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Sensory Architects

Sensory Architects

I am a firm believer in the idea that the external environments we create or inhabit can influence and steer our inner atmosphere. We are always in a state of flux—balancing the scales that tip ever so slightly toward chaos or peace. All we need are a few external elements to shift in our periphery—obstruct our focus—and we can gently or powerfully swing toward comfort or dismay.

Shift the eye and the mind will follow.

While this applies most days to simply being human, it is also a practice I see tapped by some of the best retail conceptualizers in our industry—building brick-and-mortar experiences as lifestyle cornerstones instead of an errand or a chore. Call them merchandising choreographers or sensory architects, these buy-side operators know how they visually represent their stores will influence the way shoppers internalize the company’s value—and how they perceive a price tag.

The GIANT Company is among those navigating these states of grace with both optics and sensations in mind, demonstrating what drives success in the competitive and highly impacted fresh food space. Take the retailer’s urban flagship store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as an example. Dubbed its Riverwalk GIANT location, the store opened its doors early last year with more than a couple of lofty goals in mind—namely, celebrating transformation, offering an elevated omnichannel grocery experience, and designing a perfect blend of modern sophistication and surprise.

When I asked Paul Madarieta, Regional Director, to paint a picture of how this store was designed specifically to inspire shoppers to experiment with new ingredients, he laid out the vision for me.

“Everything about our urban flagship store is intentional. Our team at The GIANT Company thoughtfully designed the layout to inspire, educate, and encourage exploration,” Paul expressed, taking a moment to reflect back on the company’s commitment to authenticity and enriching the community. “From product adjacencies to merchandising displays and assortment, no matter your skill level, we can support you in your culinary journey—that is our message to the city of Philadelphia.”

At this point in the storytelling tour, I drift under the soft lighting and through a walkway of seasonal produce displays that guide me to port amongst islands of fresh food and heightened craftsmanship. Everything in this store has been made with precision and aspiration.

The mind feels it. And adapts to it.

Built to inhabit 65,000 square feet, the store occupies two stories of a 25-floor residential tower. Imagine if you had a grocery wonderland at your back door. Residents living above the new format have access to a private elevator, which brings them directly from their apartments to the second-level sales floor, where the environment transitions them into fresh food bliss.

“While we’ve been serving the greater Philadelphia area for years, it’s only recently that we have made a push into Center City, with the exception of our Grant Avenue location that opened in 2011,” Paul asserted. “We have successfully opened three GIANT Heirloom Markets in the city now. We knew there was still so much potential there; GIANT at Riverwalk recognizes that and is the next step in our Philadelphia strategy.”

A strategy of connection and reputation: Share a message and then deliver on it, time and time again.

“From product adjacencies to merchandising displays and assortment, no matter your skill level, we can support you in your culinary journey—that is our message to the city of Philadelphia.”

Paul Madarieta, Regional Director, The GIANT Company

By January 2022, the company had also opened three additional stores in the city: Cottman Avenue and Columbus Boulevard—which are both GIANT stores—and the third is a GIANT Heirloom Market in the Fashion District of Center City. The team added a GIANT Direct e-commerce fulfillment center in the Eastwick neighborhood of Philly on November 8, 2021, as well.

As Paul’s words guide me through the store—and the story—I immediately arrive at one of the more requisite questions we ask of any retailer: What differentiates this company’s fresh concept? At that point, Chris Keetch, Director of Produce and Floral, began to add to the vision, making the strategy a living and breathing entity.

“Our stores offer an experience to enrich our shoppers’ day, not complicate it. Produce and floral are front and center as one arrives off the escalator or elevator. Unlike a traditional store, produce is positioned horizontally across the full width of the sales floor—versus vertically down the left- or right-hand side,” Chris starts, continuing to paint the environment with engaging eye appeal. “Organic produce will have a ‘destination’ set on both the island cases and the wall case and is clearly signed to drive customer awareness around the breadth of the assortment. Overall, the assortment mirrors our large-format stores but with a local focus on neighborhood demographics and on specific categories and items.”

These demographics have come to play an essential role in how the company brought the Riverwalk location to the public. Philadelphia has a fantastic food scene, as Paul added, and The GIANT Company team has been fortunate to introduce several local purveyors like Isgro’s, Claudio’s, High on Market, One Village Coffee, and so many more to Philadelphia customers, as well as those across Pennsylvania.

“Another example can be found right in our Food Hall, with Mission Taqueria, a beloved, local restaurant. We’re thrilled to be bringing its fantastic, authentic, Mexican cuisine into our store,” Paul said.

With the internal and external cultures reflecting each other so elegantly and genuinely, the Riverwalk GIANT appears to show the execution of a goal: melding the identities of a community with the food that supports it.

As the team paints larger brushstrokes with the conversation, Chris explains how the vision for this unique flagship store aligns with the company’s more encompassing vision around fresh, access, and differentiation.

“Fresh produce—and access to it—is extremely important to us,” he revealed. “It’s one of our signature departments that helps us stand out from others. We’ve been working very hard across all stores to ensure we’re providing the best produce we can source at the best value to our customers. It’s all about variety and quality.”

With such growth, popularity, and promise in the air for The GIANT Company, Paul added there is still much left to be discovered and dreamt in Philadelphia and across all of the company’s regional locations and divisions. The goal? To view each store as an organism and an opportunity for exploration.

“Fresh produce—and access to it—is extremely important to us. It’s one of our signature departments that helps us stand out from others.”

Chris Keetch, Director of Produce and Floral, The GIANT Company

“Our Riverwalk location was uniquely designed for the Logan Square community, but there’s definitely an opportunity to test and learn here and bring elements from this store into others, if it makes sense,” Paul shared with me. “2021 was an exciting year for us. Between doubling down on omnichannel growth, and investing in our traditional store base through remodels and new stores, as well as e-commerce and digital solutions, there are so many budding opportunities just waiting to be discovered. Introducing our new brand platform and adding amenities like GIANT Direct click-and-collect, as well as beer and wine eateries, to name a few, have kept us busy.”

But this is how the team likes it. Busy with purpose.

Busy with vision.

And I love when a vision echoes my own. This may be the true feat of a salesman, a craftsman, a tradesman—to cultivate an experience that changes the way we move, whether it is across the street, down a corridor, through a produce department, or through a store. This is also why I believe that brick-and-mortar concepts will never fade into irrelevance or take a back seat to the digital doors to which we often find ourselves arriving. People love a threshold. They love scent and memory and community. There is a sensory experience that we all desire as humans which enriches our lives, balances the scales between internal and external peace of mind and adventure.

As a consumer, writer, and witness to the wonder of our industry, I am always seeking those spaces where execution replicates vision, and where entering a space is not an exit from my mind, but a welcoming home.