— By Inna Tuler —
How to navigate the maze of retail construction in today’s post-COVID environment.
The popularity of online shopping has recently seen a marked expansion due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But in spite of growing e-commerce purchasing, brick-and-mortar retailers are far from obsolete. Retail sales at physical store locations in 2020 made up approximately 85% of all U.S. retail sales, but given the onslaught of online competition, brick-and-mortar retailers cannot lose sight of their physical store strategies.
There are many reasons why a retailer location will initiate construction projects. In the retail convenience industry, change is often inevitable and necessary to maintain and grow a store’s brand. Retail branding of convenience stores or restaurants is extremely important in building a profitable relationship with customers. Improvement to the image and functionality of the retail establishment will provide for a better customer experience, helping ensure customers will return.
Planned building upgrades and emergency repairs, such as a car accidentally driving through and into a store (often referred to as a “drive-thru”) are just a few examples of ongoing projects needed at convenience stores and restaurants. These projects may range from smaller and less invasive work to larger, disruptive construction projects. Each of these brings challenges to everyone involved — especially customers.
The unique nature of the convenience store industry carries along with it a very dedicated and loyal customer base. These customers demand their favorite products 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Because of this loyalty, customers will often enter their favorite store, no matter the hurdles they may encounter. Some even go so far as to walk into a store that is obviously closed during a remodel, just to get that cup of coffee they so desperately need and are used to getting. This is true even when visible warning signs notify them of the construction underway, including a temporary closure, or safety materials used to secure the area are in place.
Retail construction is a maze of rules and regulations relating to accessibility, environmental impact, equipment safety, layout constraints and resource limitations. Additionally, landlord-related issues will often create a serious roadblock to what is expected to be a simple remodeling project. The most important part of any construction project is in the planning stage, identifying every possible issue and assigning a resolution ahead of time. To this end, having the right contractor is the main concern of every store owner. Finding a contractor capable of identifying physical limitations, as well as a thorough understanding of building code requirements, and how the two relate is critical to a successful plan.
Another big part of planning is to recognize any opportunity to remain accessible to those dedicated customers previously discussed. For instance, providing a remote coffee service in an accessible area while construction is underway will encourage customers to (at least temporarily) forgive the inconvenience they might experience. Even a small gesture like this will help maintain the relationship and reduce the chance that the customer might go elsewhere. This is why reacting to urgent situations with the same consideration to the customer is critical to maintaining the relationship as well.
The most invasive and reactive situations occur when a driver loses control of his vehicle and drives directly into a store. Whether the car crashes through the front windows or impacts a less obvious area, the initial steps of securing the damaged area require a contractor with knowledge and experience in this situation. First responders must remain calm and considerate of the situation. Contractor personnel first on-site must be prepared to secure the vehicle entry point, as well as clean all residual debris, i.e., glass, metal or other possible dangerous materials. The contractor must also verify any structural concerns and plan to secure the area. When at all possible, the store should be secured as to allow for even limited and safe access to customers. Protection of personnel, customers and assets is of paramount importance to the store owner.
Whether the construction required is reactive, as in a “drive-thru,” or a proactive and planned remodel, the best practices for a retail construction project must include planned topics, including protecting revenue. Keeping the doors open will allow customers to witness the changes and be excited about the work being completed. There are several ways of managing a retail construction project successfully. Some key points are:
- Communicate with customers and employees. Let them know there is a planned remodel and what they can expect. This will give everyone time to prepare.
- Break into stages. Stages prevent the entire store from going out of commission. It is crucial to spend time on essential areas and push out the less crucial ones.
- Time and plan the construction. Try to schedule the remodel during slower times of the year. Work with contractors to specify and set entrance areas for personnel.
- Contain the construction. Make sure to set clear barriers and zones to prevent safety hazards and distractions for customers and employees.
- Remodel after hours. This may incur more costs but will provide the least interference.
- Offer customers courtesy discounts. Give customers a reason to visit and help maintain them with small discounts or gifts. This may not be necessary as it may cost more than the benefit, especially if the other items above are in place.
The need for convenience stores and restaurants will continue as long as customers can shop locally and get the products they enjoy and want. The desire for convenience is a driving motivation for customers. The growth of e-commerce will not remove the shopper’s need to access a local store and pick up those items in a timely manner.
Research has shown that the time a customer shops at a convenience store is less than half of the time spent shopping in a grocery store, including travel time. The business of retail construction may be difficult, but if done correctly, is an invaluable part of the customer experience.
— Inna Tuler is the founder and CEO of Maintco Corp., a Burbank, California-based general construction company specializing in turn-key service, repair and remodeling of convenience stores, fast food restaurants and supermarkets serving California, Arizona, Nevada and Texas. She founded the company 26 years ago with her late husband, Abraham. Maintco Corp., one of the fastest-growing, women-owned businesses in California, also specializes in making businesses ADA- (Americans with Disabilities Act) & COVID-19 compliant, as well as helping companies use alternative (green) energy.