Design firm drives display revolution in supermarkets

Clean Shelf
Clean Shelf supermarket in Kayole, Nairobi. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU  

The smell of freshly-baked pastry welcomes customers into Cleanshelf Supermarket’s deli section as an elegant display of dishes tempts their appetite.

The inviting aromas emanating from the kitchen area, blend with the well-thought-out lighting reflecting on the soft, green walls to invoke sensory desire. Only a will of steel would allow the customer to walk out of the Shujaa Mall outlet in Kayole without picking something from the cooked food gallery.

Further inside, wooden display stands pair well with the timber ceiling and other wooden accents on the walls to introduce a warm, homely feel as you walk around. The store’s overall contemporary architecture arouses a visual reaction as a unique and inviting layout of items emphasizes the time, money and workmanship invested in making the customer feel welcome in this outlet.

From my inquiries, I establish that Renova, the designers of the store’s arrangement, spent hours researching the psychology of the target customers, leading to the development of a layout that subconsciously leaves shoppers feeling good about the store’s brand.

Renova, a local interior design company, founded by Joram Gatei, has managed to remain in the shadows but their ingenuity in designing spaces that keep retailers above their competitors has inevitably drawn attention to them.


Among the innovative approaches linked to the company is the introduction of both fresh and cooked food arrangements in supermarkets, bridging a gap that was previously left yawning.

In this regard, Renova’s innovative designs, according to Mr Gatei, require retailers to allocate more space to perishable food products as a way of ensuring that customers who would otherwise have had to seek the products elsewhere, find more value in supermarket visits. He calls this approach the food market concept.

A Nielsen report, Beating the Odds, launched mid this year confirmed that while shoppers make the bulk of their purchases from supermarkets, they make even more trips to vegetable vendors — at least 19 times a month — making the fresh food business lucrative for grocery stores.

For design firms like Renova, such data calls for clever displays and sometimes supermarket architecture overhauls, to accomodate inventories that match evolving customer needs.

“Display gives a store its character; it shapes perspectives and in a way advertises high margin products such as food, to customers,” Mr Gatei says.


Mr Gatei grew up with an interest in design, which he has now grown into a business. He tells the Business Daily that he was drawn into retail store design when he got a role dusting shelves in a supermarket outlet in Nakuru where his father was a proprietor.

“I kept thinking that there must be a better way to display items,” he said.

This explains his growing keenness on visual merchandising; an industry practice used to develop floor plans and three-dimensional product displays to grow sales.

His ultimate dream, he says, is to continuously turn normal shopping trips into delightful and therapeutic experiences for Kenyans.

It is a win-win situation, he says. This is because as customers enjoy their shopping experience, retailers also benefit from the increased traffic and sales in their stores.

“Naturally, when shoppers are in a space that is easy to maneuver, have everything under one roof and items are displayed attractively and strategically, they are happier and are exceedingly likely to spend more time and money,” Gatei says. “Renova’s work is to help supermarkets influence customer behaviour by ultimately appealing to their interests.”

Echoing his remarks is Cleanshelf’s Managing Director Timothy Kihara, who, in an earlier interview with the Business Daily, said that “every shopper deserves a great store experience regardless of their neighbourhood.”

Mr Gatei, a business major graduate from Florida’s Northwood University, draws inspiration from famous brands like America’s WholeFood Market, Stew Leonard’s and Germany’s Edeka supermarket.

His exposure during his studies and frequent travels have helped him stay ahead of trends in the grocery store space. It is easy to see his international influences as any of the projects he has undertaken could easily pass for a high-street store in the middle of Manhattan.

“Every time I travel I am like a child in a candy shop. The first places I visit are supermarkets. This is a crucial part of the research we do to ensure that the local supermarket space remains at par with that of the developed world,” he says.

However, his entrepreneurial journey has not been without challenges as he recalls starting out with little else besides a big dream.

“When you are trying to introduce new ideas into an industry that has hitherto been used to doing things a particular way, you will certainly meet roadblocks. I initially found it difficult to convince clients to adopt the modern design trends. However, once the first few got on board, I began noticing an appreciation of the concepts I presented,” Mr Gatei says.

“I am grateful to Naivas Director David Kimani for giving Renova its first project in Naivasha, which opened the doors to more inquiries. I appreciate clients that continue to seek Renova’s expertise and my employees for their commitment to delivery.”


The diversity of clients’ portfolios is one that Renova has mastered, as confirmed by their involvement in the launch of new supermarket branches, including a 24-hour outlet in Lavington, one of Nairobi’s posh estates.

Even when the space in a branch is compact, Renova’s design can open it up to give the impression of a much-bigger space. Right from the entrance, shoppers are drawn into the cosy space by a neat fruit and vegetable arrangement, and an array of pastries and cooked foods at the deli counters.

Every detail has to be well-thought out. For instance, a full glass wall lets natural light flood in, and the walk-way from entry to exit requires one to navigate through an exciting arrangement of products.

Some of the new and fast-rising brands in the retail sector have been riding on a food market wave that silently took off in the local retail market scene a few years back when Mr Gatei first mooted the idea, backed by sectoral data and trends, to some of the major retailers.

The food market concept means that more space is dedicated to perishable food products, which have been confirmed to have high profit margins, according to Betty Wamaitha the Quickmart Marketing Manager.

Her views are backed by The Ever-Changing Store report by consultancy firm McKinsey published in April 2019, which states that supermarket format redesign, when done well, for instance, to accommodate a wide selection of goods within eye’s reach, can potentially boost sales by 10 to 15 percent, and customer satisfaction by 20 percent, all within a year or less.

“We are focusing on the fresh food unit because it has high profit margins compared to dry groceries. Our current business strategy involves allocating 30 to 40 percent of the display space to fresh foods, whose sales contribute 20 to 30 percent of total revenue,” said Ms Wamaitha during the launch of Quickmart’s Waiyaki Way branch earlier this year.

QuickMart has since merged with Tumaini supermarkets after Venture capitalists Adenia Partners’ special investment vehicle, Sokoni Retail Kenya, acquired a majority stake in September.

Tumaini also happens to have tapped Mr Gatei’s expertise in the realisation of at least four outlets this year.

Given the recent trends, both established as well as emerging brands are set to continue on this path which one of the top retailers, Naivas, has also taken up with gusto. Naivas has five stores currently under development, and it is closely working with Renova.

“The approach we have taken is to imbue stores with an attractive interior, featuring well-lit open spaces and modern shelving that keeps the produce fresh,” said Mr Kimani while describing Naivas’ latest growth strategy.