Design in Britain: In search of a shopping identity

As Sainsbury's launches a new, environmentally friendly store, Michael Evamy examines how supermarkets are developing a consistent image
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If you want to see the future, go to the Greenwich Peninsula. Head not for the Millennium Dome, but for the new Sainsbury's, sited about as close to the Dome as possible without invading the car park. The new flagship store could itself be called a millennium experience, since it claims to offer customers a level of service and environment unavailable up until now, and provides the troubled grocery chain with a model store to which all its others can aspire. And, by heaven, they need to aspire to something.

Sainsbury's Greenwich is the most carefully designed supermarket in the world, ever. Erected over nine months, the building claims to be "Britain's first low-energy foodstore", which doesn't mean only couch potatoes are allowed in. It does mean you can consume to your heart's content in the knowledge that your purchasing spree - if not the things you buy - are environmentally benign.

The store features eco-design technology such as a localised underfloor heating system, passive ventilation, and natural lighting through north- facing glass louvres in the arching, sawtooth roof. The toilet walls are clad in crushed, recycled plastic bottles. Outside, banks of turf insulate the store and two wind turbines power night-lighting.

On the shopfloor, which is where the other stores in the chain will be taking their cues from, the foodstore looks and sounds less like a supermarket than the food hall at Harvey Nichols. It features shorter, more intimate aisles, low-energy spotlighting above each set of shelves, and a completely new strategy on layout and "product positioning", with all the food and drink products in the first half of the store, and household goods towards the end. There is a bakery, salad kitchen and delicatessen, all apparently lifted from West End designer eateries. And beyond the ultra-modern checkouts is - a big step, this - a Starbucks coffee shop: a real shop-in-shop.

It is a far cry from the high street Sainsbury's of even 20 years ago, before conveyor belts replaced sliding wooden frames at the checkouts. In the last decade, particularly, the Big Four - Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Safeway - have become less price-oriented and more brand-oriented, and have used design as a critical tool in building brand loyalty. With Sainsbury's having rolled out their new brand identity this summer, and Tesco expected to follow, it seems that supermarkets are becoming ever more sophisticated in their marketing, learning from top consumer brands like Nike, Sony and Coca-Cola in projecting a consistent, enticing image for consumers to buy into.

They all want to be different from the next. But how different are they? The problem is that while they continue to play me-too with all their innovative brand extensions and services - banking, own-brand budget lines, own-brand premium lines, etc - they tend towards uniformity. It becomes a zero-zero endgame, like a supermarket nuclear war.

The Big Four have to look at other ways of differentiating. "The importance of store design, shop layout and fixture profiles cannot be understated," says Mike Watkins, manager of retailer services at industry researcher AC Nielsen. "Food retailers in particular will differentiate their offer by the use of creative store layouts which are tailored to different types of consumers. For example, Asda, with a strong price message and serving a family shopper interested in bulk buys, will merchandise with large pallet displays, and the stores are designed to accommodate this type of layout. Sainsbury's by contrast, with a less price-oriented customer base, serving smaller households with a propensity to buy more added-value products, successfully merchandise each different product category differently, and with differently designed shelving."

Greenwich serves as the first full outing for Sainsbury's new in-store branding, which takes on a new orange-and-navy colour scheme. It is an attempt to communicate the chain's existing strengths in a new and refreshing way. Rune Gustafson, managing director of 20/20 Design & Strategy, which developed the new identity with the retailer, says: "The supermarkets have to try harder to differentiate themselves, and the answer to that lies in the brand and the way they manage it through all its manifestations: product, service, environment, format, packaging. Tesco and Sainsbury's, especially, are looking at this in a much wider sense now, and looking at the total relationship with the customer."

One area that is gaining extra attention is that of own-label packaging. Time was when supermarkets simply mimicked the labels and containers of the brand leaders in each category - ketchup, cornflakes and so on - but programmes are now in hand to develop packaging that projects a consistent, distinctive brand image across thousands of products. Tesco, for example, is addressing its own range, across which several different old logos still appear. Sainsbury's will use its new rebranding to rethink its own labels. Sam Ellis at packaging design consultancy Coley Porter Bell believes the Big Four still have some way to go in identifying how to be different: if the logos were removed from each supermarket's packet of own-brand dried penne, for instance, no one would be able to tell the difference. It's about having a clear idea who your customers are and what they expect, says Ellis. "The way an Asda shopper thinks about tea is very different to the way a Waitrose shopper does, and it's that difference that communicates itself through the packaging."

Matthew Bright, whose Metropolis Design Group resigned its Sainsbury's account when it was asked to produce an imitation of a Bailey's Irish Cream bottle for the own-label equivalent, now designs in-store "experiences" for the likes of Safeway, based on customers' lifestyles. "What the smart retailers are doing is looking at people's habits. We are becoming cash- rich, time-poor, so more and more we'll see the development of meal components rather than ingredients, and design has a role in communicating that.

"In France, the average meal preparation time is 54 minutes; here, it's 22 minutes and in the US, it is 7 minutes. So in Safeway, for instance, you'll see something called "Eat Easy" as a sub-brand right through the shop. What it means is stuff that doesn't take a lot of cooking. Supermarkets are having to find new ways to draw people in. Designers are taking ideas from the US to British retailers. We recreate those ideas and make them appropriate for a British market as ways of bringing people in for reasons other than buying baked beans. Eventually, supermarkets might just turn into a series of experiences - with a Kelloggs breakfast bar and a Sharwoods noodle bar and so on - while the basic goods are just delivered to your door."

Replacing the chore of grocery shopping with gourmet-style browsing, a la Harvey Nichols could be the future. But if Sainsbury's Greenwich doesn't satisfy the south-east Londoner's hunger for new experiences, there's always the Dome.