Caren Easterling knew she was doing her job when an acquaintance walked into an empty grocery store she'd helped design in Southlake, Texas, and pronounced it “really unimpressive.” As an architect for Central Market, a high-end division of Texas chain H-E-B Grocery Co., Easterling strives to keep store architecture simple, an unobtrusive backdrop for the food on sale.

“The architecture becomes the choreographer,” explains H-E-B director of design Gwen Newland, who has a B.Arch. from Texas Tech University and has been with the company for nine years. “You're leading a customer through an experience. The focus is really on the product.” At Central Market, which has a “directed flow” layout instead of conventional aisles, it's up to the architects to draw customers from broccoli to breakfast cereal to baked goods, giving them a “tremendous visual impact” around every corner, Newland says.

Central Market launched in 1994, three years after H-E-B tested the waters with its first nontraditional grocery store, the Marketplace in San Antonio. Whereas major retail stores are usually planned by large committees, the initial Central Market concept arose from discussions among a small group of people eager to take grocery merchandising in a new direction.

The team did research and found that the majority of people buy food based on impulse. According to Bill Triplett, H-E-B's director of planning and design, “They have lists, but buy a lot more off the list than on.” Which is why directed flow makes good business sense: “You get to travel by everything and see things you wouldn't otherwise, and you buy more.”

The traditional layout was by no means intuitive, Triplett says: “We've done focus groups, and 10 different people will draw 10 different paths.” That model took hold because it allowed stores to move products on and off the shelves cheaply and quickly. “It's a logistics model and that's it,” he says.

Central Market, then, relieves shoppers of the burden of store navigation and turns the grocery-store errand into an experience. (Not necessarily what you want if you've rushed in for a gallon of milk—but the stores do have shortcuts that regular customers can learn, Newland says.) Each of the eight stores, which average about 70,000 square feet, has three principal sections: produce, seafood, and meat; groceries; and prepared foods, with a bakery, cheese department, deli, coffee bar, and, in some stores, a café.

Architectural contrast, while not competing with the food on display, is crucial for differentiating the sections and creating visual surprise. The produce, seafood, and meat section has the feel of a wholesale market, with concrete walls that are often unpainted, relatively low ceilings (12 feet to 16 feet), and simple lighting. From here, customers step into the beer and wine department, which suddenly and dramatically opens up: The ceilings soar to 25 feet, clerestories around the perimeter let in daylight, and the atmosphere is “like a giant hall,” Newland says.

Newland regards her team essentially as problem-solvers. “That's your program,” says Newland. “What I love about this job is you're able to help solve problems. That's what architects do.”