Learning From Orlando: The Center Store Re-imagined

Disney World

Disney World

Attempts to invigorate the “center store”… that wasteland in the grocery and Supercenter… seem to be in limbo. A few years ago it was the hot topic at retail conferences and trade shows, but it looks like the topics of omni-channel and mobile/digital are now stealing the show.

But the truth is that the center store remains an automatic, list driven experience that doesn’t inspire or excite us. The perimeter of the grocery is still the sensorial star. Mobile coupons, a smattering of department reinventions ala P&G, Kimberly Clark, and Purina that appear to be incongruent, and the occasional curved fixture are cries in the dark. Beyond that, the center store is nothing but gondola runs ad nauseum.

Understandably the perimeter of the supermarket has received the most attention and investment. Grocers saw their expertise in “fresh” as a strategic advantage, and lever, over the Walmart Supercenter onslaught. But the playing field has become more equal now, 20 years later. The center of the store is still untapped potential.

What if? What if the center store was an experience and not a task? I want to take a few moments to jump-start the topic. And I want to be a bit unorthodox. So, let’s talk about how we can learn from Orlando Florida.

In the 1940’s, Orlando was a swampy, humid town in the relative center of a state already known as a tourist destination. The only thing notable about Orlando was that it had an Army base. That was probably the only reason to visit Orlando.

Then, all the attention in Florida was fixated on the coastline. The great beaches, sun and surf fueled the investments in Miami, Daytona, Naples. These were the produce departments, delis, and bakeries of the state. They are sexy. The center of the state was just the leftover land in between the coasts. But look at Orlando today? There are more direct flights to Orlando from points elsewhere in the US than any other city in Florida and is annually the most visited American city.

The reason is vision and investment. Walt Disney had created Disneyland in southern California in 1955. He had an even grander vision for an eastern version that would be closer to the majority of the American population, but coastal property was expensive. The center of the state was economically irrelevant, so it was cheap. But it had traffic and infrastructure. Disney World opened in Orlando in 1971, and since has been a magnet for other development, including Universal Theme Park. The place attracts people, and the people spend.

Orlando is a great analogy for what could happen to the center store with vision and investment. With today’s additional pressure for retailers to stay relevant in the face of Amazon same-day delivery, the center store must create value beyond inventory holding power. Of course it needs to be easy to shop for shoppers on a mission, but with 50,000 items and only 500 in the average household, couldn’t space be re-imagined? What if it wasn’t a sea of gondola shelving, but a collection of themed spaces that flowed into each other, like the “worlds” at Disney? What if you could learn about how the products can fit into your needs best or solve a problem versus check off a list?

With breakthroughs in mobile technology, in-store networks, and especially mobile payment, the grocery may not even need a single entry/exit anymore to funnel shoppers through the checkouts. What could this do for convenience that could shake up the entire center store layout?

Let’s see what we can learn from Orlando as the evolving future of retail demands fresh thinking. The store could be the best of both, with great beaches AND a fun exciting destination in the center, creating a destination experience that no eCommerce retailer could match.

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