Thinking Outside the Big Box

by Nate Hunter
By Mike Kolakowski

Retail construction is not as simple as four walls and a roof.


The term “big box” really has no relevance in today’s conversation about retail construction. It implies that these projects are relatively easy and mundane, a one-size-fits-all approach. However, there are nuances and value-added dimensions to consider when undergoing retail construction and contrary to popular beliefs, it is not as simple as four walls and a roof.

Whether it is an upgrade to existing facilities or a new construction retailers should select a firm that sees beyond the “big box” façade and drills down to show all the intricacies that go into finishing a facility and having it grand opening-ready: on-time and within budget.

Not All Retail Projects Are the Same

Even within retail construction there is diversity in projects and therefore the approach has to vary. For instance, the inside of a Harris Teeter store is very different from the inside of a Kohl’s department store, which is different spatially from the inside of a Lowe’s or a Home Depot. One of the big differences in the project approach is the scheduling of subcontractors and tradesman. This is no random task.

Harris_Teeter_Potomac_extWhen we construct for the grocery retailers, we have to consider the scheduling and coordination involved for the proper installation and operation of the refrigeration cases, for example. This entails more underground piping and electrical work that must be installed before the slabs are poured than in the typical department store. In addition, the scheduling for the opening of a grocery store stocked with perishables has different considerations from opening a department store. While high-end finishes are becoming more and more important in the grocery sector, department store construction usually has a higher focus on millwork and other finishes.

It is very important to understand the needs and requirements of each client. When working on a grocery store such as Stop & Shop, Big Y and Harris Teeter, there will be strict requirements from the Health Department prior to bringing any food products into the store, especially in areas that sell prepared foods. Also, each retail group has a brand that they like to maintain whether it’s the Lowe’s blue canopy or Big Y’s American flag, it is important to understand what drives each client.

Warehouse stores and home improvement stores bring a different set of challenges. Here a great deal of focus is on loading docks, ceiling heights and clearances to assure that the finished project has the required stocking capacity.


KohlsRetailers, when moving forward to address your construction needs, select a firm that is a true partner in the process with you. Select a construction management or design build team that is upfront with you and focused on project-completion and problem solving. The firm should reflect your values and commitment to excellence.


Regardless of the delivery method, it is important to bring a firm on board with a robust process for each phase of the construction. This includes having in-depth estimating and pre-construction services experiences to offer. A firm that brings pre-construction expertise to the job is especially valuable during a hard bid situation.

stop_and_shopYour construction firm should have beyond general knowledge of your brand. It should be masterful in re-creating in the individual location, the same image that is reflected in your national brand and help you establish that consistent quality presence from town to town, state to state. Having a great understanding of the  requirements, programs and prototypes of the owner’s brand is definitely an advantage.


Picking the right construction firm could be the difference in your store opening in time for a big back-to-school promotion rather than opening weeks later when all of your items have to be sold at a reduced price. It has been my experience that with the right construction team, no schedule is impossible. The right firm will bring the trade subcontractors aboard early on in the process to assure all parties are aligned and are equally committed to your grand opening date.

This firm will have done their due diligence and recognized what the time-critical issues are. This includes long lead items, permit challenges and key trade requirements.

The key is communication. There should be an over-communication between the construction firm and you, the owner, to ensure no missteps. In construction it is imperative that things are done the right way the first time. Re-work benefits no one. A major factor in quality assurance is communication. When it comes to your construction project, the more communication the better.



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