Building A Grocery Store

by Katie Lee

What makes grocery store construction different? A lot, actually.

By Tim Jackson, Todd Scharbert and Scott Leadbetter

What makes building a grocery store different from other kinds of construction? A lot, actually, but here’s the more important question: How badly will it hurt your bottom line to hire someone who doesn’t understand grocery store construction? The question isn’t whether the wrong contractor will give you headaches, put you behind schedule, or make you wrangle with budget-busting change orders. The question is when.

Grocery store construction requires a skill set that not every builder possesses. When a GC unfamiliar with or unprepared for the rigors of grocery store construction is hired for a project, it can be an extremely time-consuming and challenging endeavor to resolve the resulting issues. No one wants that role.

scharbertDon’t assume that a contractor’s bonding capacity, insurance limits or company brochure tell the whole story. Here is what you should look for when hiring the construction manager for your next grocery store project:

The Corporate Mindset

A lot of retail builders look good on paper. With dozens of similar-looking retail facilities to their credit, they seem like they would be up to the challenge of building a grocery store. How different could their experience building similar types of facilities be? It could be vastly different, as it turns out. Electronics stores, apparel retailers, or even strip centers aren’t just different building types. They’re bid, brokered, and managed with an entirely different mindset.

Many contractors in the retail market sector are used to unstructured, informal deals with their local clients, and they are used to managing projects on the fly. When contractors like this are presented with the rigorous documentation standards that grocery store clients demand, a lot of them just can’t adjust.

Be sure to find out whether your contractor has experience working with national clients. Ask whether they are used to maintaining rigorous, detailed reports, or posting daily logs using proprietary project management software that is similar to yours.

The construction industry is embracing technology faster than ever before, but it’s still behind the times in some ways. Working with a contractor who understands the value of accurate, thorough, searchable project information will cause you less trouble than working with one who knows the building type but doesn’t ‘get it’ when it comes to standardized documentation.

leadbetterMaintenance of Nonstop Operations

Many grocery stores operate 24 hours per day, and none of them can let construction negatively impact sales volume, ever. Grocery shopping is very habitual. Consumers want predictability and ease — to find everything where they expect it to be, without any fuss from the moment they enter the parking lot until they get home with their purchases. If customers’ habits are disrupted, they’ll shop elsewhere, and it’s very hard to win back people who feel disenfranchised.

Wayfinding is so important. Signage needs to indicate the building’s temporary entrances. Maps can be printed and handed out, showing customers where departments have been relocated. If stores can assign staff to help customers navigate the store, that is immensely helpful — and the on-site construction team should share daily updates with them at the start of each shift. Done correctly, above-and-beyond service, provided by the contractor and store staff working hand in hand, can earn customer loyalty.

A Command of the Latest and Greatest

Does it feel like the speed of the grocery store renovation cycle is gaining momentum? You’re not imagining things. It’s a necessary part of keeping up with customer demands and marketplace competition. Instead of facelift projects coming along every 7 to 10 years, they’re happening as often as every 4 years.

And grocery stores are no longer cookie-cutter identical. Customization is key. One neighborhood may have a higher demand for produce, and another may need to carry more international food selections. Some locations have vast prepared foods departments while others get by with traditional deli counters. Local consumer trends have a direct impact on store design decisions, even to the point of changing layouts mid-construction. It is an important skill to anticipate a grocers’ needs and be nimble enough to accommodate those changes — all while minimizing disruption to the schedule.

It can also impact phasing priorities. People count on food being in the store and ready for them when they need it. When people are inconvenienced, they won’t give their “usual” store a second chance. That’s how competitive it is in many marketplaces today.

Work with a contractor who has a proven track record of complex construction scheduling and phasing. Furthermore, choose a contractor who can be flexible and responsive to operations’ ever-changing needs. This is the key to making the building process run smoothly, even in the face of unforeseen challenges. A contractor who can provide preconstruction services transparently (working through budgets and schedules with in an “open book” format) can be an immense resource to grocery store clients, too.

Equipment Expertise

If your contractor isn’t used to coordinating with national vendors or purchasing from client-prequalified vendors, take heed. The same goes for contractors not accustomed to temporary utility relocations. Temporary coolers need power. Ovens need gas lines and ventilation. Setting up swing areas takes some forethought. Relocation logistics have to be accounted for in the project schedule.

Work Ethic & Ingenuity

The lack of trade professionals is an eminent crisis for our industry. It’s getting harder and harder to find reliable, quality trade workers. The economy of the last decade has caused a mass exodus from the field. It makes subcontractor prequalification more important than ever before.

It used to be that hiring a local builder with established subcontractor relationships was a sure way to get the best trades on your project. Today, however, having a strong process in place is more important than the so-called home-team advantage. Sure, there are some areas of the country that are more provincial than others, but it isn’t as prevalent as it used to be. Subcontractors want to work with construction managers they can trust — who will treat them fairly, manage them ethically, and pay them promptly.

The process starts with the paperwork. AIA A305 forms, recent financial statements, and EMR and DART statistics narrow the field of some poor performers. Reading the company’s approach to on-site safety and quality assurance is enlightening, as well.

The key for contractor success is to be diligent about who is allowed on the job site. Subcontractor defaults aren’t as common as they have been over the last several years, but a contractor is still at risk whenever subs are chosen based on the low number alone. Hiring a new subcontractor mid-way through a project kills the momentum of the whole job.

“Who do you want to cross the finish line with?”

As you are mentally processing your contractor selection decision, really, it comes down to how much risk you are willing to assume. Is it worth the frustration to take the lowest number on bid day? The price is ultimately tied to the time and effort it takes to manage a GC through fumbles on the learning curve.

Whether the grocery store project is greenfield new construction, urban infill, site expansion or phased renovation, hire a team that knows their stuff. To build within budget and without complications, work with a contractor who can provide preconstruction services and demonstrate their added value. From budgeting and value engineering to logistical strategizing and project sequencing — the upfront engagement for preconstruction services will save you time and money. Most of all, they will save you frustration and ensure that projects are built to your specifications, the first time and every time thereafter.


Tim Jackson, LEEP AP BD+C, is vice president of operations at ICI. He oversees all aspects of operations, including estimating and project management. Todd Scharbert is a project manager specializing in retail construction at ICI. For more than 10 years, he has managed construction projects for clients such as Wal-Mart and Kroger. Scott Leadbetter, CPC, LEED AP is a project manager for ICI who has focused on retail and restaurant construction projects throughout his 12-year career. International Contractors, Inc., or ICI, is an Elmhurst, Illinois-based general contracting and construction management firm. In recent years, ICI has built more than $75 million in restaurants and more than $250 million in retail construction.

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