Sanghvi is the founder of HealthxDesign ("Healthy By Design"), an initiative she launched in 2010 after a decade of work with the International Planned Parenthood Federation. During her years in the field, Sanghvi observed numerous instances in which people developing public health solutions overlooked contextual factors that were contributing to the problem. In clinics, for example, she saw how redesigning ventilation systems, retrofitting inefficient lighting, or choosing different building materials could improve treatment conditions and accessibility, but these things were rarely addressed. Likewise, in supermarkets, features like store layout and air temperature can influence purchasing decisions, but food access initiatives often stop short of such nuances of structural design.
So Sanghvi took it upon herself to start connecting the dots between architecture, environmental design, and public health. In the year since establishing HealthxDesign, she has partnered with design professionals to investigate solutions ranging from sustainable building strategies for Bolivia's health care infrastructure to product design interventions for preventing infant mortality in impoverished communities. Now she has set her sights on the federal government's supermarket spending plan, with a proposal to rethink the store design template.
"The current supermarket template is not behavior neutral," Sanghvi explains. "The more times you bump into something at eye level, the more likely you are to purchase it, and store owners are aware of this. There's a lot of product placement and they're all about having the candy in front of the cash register for kids."
Trying to encourage impulse buys may be obvious, but some factors driving shopping behaviors are more subtle. Bakeries are located toward the back of the store so the aroma will draw shoppers past items that might not be on their list, but which are likely to end up in the cart if spotted. Likewise dairy cases—where almost every shopper goes on every visit—tend to be in the rear. And for anyone who has ever wondered why supermarkets tend to be chilly, Sanghvi reports that heavy A/C actually triggers a basic human instinct: when we're cold, we want to accumulate more food.
Of course, keeping the air cool in order fill carts also increases the store's energy expenditure. Add to that the fact that most supermarkets are windowless and brightly lit with fluorescent bulbs, and the environmental inefficiencies become glaring. The US Green Building Council recently released a set of LEED energy efficiency guidelines geared toward retail, but supermarkets have such a specific and high level of energy demands that the general retail checklist doesn't cover all the bases.
To develop a viable alternative to the current template, Sanghvi breaks the challenge down into several key areas: community access, behavior change, environmental sustainability, and financial feasibility. The latter two are fairly straightforward—efficiency and profitability are both essential, and demonstrating them is relatively easy. Much of Sanghvi's focus goes toward the first two areas, as she asks how a supermarket can be more than simply a place to buy food.