June 15, 2021
Editor’s note: This story is part of an occasional series on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected our relationship with space. In the previous article in this series, we examined the rise of tactical urbanism — low-cost and often temporary changes to the built environment intended to improve neighborhoods and gathering places. In this article, we look at how these quick retrofits of space have also spilled into the private sector, especially in the retail, grocery and food-service industries.
When quarantine rules went into effect last spring, many turned to curbside pickup or delivery services from retailers, restaurants and grocers. Even though these methods of delivery weren’t novel concepts, they became a priority during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While some businesses such as Target and Kroger were already offering online shopping with delivery and curbside pickup, others added those services after seeing a significant increase in demand. However, adding those services required adjusting space — both inside and out.
“Target was a first mover because the company bought Shipt [delivery service] before COVID,” said Bob Kelley, an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business. “So the service was tested.”
Target and Chick-fil-A designated more parking spaces for curbside service and fine-tuned their digital apps to make the pickup process easier. Other companies, such as Wegmans, are taking a different approach by allocating a drive-up lane next to the sidewalk for curbside pickup.
Meanwhile, store interiors also look different. Kroger has started experimenting with the concept of micro-fulfillment, where some store space is reconfigured as a small center for pickup and delivery. A stand-alone micro-fulfillment center can also be built outside for curbside pickup. Some retailers are contemplating the use of mechanized robots in these centers to retrieve orders.
“Seventy-five to 100 micro-fulfillment centers are in place or being contemplated” around the country, said Mark Ciccone, a Boston-based consumer and retail goods consultant. “It’s cutting edge. They are looking at where innovation will play the biggest role.”
Walmart is building areas that will become pickup stations, Kelley said.
“It’s very efficient,” he said. “Supermarkets that are making structural decisions for new stores have to figure out how this would work in their store. New stores being built will have pickup lanes like fast-food drive-thrus.”A person carrying paper bags with other paper bags placed in the open trunk of a car. [View Image] Before COVID-19, up to 96% of $100 worth of groceries purchased in the U.S. was in a supermarket. Four percent was purchased online, said Bob Kelley, an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship in the VCU School of Business. “After COVID began, that number jumped up to 11% to 12% bought online,” he said. (Getty Images)
A jump in e-commerce
Before COVID-19, up to 96% of $100 worth of groceries purchased in the U.S. was in a supermarket. Four percent was purchased online, Kelley said.
“After COVID began, that number jumped up to 11% to 12% bought online,” he said. “After the pandemic ends, 2% to 3% of people will go back to shopping in the store, but the online percentage will still be higher than before COVID. In South Korea, 20% of customers use pickup services. The general feeling is we will probably get up to 20%.”
E-commerce falls into two areas — home delivery and curbside pickup, Ciccone said.
“About 70% of e-commerce is home delivery. Thirty percent is curbside,” he said. “If you look 10 years down the road, I believe it will be 50% home delivery or curbside.”
Roche Bros. in Massachusetts operates 23 grocery stores in New England. The company has been in the e-commerce space for several years but has seen a surge since the start of COVID-19.
“We were forced to adapt quickly to have more pickup locations in our company,” said Roger Bowles, the company’s vice president of operations. “We have physically changed our footprint to add pickup locations.”
The company determined how many parking spots needed to be dedicated to curbside pickup on a location-by-location basis, said Geoff Farrington, director of e-commerce at Roche Bros.
“We also have some stores that have curbside service at the curb,” he said. “Prior to COVID-19, some consumers were reluctant to shop for groceries online. [During the pandemic] people had to use it out of necessity. The grocery industry is saying that 30% of that growth in online will remain.” Racks of paper grocery bags in a supermarket. [View Image] Adjusting to the pandemic involved adding curbside and contact-free pickup services and adjusting space — both inside and outside the store. (Courtesy of Roche Bros.)
Taking it to the streets
Meanwhile, the restaurant industry has also been adapting by retrofitting physical space. One such way is by converting parking spaces to curbside pickup, said Jodie Ferguson, Ph.D., an associate professor of marketing in the VCU School of Business.
“They also converted employee responsibilities to shuttling orders from the kitchen to the parking lot and created new operational processes to streamline fulfillment of curbside orders,” she said.
Some of these, like changing an employee’s responsibilities, are operational changes, Ferguson said. Others, such as changing parking spaces to curbside pickup, reallocating space inside the restaurant in adherence of public safety protocols and working with local governments to expand outdoor dining — sometimes onto the sidewalk or the street itself — are very much in the spirit of tactical urbanism — low-cost and often temporary changes to a built environment designed to improve places for people. James Smither, an assistant professor in the Urban and Regional Studies and Planning program at VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, witnessed another example last summer in Cape May, N.J., where the town reallocated parking spaces and added barriers in order to place tables and chairs in the area for outside dining.
“It worked well for them. The space can be adjusted or changed,” Smither said.
Similar changes have been happening in Richmond, Smither notes. A pilot program between the city and Venture Richmond has been repurposing unused parallel parking spaces into tiny parks called “parklets,” with a focus on placing them at businesses that have carry out, said Jason Alley, provisional policy adviser for the city. Beyond parklets, cities globally also have been experimenting with slow streets that take space away from cars and give it to people.
“A lot of cities in the U.S. are experimenting with the idea,” Smither said. “Some places are closing down streets with lesser traffic and making them pedestrian. It requires a special permit from the city, town or county.” A small parklet with umbrellas, chairs and tables outside of a restaurant. [View Image] Parklet outside Hot for Pizza in Carver. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)
Restaurants with parking lots can also reallocate spaces to accommodate outdoor dining. The counties of Henrico and Chesterfield have been creative in their approach to space allocations for restaurants during COVID-19.
“Most of our restaurants are suburban,” said Anthony Romanello, executive director of the Henrico Economic Development
Henrico County also allowed 26 restaurants to put up tents in their parking lots for outside dining.
“We worked with them to get them permitted and helped with any fees associated with it,” Romanello said. “We also had one restaurant build onto the sidewalk for seating. In the past, the outdoor permitting took days (maybe even weeks). With the pandemic, the county regulatory agencies — planning, building inspections, fire marshal — were doing these in a day. We understood time was money for restaurants and everyone made helping them a priority.”
Across the James River, Chesterfield Economic Development and the Chesterfield Chamber created the online tool “Let’s Take It Outside, Chesterfield” to provide guidance to businesses on what was required for them to reopen and operate safely. Back in the city, Richmond loosened restrictions and streamlined its application process for sidewalk and temporary encroachments.
“We waived the fees until June 20, 2021, to give them the ability to dine outside,” said Alley, who serves as a liaison to the restaurant and small-business community.
Smither sees all of these changes as opportunities.
“People are more aware that these can be options they can explore,” he said. “I hope that the more successful experiments can become permanent fixtures in the landscape.”
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