Real-life examples of compliance — and noncompliance — with the Americans with Disabilities Act were spotlighted during the SPECS session, “Retail and the ADA: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.”
Brad Gaskins, an architect with expertise in the ADA and national building codes and a self-proclaimed “ADA geek,” told SPECS attendees that one of their biggest exposures is falling victim to so-called Google lawsuits. Scammers drive by several store locations of a chain or perform digital drive-bys in the comfort of their own homes on Google Street View.
“They’ll look at all the addresses of a convenience store chain and count the violations they can spot,” said Gaskins, principal and COO of The McIntosh Group. “Counting the number of handicapped parking spaces is an easy one for them.”
Most of these drive-by suits are filed by serial litigants working with common law firms that have made a cottage industry out of such filings. Plaintiffs are well-acquainted with ADA law and almost always seek attorneys’ fees, expert witness fees and other litigation costs.
Once plaintiffs spot a few legitimate violations, they usually list other common violations in the filing.
“A suit filed against one of our clients claimed 33 violations, of which just three were valid,” Gaskins said. “Another listed 98 items and only five were valid.”
He warned retailers to be proactive in avoiding and fighting these suits, since successful ones have far-reaching financial implications.
A lawsuit and follow-up consent decree levied by the Department of Justice against QuikTrip for gas-pump inaccessibility required the convenience store chain to make code-compliant modifications at all 550 of its locations. The DOJ also required QuikTrip to adopt an ADA-compliant service animal policy, pay a maximum civil penalty of $55,000 and establish a $1.5 million fund to compensate people who experienced disability-based discrimination at their stores.
The top three items to check at all locations: accessible routes for handicapped customers, sufficient handicapped parking spaces and toilet violations, such as handicapped-accessible stalls and grab bars.
Gaskins also discussed the rising tide of ADA lawsuits. From Jan. 1, 2017, through April 30, 2017, 2,629 lawsuits were filed in federal court, which is 412 more than during the same period from the year before. The costs of litigation, he said, are time, energy, fines and damages and legal costs.
Gaskins warned retailers that it was their responsibility to keep their locations within code.
“Don’t count on architects to get it right,” he said. “Make sure they know the regulations.”
Gaskins explained that local building officials are not responsible for interpreting or enforcing the ADA. They only enforce state and local accessibility codes or laws.
“There is no process by which to obtain a variance from the requirements of these federal acts, as with typical local and state building codes,” Gaskins said.
He urged the audience to take a proactive approach to ADA compliance. As to what retailers can do to become more accessible, he recommended the following:
- Consider implementing an ADA compliance element into the new construction and remodel process;
- Incorporate ADA compliance into the new store opening/remodel checklist;
- Train staff so that ADA compliance becomes a core business practice;
- Be proactive — keep current on proposed changes to the ADA guidelines; and
- Seek assistance from an accessibility subject matter expert.
“Stand up to frivolous lawsuits,” he said.
TreeHouse: Going beyond net-zero
Start-up retailer TreeHouse practices what it preaches. In June 2017, the eco-friendly home improvement retailer broke new ground when it opened a store that will generate more energy than it uses.
Aaron Moulton, the company’s VP of creative and design, and Jenny LaBarge, head of store design and construction, discussed how the nation’s first energy-positive big-box store came together at the SPECS session, “TreeHouse: The Future of Energy is Here.”
Moulton started off the session by giving a brief overview of TreeHouse, which was founded by Jason Ballard in 2011 with a store in Austin, Texas. Specializing in curated products and services that promote healthy and sustainable spaces, the 25,000-sq.-ft. store was designed as a hub for everything tied to smart, thoughtful building. It featured lots of displays, product vignettes and graphics that explain how things work and touted the benefits of non-toxic paint and the like.
But with time, the retailer has shifted to a more experiential, service-oriented model.
“We sell more turnkey projects,” Moulton said. “There is a bigger emphasis on service. We have consultants who will come to your home.”
TreeHouse is focused on smart home upgrades done with eco-responsible products. Its goal is to make the home healthy and sustainable.
In July 2016, TreeHouse broke ground on its second location, at The Hill in Dallas, with the idea of making the building energy-positive. The retailer knew that in order to do so, it would have to, among other things, lower the energy use for the entire building.
“We did a review of the annual energy use of our Austin store, using it to model the expected energy use of the new location,” Moulton said.
The retailer (with Lake|Flato Architects) quantified how much electricity could be saved through the use of daylight, LED lighting and heat load reduction tactics.
The store’s architecture is crucial to its energy efficiency. It boasts saw-tooth roofs that are positioned in such a way to maximize the effectiveness of its giant, ultra high-efficiency solar rooftop array, which comprises 530 panels. (This feature solved the need for extra space for solar panels.)
