Design Thinking Enhances the Customer Experience


Consumer behavior in a store can be influenced to achieve strategic results

Design thinking is a methodology used to solve problems where the approach is based on the goal instead of the problem. Charles Burnette, a design educator, described design thinking as “a process of creative and critical thinking that allows information and ideas to be organized, decisions to be made, situations to be improved and knowledge to be gained.”

For convenience store retailers, this model requires understanding how customers experience the space and the goals they have for their shopping experiences. Armed with this information, retailers can leverage this knowledge to determine how to design the space to have a stronger impact on customers and their shopping behavior. This method is especially important since the c-store market is very competitive and requires insight and intention in order to stand out from the pack.


Through planning and design, the behavior of customers in a store’s space can be influenced to achieve the retailer’s strategic results. Design thinking is a collaborative and flexible methodology that adapts to the retailer’s needs. It is not a one-size-fits-all process.

Throughout the development, goals need to be validated to determine if the process is on track. Using this approach, the entire process is captured and documented so that it can be replicated with other ideas or in other stores.

To implement design thinking, here is an easy-to-use three-step process.

Step 1 — Determine what makes the retailer different from other c-stores. For example, it could be exclusive brands carried by the retailer, extra services offered or loyalty programs. Typically, c-stores have established safe and predictable environments. That’s not enough anymore. Creating a stronger identity about whom and what the retailer is allows them to remain competitive.

Part of this comes from balancing the national brands offered with those not traditionally associated with c-stores. For example, following the success of its made-to-order (MTO) program, Sheetz Inc. introduced the “convenience restaurant” concept, where all menu items are available anytime and only prepared when ordered. This type of branding and personality is unique to Sheetz, enabling customers to picture their stores when they hear about MTO or convenience restaurants.

In some instances, retailers may need to create or add a special program/offering to stand out from the competition. To accomplish the goal, brainstorming and idea-generating sessions uncover ways to meet customers’ needs and develop the vision for the c-store’s space.

Step 2 — Research how customers shop the store in order to create a plan to connect with them via the store’s layout and through other channels such as social media and advertising. For instance, as a result of researching and understanding customers’ shopping experiences, Walgreen Co. began offering sushi, smoothies and nail salons in some of its drugstores.

Just as with step one, brainstorming sessions are important to produce a variety of ideas for redesigning the space to achieve the store’s goals.

Step 3 — Test the ideas to see how feasible the changes are to implement and how receptive customers are to the modifications. In the Walgreens example, the new services were not included in all stores at one time. Instead, the services were offered in a downtown Chicago store first. Once it was demonstrated that the changes met the retailer’s goals, they were implemented in other stores nationwide.

By understanding the retailer’s vision, conducting the research and testing the ideas, design thinking assists retailers in providing a positive and unique shopping experience for customers.


As a crucial component of design thinking, brainstorming and idea-generating sessions are used throughout the process. To maximize the input and results from this key initiative, follow these guidelines:

  • Seek to understand and define the problem first, but don’t try to uncover the solution immediately.
  • Involve a variety of people (eight to 10) in the sessions, including those who are adept in taking the customer’s point of view.
  • Encourage more than just talking. Ask participants to sketch and draw their ideas or write them down.
  • Limit creative sessions to one hour.
  • Remind participants of the golden rule of brainstorming: no idea is a bad idea.
  • Do not include the CEO as a participant in order to prevent undue influence that might curb the creative process.

Typically in these sessions, one idea leads to another that leads to a third idea. Ultimately, there are multiple concepts and proposals to sift through and evaluate in terms of which ones will have the greatest impact on enhancing the customer experience. This is the key to brainstorming. Many times, the best idea is not discovered until all the ideas are compared and the weak ones are weeded out.


While customers’ needs and expectations are important, if a store is designed based solely on what customers describe as the perfect c-store, it would not necessarily be a high-performing store. That’s because customers are not focused on the bottom line and what retailers must do to survive in any economic environment.

Eliminating customers’ preferences completely from the design process and shopping experience, however, may result in sending the wrong message. For example, the perception might be that the store is all about coffee when the customers aren’t interested in purchasing coffee in that environment.

In addition, it’s just as crucial to incorporate how employees work in the store space when implementing design, remodel and other changes. Without their input, there can be negative and unintended consequences such as blocking employees’ views from the registers, causing issues for the loss prevention team.

Successful strategies arise from a synergistic and collaborative methodology implemented by designers who understand the objectives of the c-stores as they relate to the space and the people who work and shop there. If retailers have a comprehensive understanding of who they are, what they stand for and who their customers and competition are, design thinking can assist them in influencing customer behavior to achieve the retailers’ overall strategic goals.

Andrew McQuilkin, FRDI, is the international president of the Retail Design Institute and the retail leader for BHDP Architecture. Established in 1937, BHDP designs environments that affect the key behaviors necessary to achieve strategic results for its clients by thinking creatively, staying curious, fostering collaboration and delivering excellence. For more information, visit or call (513) 271-1634.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds