure customers want that much information However he finds they are very comfortable with electronic key pads in the produce department.

To speed the checkout process, 12 electronic scales in each department allow shoppers to weigh their produce, key in the Price Look-Up number and print a price tag to place on their produce bags.

HEALTH INTEGRATION

Whole health items will be integrated throughout the store.

Stores still are grappling with the best placement and treatment of natural and organic foods.

When the trend started, Architectonics’ Doshi helped retailers create separate departments for the category. But now he thinks differently. When you create a separate department for organics and natural foods, you ask customers to make a decision to go to that type of food, he says.

Why segregate customers? If it’s integrated, the customer who’s not into it can get exposed to it. It’s a better way to go,” he says.

Gary Lind with Lind Designs, College Point, N.Y., sees integration as one of three ways retailers are working with natural foods. Some are creating separate departments while others create a separate store adjacent to the main store, he says.

If you choose to integrate organics with conventional produce, make sure you conform to the new organic regulations, which require that you avoid commingling of the two categories.

Check with your fixture company for comingling solutions.

GAS PUMPS, GROCERIES

Gas stations and convenience stores will appear on the premises of more grocery stores.

If it’s convenience shoppers’ want, then that’s what they get. It’s the rage in Texas. Such retail players as Albertson’s, Tom Thumb, Kroger, Minyard’s, United, Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club, Brookshire Bros. and Brookshire’s offer gasoline with a c-store out front.

Customer input is leading Fresh Brands Distributing Inc., Sheboygan, Wis., to open a gas station/convenience store in front of one of its 100 Piggly Wiggly/Dick’s Supermarkets the beginning of the year and two more are planned to open mid-year, says vice chairman and chief marketing officer Mike Houser. The gas stations will be called Pig Stop Gas.

The technology will be tied to the grocery store and will offer price reductions to its loyal shoppers. The chain plans to work with suppliers. For example, “(Shoppers) might buy Fresh Express salad, and the price of gas could go down a dime a gallon,” Houser says.

FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION

Labor savings, rather than aesthetics, will dictate fixture design.

The industry is going toward one-touch tables, says Dick Warden, sales manager for fixture company Alco Designs, Gardena, Calif. Typically that means a metal fixture with a slanted upright top on which you can stack boxes or returnable plastic containers. “Product comes in and goes right to the table. That’s the direction most of the industry is moving to,” he says.

“It goes against everything we as a company have worked for,” he adds. Alco designs risers, trays, extenders and organizers for dry tables to give produce a bulky appearance with less product.

Rather than incorporate delicate subtleties, the fixtures of the future will have steel frames and cleanable plastic tops. They will be long lasting, easy to build and more economical than wooden units, he says.

COLOR CODED

Economics and function will dictate colors and materials used in overall design.

Materials and colors are a great way to differentiate organics, says Nickell with The Marco Co.

The company recently developed a new European slant table suitable for organics. Rather than a standard wood front, it features a granite front to help make the connection between earth and organics, he says.

You’ll see more use of yellow to signify organics. “In talking with organic producers, yellow seems to be the color they think best identifies organic,” Nickell says.

For overall department color, no color is best, retailers say. Let the product give the color. That means neutral earth tones in greens and beige for Fresh Brands, Houser says. “The focus should be on the product, not the ceiling or walls,” he says.

The goal is not to see fixtures at all for the 100 stores in the Langley, British Columbia,-based Overwaitea Food Group, says Greg Harris, supervisor of planning.

Rather than flat tables, the stores use angled tables to create a waterfall look. Then floor merchandising units filled with product make up the space from the floor to the table. “When you walk in, all you see is produce and not much in the way of fixture,” he says.

HEB Central Market uses wooden fixtures vs. stainless steel because wood blends in and disappears, Crenshaw says. Steel stands out too much.

The chain does use color in its signs to signify product type. Off-white paper price signs signify conventionally grown produce. Bright yellow signs indicate organics. Light blue signs go with Texas-grown produce and purple signs announce sale items, he says.

PACKAGING FOR CONVENIENCE

Convenience will lead to more packaging and multideck cases.

Seven years ago you wouldn’t have found a multideck case in a produce department. Now you need a five-deck case 30 feet long for packaged items, says Bill Price, director of produce for Associated Food Stores Inc., Salt Lake City, which serves more than 400 stores.

He says that multideck cases make up one-third of refrigerated space in produce. He expects that to increase to 50 percent soon. “It will change the look of the department,” he says.

Consumer convenience and food safety will lead the industry toward more packaged produce, he says. That will lead to more ready-to-eat items available in produce.

SHOPPING EASE

A convenience mentality will replace set traffic patterns.

Stores thought they were smart before when they sent customers to the back for milk so they would encounter multiple temptations before they got there.

“We don’t think that way any more,” says Fresh Brands’ Houser. “There’s no set shopping pattern.” Instead, the stores have two goals: ease of shopping and a strong perishable focus.

The line of checkout lanes is divided in the center with a Cuisine Express merchandising unit with prepared food, salads, rotisserie chicken and bread, he says.

Produce, deli and prepared foods departments are frequently combined for a convenience, fresh-market approach, says Lind of Lind Designs.

He helps stores create a food village look with trees constructed around columns, ceramic tile floors, benches and street lamps. “It almost looks like a park, like you’re walking through a food village,” he says.

FLEXIBILITY

Flexible layouts will grow in importance.

Not only do flexible fixtures and décor give the ability to change with the seasons, they cut down on construction costs, Lind says. “We’re trying to do less permanent construction,” he says.

That means dropped ceilings with “floating” lights. It’s a designer’s dream. It creates opportunities for graphics and suspended modules, he says.

Mobile merchandising units also will factor heavily into the store of the future. Fixture manufacturers have come a long way in the past 18 months with refrigerated mobile units, says Fresh Brands’ Houser.

Flexibility within displays also will be more important as you face co-mingling issues with organics and conventional produce and as you need to display smaller amounts of ethnic items, says Nickell with The Marco Co.

Trays, dividers, pans, crates and bowls will be standard space-solving and product separation tools, he says.