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Organic Garage: Breaking the Mold

When you think about great shopping experiences, grocery stores likely wouldn’t top your list.  After all, it is a chore and generally not something people look forward to.  Even the large newly renovated grocery stores don’t leave us anxious to go back.  That was until Organic Garage came along. 

The Toronto-based grocery chain just opened it’s third, and new flagship location in the Junction, setting a new standard for retail design in the grocery channel.  CEO Matt Lurie is a fourth-generation grocer.  After spending some time discussing retail with Matt I have to say his knowledge and passion for retail as a whole, is nothing short of inspiring.  According to matt “Retail is not dead.  Retailers that create an environment that is warm, inviting and interactive will always have a place.  The problem today is that most retailers just copy each other.”  It’s like there is an established design format customers have become used to.  Regardless of channel, new stores are simply playing into it.  It may be clean, but not very innovative.  Stores feel like carbon copies of each other.  Matt eagerly follow’s this up with “If you’re going to do something, why not be different?”

Retail is not dead. Retailers that create an environment that is warm, inviting and interactive will always have a place.

Total transparency here.  For a grocery store to be an exciting place to be is quite an achievement on its own.  Add to that the fact that it’s a market-inspired, organic and healthy grocery store.  Now add to that the fact that it’s a discount grocery store; offering organic and locally sourced food at discount prices.  Mind blown.

At a time when newly renovated grocery stores are super clean – Organic Garage is gritty, raw and boastfully imperfect.  Matt was admittedly very hands-on with the design and build processes.  He worked closely with api(+) who he said did a great job capturing his vision.  This is often really tough with most agencies.  Matt says “Most design firms struggle with breaking the inherent design rules in retail.  We don’t operate in those rules.  I didn’t care what had been done in the past, I wanted it done a certain way.”   Even at the build level, trades workers are often so precise in their craft.  Matt and team had to convince the bricklayers to over-grout.  Age all the bricks and wood.  As Matt puts it “Rub the edges off the squares.” 

Most design firms struggle with breaking the inherent design rules in retail. We don’t operate in those rules. I didn’t care what had been done in the past, I wanted it done a certain way.

From the highest levels of the organization, there are a couple of hard rules that everyone involved in the design and build had to internalize: authenticity and imperfection.  There is a large sign on the way out that proudly reads We are perfectly imperfect because anything less than perfect is normal.   This imperfection is celebrated and proudly part of the brand culture.  As Matt likes to say, “Imperfection is natural, human and who we are.”

Approaching the front entrance is enough to make you feel that this is about to be a different shopping experience.  The store is connected to an LA Fitness gym but boasts a completely different brick facade from the rest of the building. It feels more warehouse-like, with a clean industrial yet modern look and a beautiful patio that rivals most upscale bars.  A perfect setting to meet up with people and sip on a fresh Kombucha, iced coffee or tea that you might have poured yourself from the self-serve stations inside.   It’s as inviting in the evening as it is during the day.

Once you’ve entered, you’ve crossed the threshold into a new world that’s perhaps best described as rustic warehouse with a touch of carnival.  Exposed brick, colorful graffiti and large carnivalesque signs assembled with individual and wildly different letters.  All features that might go against conventional design logic – but it works amazingly well.  This is a space that has fully committed to its theme throughout the store.  There is no attempt to take you from a warm European bakery, to a seaside fish market to a clinical pharmacy.  You’ve stepped into this world and you’re staying.  Even a stop at the restroom keeps you planted in this reality.

Is it busy?  Absolutely.  Imperfectly and intentionally so – but while the decor does a great job of keeping you in this playful world, the product is so well positioned and organized that it fully stands out against the busyness of the graffiti, aged bricks, and reclaimed wooden shutters and fixtures.  It’s a unique and beautiful way to keep the product in the foreground and in the focus of the shopper.   

If you're going to do something, why not be different?

The signage throughout the store is familiar.  It’s natural human language, as though your best friend leaned in to you to tell you that they “Only sell good $#!@%”.  Nothing feels like a marketing ploy.  Road signs, manhole covers, hopscotch and lane markers not only playfully guide the shopper through the full perimeter of the store – but add another layer to the authenticity of this world that you’re in.  

Rounding the third corner, passed the grass-fed meat fridge is perhaps the most unexpected design detail.  Another element hard-fought in the early design stages.  A permanent scaffold spanning the length of frozen food wall that’s worked into the decor in a way that doesn’t cause confusion.  It makes you pause briefly at the uniqueness of what you’re seeing – but not enough to make you wonder if something is actually under construction.  Everything about it just feels finished and complete.  Perhaps it’s because you’ve been in this world for some time before you arrive here that you’re now conditioned to expect the unexpected.  

Light fixtures made from sections of metal barrels.  Aisle fixtures have all been cladded.  Everything has been modified or custom made to belong here.  Matt says “Every detail, from the fixtures to the graffiti to the signage was to create animation and theatre.  We wanted to create social media-worthy elements throughout the store.”  The graffiti is fun. With positive messages throughout and it’s common to see customers snapping photos of them.

As rustic as this space feels,  digital components have been well included.  You may not have noticed the large tv screens to your right when you walk in – or at least not notice that they are screens.  They’re mounted in portrait format, which is partly why they’re not immediately identifiable as screens.  The other reason is that all the artwork running on these screens is required to be styled as posters.  If I hadn’t seen the content change on screen, I might have walked by assuming they were posters.  Matt stands firm on this.  “When done improperly, TV’s can take away as much as they add.  Screens are not rustic, they’re modern.  That’s why we mounted them vertically; so people wouldn’t immediately identify them as screens.  That would take away from the experience we were trying to create.”   

In addition to the screens, almost every aisle is fitted with a tablet that playfully provides useful information to the customer who may be searching for recipes, promos or other information.  “This has been a very successful interactive element for our customers.  We started out small as a test but going forward will be looking to incorporate larger tablets in these spaces”.  

A couple of basics to lifting sales are increased dwell-time and attachment sales.  Organic Garage nailed both.  I keep finding myself wanting to do another lap through the aisles.  Sections for attachment sales are well integrated.  Permanent custom shelving filled with real Canadian maple syrup neatly placed next to the all natural waffles.   Don’t hold your breath looking for flimsy plastic clip strips anywhere.

Overall, the design of this store integrates perfectly into its neighborhood.  The Junction celebrates its roots as a train station town, keeping a vintage quality; with most businesses and structures featuring aged wood and wrought Iron design details.  I was curious if Organic Garage‘s design intent was regionalized or if this is the look for all locations.  With the same energy and passion Matt tells me “All the the Organic Garage locations are like siblings.  They share the same bloodline but everyone is inherently unique based on the specific location that will tie back to the design of the store.  The Junction store created the blueprint that the other stores will follow. Core elements will stay the same which is what creates the thread through the company.”  

What’s next for Organic Garage?  Definitely expansion.  A new store is opening in Leaside in 2018 and they have just secured the space for a location in Liberty Village.  Continued growth in the Greater Toronto Area is the current the strategy.  While there are no plans just yet to expand outside of Ontario, Organic Garage has broken the mold and absolutely delivered a unique and exciting shopping experience to its customers.   Whether you need to grab some groceries – or want to pour yourself a fresh kombucha and marvel in an impressive retail space, Organic Garage is absolutely worth experiencing.

Kevin Gomes
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