Kroger Co. (KR) designer: Cutting edge approach in a cookie cutter world

CINCINNATI - It’s tough to be avant-garde when your design medium is a strip-center façade and a sprawling interior.

Kenneth Pray is out to change that perception.

“That was my image of Kroger 28 years ago when I started,” said Pray, director of store design for the Cincinnati-based grocery giant. “I didn’t want to work at Kroger. I thought, ‘They don’t do anything interesting.’”

Wednesday night in New York, Kroger will become the first grocery retailer to present awards in an international student design competition held annually by the Planning and Visual Education Partnership, or PAVE. Kroger received 425 anonymous entries from 30 design schools in seven countries for awards it sponsored in visual presentation and store design. Four students from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning will be among those receiving awards at the New York gala.

“Retail has to evolve or it doesn’t survive,” Pray said. “You’re always having to anticipate what customers are thinking, what their aspirations are, what their interests are, where they’re really going.”

Kroger used the PAVE competition as a prospecting tool for ideas on better ways to sell prepared foods with indoor displays, in-store cafes, maybe a few walls that blend banner ads and public art.

“How do we make this a really cool destination that appeals not just to our current customers but future customers, to millennials in particular?” Pray said. “Why do you work with students? They’re millennials. They’re our future customers.”

 

Here are the winners of 2015 PAVE International Student Design Competition sponsored by Kroger:

Visual Merchandising Category

1st Place - $5,000 – Aliene Chidester, University of Cincinnati

2nd Place - $2,500 – Seth Huxel, University of Cincinnati

3rd Place - $1,500 – Arjun Kainth, Marymount University

Honorable Mention - $500 – Michael Preston, Santa Monica College

Store Design Category

1st Place - $5,000 – Neesha Reddivari, University of Cincinnati

2nd Place - $2,500 – Akansha Osmond, Humber College

3rd Place - $1,500 – LeaMarie Villafana, FIT

Honorable Mention - $500 – Kelly Geig, University of Cincinnati

Honorable Mention - $500 - Caitlin Porter, University of Kentucky

School Awards for Students Placing in the Top Three of Each Category

$3,000 University of Cincinnati

$1,000 Fashion Institute of Technology

$1,000 Humber College

$1,000 Marymount University

 

It’s not the first time Pray has taken a cutting-edge approach to an industry known for cookie-cutter design solutions. He’s been doing it ever since he started working for Cincinnati’s former Thriftway chain after earning his masters degree in architecture from Washington University in St. Louis. Six years in, a Kroger head hunter approached him. His first response was, Thank you, but no.

“I realized that Kroger is much bigger than Cincinnati, that there were stores across the country and some really interesting things they were doing at the time in Texas, for example,” he said. “I thought, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of opportunity here.’”

Pray's thoughts on a Downtown grocery store:

"One of the challenges in Downtown stores is when you get critical mass. Can you make it work in 30,000 square feet or do you need 40, 50 or 60? The problem is, as you assemble more square footage, you don’t have much choice but to go up and down. To make a multiple level store work anywhere is extremely difficult. Most operators fail at doing that. Mariano’s may be the exception because they do have a coupe of bi-level stores in downtown Chicago that seem to work out pretty well. But they have an incredible density in downtown Chicago that you certainly don’t have in downtown Cincinnati, at least not yet. So, it’s all part of the mix. You’ve got to have high volume to make it work because it’s such a low-margin operation. That’s why it’s really a difficult proposition."

Pray is known for design innovations like the public art that adorns the walls of Kroger’s new Marketplace store at Oakley Station. Pray found Oakley artists Ryan McNeely and Eunshin Khang through ArtWorks, a local nonprofit where he serves as a board member. McNeely’s 205-foot mural depicts Oakley’s history at the front of the store. Khang’s abstract painting, “When the sun shines in Oakley,” adorns a Kroger café.

The paintings walk a fine line that Pray confronts every day: How to make a store interior nice enough to welcome customers but not so chic that it causes them to question whether prices are inflated.

So, many of Kroger’s design innovations are about lighting choices and flooring, creating comfortable spaces inside the big box that keep shoppers from feeling lost. If that approach keeps Kroger out of the halls of high fashion, Pray is OK with that.

“We’re a business, responsible to our shareholders for pumping through enough volume that we can make a profit,” he said. “We don’t get more customers because we have a design out there looking for awards.”

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