Life in the Fast Lane: A Retail Engineering Q&A with David Drouhard

Unique among engineering disciplines, retail engineering is a fast-paced and complex field that delivers the shopping, dining, and entertainment experiences consumers crave. What kind of demands does that put on the engineering firms who design retail spaces and how can they be successful? We discussed these questions and more with LDG’s David Drouhard, Director of Retail Design, based in our Columbus, OH office. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected retail as a market and this facet of it in particular? 

We saw rapid changes in the retail market itself, such as the transformation of stores or restaurants that weren’t accustomed to increased online ordering, delivery or pickup options before the pandemic. Everything from grocery stores to pharmacies to specialty stores suddenly found themselves rearranging square footage to accommodate the customer pickup experience, more frequent deliveries, and the need for additional back of house area where stores become in part a fulfillment center. 

In addition, like almost every business sector, the pandemic moved a lot of retail work and communication between firm and client to remote or online-only options. With LDG having multiple offices, our teams were very familiar with online communication through video and chat platforms, but I will say that one positive effect from the pandemic was that it significantly enhanced communication with clients. The fast pace of retail engineering itself – which I’ll talk more about – demands a high volume of communication to begin with, but the circumstances of the pandemic enhanced the capabilities of the online platforms and allowed us to connect “face to face” with our clients as everyone became comfortable with the ease of online communication. Now we can meet “face to face” weekly with our clients, walk through drawings visually and all without the tribulations of travel. Better communication is never a bad thing and I think it’s an aspect of the pandemic that’s going to stick around for our industry as well as many others. 

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How do you define retail engineering? What makes it unique?  

Retail is a market that is constantly changing, because places where people do everyday activities like shopping, dining, and entertainment are often the first to reflect shifts in consumer wants or needs, and we must be able to turn around designs and plans quickly to help a client stay relevant in the industry. Retail engineering is about having the capability to take the applied science of an engineering discipline and incorporate it into the very complex industry of retail. It’s about having the ability to create an experience through design for the multitude of consumers all within a space that has multiple functions, multiple levels, and geographical influences. It’s about applying the design that is often hidden in the shadows through lighting, temperature, and visual sensations to highlight merchandise whether it be fruit on a stand or the pair of jeans in a bin. And on top of all this, engineers have to do it all while keeping the budget in mind. 

What are the attributes of a successful retail engineer? 

I think most engineers are “right-brain” thinkers in their approach. However, in order to be a successful retail engineer, it is about finding those who can also incorporate “left-brain” thinking into their designs: having the ability to understand what the client is looking to accomplish, the ability to think in the moment for a solution and validate it later. It’s also about having the ability to stay flexible, because not every condition allows the design to be the same or being able to deal with 15 projects at a time when the client decides to make a change halfway through production or while in construction. It’s about being adaptable.  

Can you expand on the ‘in-house’ approach and how it’s beneficial to clients? 

Absolutely. I mentioned how complex the retail industry can be and how quickly it can change. LDG has taken the approach to build retail engineering all “in-house” with surveying, civil, structural, electrical, and mechanical engineering, and we are even looking at fire protection and refrigeration. Offering everything in-house benefits our clients because we can streamline communication, build entire teams around the client’s development needs, control quality in a more confined environment, and in general be that one-stop shop for our clients – it’s about making our clients lives easier so they can focus on what they do best, which is selling.  

What else sets LDG apart in this fast-paced field? 

I think the phrase “speed to market” is incredibly relevant to retail engineering, and we do this very well at LDG. The “fully integrated approach” is what allows us to be a one stop shop for clients. With LDG’s existing business model of being nationally registered and vision of multiple offices across the nation, we could ideally hire engineering talent across the country suited for the retail environment. This allows us to align the engineering talent and skillset to our client’s needs while also having that geographical presence across the country.  

Founded in 1986, Larson Design Group is an award-winning, 100 percent employee-owned national architecture, engineering and consulting firm with 16 offices in seven 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 on our Retail Design services and offerings, visit Retail – Larson Design Group