React and Adapt: What the Covid-19 Pandemic Means for the Future of Retail Design

The COVID-19 pandemic has leveled an economic blow not seen since the Great Depression, with some industries not expected to recover for years. However, the most difficult circumstances often lead to new and better innovation, and although the retail industry at large was one of the hardesthit, it also was one of the earliest to bounce back – and make a plan for the future. We sat down with Dave Balzer, Director of Retail Design at Larson Design Group (LDG), to talk through the changes, challenges and potential solutions that retail design is facing in the face of the ongoing pandemic. 

Why is something like retail design so flexible or adaptable as opposed to other markets? 

People tend to think of retail as shopping and movie theaters and restaurants, but it’s also grocery storespharmacies, convenience stores – businesses that have never been more essential than during this pandemic. Industries like healthcare and education react to consumer or market behaviors, but it can take months or years for those effects to be felt; retail is part of daily life and that close proximity to the consumer means it has to adapt quickly to changesThose who plan, design and build in the retail market know that they need to be hyper-aware of consumer wants and needs. 

How have businesses been adapting to the pandemic? What are the short-term versus mid- or long-term changes to the industry? 

The pandemic created quick reactions to safety and sanitation demands – only letting in so many shoppers, offering online shopping and curbside pickup, putting up plexiglass shields at cashier stations – but it also accelerated trends in convenience that we had started to see in recent years. The demand for drive-thru service at pharmacies, for example, went through the roof and has remained highespecially if those places are also offering the option to pick up grocery items or other necessities.  

This is the continuation of an upward trend in consumers wanting more convenient options for shopping when they know exactly what they’re looking for. However, most pharmacies that offer drive-thru only have one or two lanes at most – so future designs that might include more lanes impacts not only the design, but also the lot size, the traffic flow, utilities, and more. Some of our client base is asking us to reimagine checkout and drive-thru options, because the sudden surge in demand due to the pandemic might now be permanent. That’s the long-term effect; in the mid-term, retailers are focusing on supply chain challenges – we all remember the toilet paper shortages earlier this year – logistics, and keeping employees safe.  

Do you see the changes having a lasting effect on the industry? 

Absolutely. I mentioned the trends we were already starting to see before the pandemic, many of which were pointing to people wanting convenience and speed – people are increasingly comfortable to shop online in the comfort of their own homes, pay for their purchase, and then pick it up curbside. Or they don’t bother with sitting in a coffee shop for a chat with friends; they only need a quick, efficient drive-thru lane. This is especially true of younger generations, who don’t spend time or income at many of the places that older demographics do, whether it’s sit-down restaurants or traditional shopping malls. These shifting priorities – and the changes they mean for the retail industry – have been brought to the forefront by the pandemic, but they didn’t come out of nowhere. 

That’s not to say that every sector of the industry is in dire straits. Home improvement stores, for example, were teetering on the edge before the pandemic, but they ended up doing very well because so many people found themselves at home and they wanted to take on projects. That might be a more permanent shift. And areas like movie theaters and entertainment still have the chance to bounce back – consumers don’t only want to shop, they want experiences. Many in the industry have confidence that people still want to experience things together, and those businesses that adapt will capture the most market share. They also still desire the “treasure-hunting” aspect of walking into a store and just browsing for something new. Retail design is about the experience; pre-COVID, people were wondering what parts of the markets were going to remain the same, and this has exposed the sectors of retail that are essential. 

What does the future look like for LDG and other retail design providers? 

As providers of architecture and engineering, we have to watch consumer behavior as much as our clients doWe have to continue to provide client service excellence not only by collaborating with our clients, but by being ready with our own ideas – we can’t wait until they come to us with concerns or questions to brainstorm solutions for the future. There are always winners and losers in economic change, and we want our clients to know they can trust us to have their best interests in mind when it comes to staying ahead of big shifts in the industry. 

Founded in 1986, Larson Design Group is an award-winning national architecture, engineering and consulting firm with 12 offices in five states and a vision to elevate client relationships, enrich the careers and lives of its employee-owners, and enhance the communities in which it operates. For more information, visit 

The health and safety of our team members and clients is our top priorityClick here to read about LDG’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.