“The store was designed so well from the beginning,” LaBarge said. “We didn’t need as many solar panels as we initially thought, which resulted in a quicker payback.” (The panels are from SunPower and are expected to last 25-to-30 years.)
North-facing clerestory windows allow for indirect sunlight to effectively illuminate the interior without the impact of direct heat. This allows for a cooler baseline temperature in the store and a minimized use of electricity. The standing-seam metal roof collects rainwater and reflects heat.
High-bay LEDs supply overall light. Focused display light is used when needed. The lighting is sensor operated.
“The temperature on the sales floor ranges from 68 degrees to 70 degrees,” LaBarge said. A big fan array helps keep the store comfortable and minimizes the use of the air conditioning.
A Tesla Powerpack (a rechargeable battery storage system for utility and commercial applications) is located at the center of the store. It stores the power produced by the rooftop solar array, deploying it for evening use and allowing the building to return excess renewable energy to the city’s grid.
On-site solar energy and Tesla battery storage systems were then designed to support the new store’s needs.
The new TreeHouse didn’t perform out of the gate to what was expected. Two months after opening, it was only generating four hours of positive energy a day.
“It took us about six months to get up to speed,” Moulton said.
In other features, the store boasts a living wall on the left past the entrance. It does double duty, reflecting the company’s commitment to sustainable living and also serving as an active air purification system.
As for the lessons learned from the Dallas store, Moulton said there are a few:
- Plan for solar for each location;
- Have abundant daylight; and
- Use fans and LED lighting in every store (“that’s a given,” he added).
“We also learned to have an intense vetting system for electrical systems going forward,” Moulton said.
In early 2018, TreeHouse opened its third location, in Plano, Texas. Going forward, the retailer expects to open four stores in 2019.
Pop-up shops get social
As brands use pop-up stores to create new retail experiences, more companies are leveraging social media to advertise these spaces and build customer excitement before and during the shops’ tenures.
“Retail is all about experiences, so companies need to find ways to keep customers thinking about their brand or product before they arrive, and after they leave your retail space,” Jeffrey Baker, president and creative director of experiential and environmental design firm Image 4, said at the SPECS session, “What’s Popping in Pop-Ups.”
“Social media is often driven by visualization, which makes it a great fit for pop-ups,” Baker said. “Customers want to be engaged. It’s up to the brand to learn the best place to interact with its audience, and create the messages that will drive them to the pop-up.”
Footwear brand Ecco used its social media presence to promote its pop-up store tour this past fall.
The pop-up, used to introduce Ecco’s new Shape line of women’s shoes, highlighted the footwear on a lighted wall. It also featured video content, a runway show and a four-surface walkway for customers to try on and experience the fit of the shoes. All customers received a discount to purchase the shoes online or in stores. The store tour visited locations in Atlanta, Dallas, Las Vegas, San Francisco and King of Prussia, Pa. Each location was open for only 48 hours.
To ensure it would drive customers to the pop-up spaces, Ecco posted pictures and videos on Snapchat “to promote the product and upcoming runway shows.
It also gave followers the ability to share and tag the brand and merchandise,” Baker said.
Once the pop-up launched, the company localized messages on its Facebook page to drive attendance to each store, and to extend conversation once the tour moved on to the next city.
“Imagery creates the experience,” Baker said. “These images made the merchandise and pop-up more visible, and the discounts delivered at the event drove in-store traffic after the tour.”
Lids also leveraged the power of its social media community when it launched Super Bowl-related venues. The company’s first shop, called the Lids Locker Room Fan Experience, coincided with the 2012 Super Bowl. The 23,000-sq.-ft. pop-up set up shop for 10 days in an empty Nordstrom department store that was located in the game’s hosting city of Indianapolis.
In addition to game-related merchandise, the space featured a mock football field with bleachers and a football-shaped sculpture created with white baseball caps hung from the second floor ceiling. The shop also featured tailgating-inspired games, as well as seats to play the latest Madden NFL video game.
Lids used Facebook to get the word out.
“This was the early days of social media, but Lids still knew Facebook was valuable,” Baker said. “They used Facebook to post images of what was happening in the space, in hopes of encouraging shoppers to visit the store and join the experience.”
Social media efforts helped drive store traffic, which hit approximately 70% of the space’s physical capacity for 70% of its operating hours, he added.
Lids hosted two more Super Bowl pop-ups in 2013 and 2014. Both relied on social media to tell the story. For example, the two pop-ups featured monitors that had Twitter and Facebook feeds of online trivia games. Winners received digital coupons that could be redeemed for prizes in their local store.
“The use of social media has matured greatly since then, but the goal remains the same,” Baker said. “There needs to be a fusion of actual and virtual retailing, and social media helps bring them together.”