Staying Ahead of an Ever-Changing Retail Environment: Insights from SPECS 2023

HFA team members recently spent time in Grapevine, Texas, at SPECS Show 2023, hosted by Chain Store Age, and gained valuable insights and key takeaways. Check out a few of the things that stood out to them the most.

SPECS 2023 once again brought together some of the nation’s top retailers and suppliers for a few days of networking, thought-provoking sessions, and a little bit of fun. Hosted at the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center in Grapevine, Texas, this year’s conference was a success for Shark Tank and sports fans alike, with Daymond John and Emmitt Smith serving as Keynote Speakers. As always, the question at SPECS is how one keeps retailers at the forefront of physical retail. The multi-disciplined HFA team represented our c-store, restaurants, multi-site, energy services, and client partnerships groups, bringing a breadth of knowledge and experience level to the current and potential clients they met with throughout the three-day conference. Once they returned to the studio, we asked them to sit down and answer a few questions about their experience at SPECS. Check out their thoughts below:  

Q: How do you see the retail industry evolving in the coming years?  

Katie Gately, Client Partnerships Lead: A few things that stood out most to me were retailers being heavily focused on environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) initiatives and customer and employee experiences as well as integrating faster, more efficient checkout methods in stores (which can include the addition of automation to meet that need).  

Kelly King, Team Lead / Designer: The following evolutions were top of mind this year: ESG initiatives, increased use of automation, Experiential retail, social + mobile commerce, and expanding where and how retailers sell to customers.  

Nathan Connors, Multi-Site Lead: The future of retail looks to be very technologically trend-driven and quick to change and pivot. There's even more of a hybrid between e-commerce, brick-and-mortar, and DTC.  

Scott West, Commissioning + Energy Lead / Mechanical Engineer: I agree with Nathan's takeaways. Building on experiential retail strategies, we could also start to see more customer personalization in the future, especially with AR/VR and the accompanying machine learning.  

James Owens, Vice President: I predict retailers will become smaller and more efficient. The size of the retail store has reached a tipping point. For products and services, consumers are looking for those smaller locations where they can find what they need with less selection. A perfect example of this is Trader Joe's. These stores are often half the size of general grocery stores and offer half the selection. Consumers are often overwhelmed by the number of options available for the same product. Retailers must rely more heavily on market research and data to monitor consumer trends and spending patterns.      

Q: What were some of the most pressing challenges facing retailers and suppliers today, and were there any novel solutions or strategies presented at SPECS that could address these challenges?    

Kelly: A few of the pressing challenges we see in the industry include longer construction timelines and procuring equipment. Some solutions that retailers are exploring are to pre-order and store off-site, sharing projections with suppliers, and using temporary equipment whenever possible. Pre-purchasing, however, could present risks with any warranties that might be in place or even unforeseen design changes.  

Scott: Certainly, supply chain disruptions and the long lead times for major equipment and components. These disruptions and delays impacted clients across the board over the last year. It's a major issue to consider. I see a trend of pulling engineers in earlier on procurement decisions. There are pitfalls of procuring equipment before a design is complete, however.    

James: The consensus among retailers I spoke with is that the supply chain is becoming more manageable with materials and raw materials, in some cases, returning to pre-COVID levels. Retailers continue to watch both the macro and micro-economic climates. However, they are still moving forward with strategic approaches that will allow them to adapt based on shifts in the market quickly. Vendors and professionals need to align themselves with this same approach to be ready to meet the needs of these retailers.    

Q: What was your biggest takeaway from SPECS 2023?  

Katie: Retailers recognize the importance of understanding their customers and are looking to their design consultants to create intentional spaces based on the consumers' preferences. Retailers appreciate fully integrated A+E and value firms with a breadth of in-house services. In addition to that, they are also seeking design consultants to add to their industry partnerships.  

Kelly: Retailers are continuing to grow but are now facing the challenge of outgrowing the abilities or capacities of their current A+E providers. More than ever, full-service integration entices those looking to grow and scale quickly.  

Nathan: A smaller-scale conference like SPECS provides the perfect opportunity to network. Throughout our time there, it became apparent that retailers are actively looking to add A+E services or bandwidth to their programs in the future.  

Scott: Retailers are facing an uncertain and dynamic economic environment. Even the rules established during the pandemic are going out the window. There is a fair amount of uncertainty about where to invest in physical retail. Additionally, some clients are pushing forward with growth plans while others are holding back on the sidelines to see how consumers respond to the macroeconomy. Retailers are continuing to look for innovative ways to juggle ESG mandates with all the usual (and challenging) things they're already trying to do.    

James: Change. Change is inevitable and not necessarily a bad thing. We need to embrace it.  

Continuing to learn, grow, and adapt is one of the most critical aspects of striving to be an industry leader in the AEC sector. That's why we love to send our multi-disciplined team to events like SPECS so they can continue to learn, keeping their fingers on the pulse of the innovations in the industry while spending time with clients and potential clients and making connections throughout the industry. We had fun at SPECS 2023 and can't wait for SPECS 2024!  

Special thanks to Katie Gately, Scott West (P.E., PMP, LEED AP BD+C, ASHRAE BCXP, BEAP & BEMP), Kelly King (Assoc. AIA), Nathan Connors (P.E.), and James Owens (AIA, NCARB) for their contributions to this article.

For more information on our experience at SPECS or how we can partner with you in the retail industry, please get in touch with Katie Gately, Client Partnerships Lead at HFA (

Written by
Ashley Hayre

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