All Consuming: Dance of the rubber-fun dairy

Chickens and cows are alive in the supermarket. By Katherine Sorrell
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The Independent Online
Walk into a supermarket today and you could be forgiven for thinking you had strayed into a small-scale version of Disneyland. Retailers are out to grab customers with the latest incentive to shop ... the fun factor.

"In the past shopping has been a chore, but we have been working on bringing in fun, theatre and a tongue in cheek sense of humour," says Barrie Trowsdale, design development controller at Somerfield. "Our moulded-rubber scenes break down the barriers and add a level of entertainment to the shopping experience." Already about a dozen Somerfield stores feature chickens that wiggle to a soundtrack and monkeys that swing around the banana section; two weeks ago saw the introduction of dancing penguins in frozen food and yoghurt-pot athletes gyrating along the dairy counter, and next week Trowsdale is launching a fish tank complete with moving lobster and ocean sounds. In Asda's egg and dairy sections there are push-button clucking chickens and mooing cows, and in some stores a life-sized model dog "woofs" and wags his tail as customers approach the pet food shelves. The newest Tesco stores have replaced written signs with giant glass-fibre "icons" in the shape of twirling Emperor penguins, rotating rotisseries, leaping salmon, watering cans, clothes lines, knives and forks and assorted sweets. At the refurbished Pitsea Tesco Extra, Friesian cows guards the milk and cream, swishing their tails in time to bird song, moos and countryside sounds. Designed by a firm of specialists in retail design and planning, RPA, the models were named "most innovative visual merchandising" at the Design Week Retail Innovation Awards in April.

"For about 10 years the design industry has talked about bringing the fun into retailing, but although it has happened to an extent in some areas, it has only just started to come into the major supermarkets," says Siemon Scamell-Katz, managing director of ID Magasin, a retail research and design consultancy. "They have realised that they can't open any more stores, and they're likely to have a direct competitor on their doorstep, so they have to make existing stores work harder. Most people hate grocery shopping and walk around in zombie-mode, so stores are looking at ways of getting away from clinical presentation to make visiting them more enjoyable."

A zoo-full of dancing animals is just one of the many developments, however, that will turn the supermarkets of tomorrow into an entertaining leisure pastime. Following the example of American stores, Britain is getting closer than ever to the one-stop shop: pharmacies, mini-newsagents, florists, dry cleaning; you can even buy a car if you visit one of Savacentre's three Daewoo outlets - how long until a visit to the supermarket includes seeing your GP, booking a holiday or taking a short course in home improvement? Other trends stem from the world of technology. Self-scanning and web sites are old hat. The next step will be scanners that display personal messages for shoppers (planned soon at Sainsbury) and customer smart cards that will allow you to discard your trolley and simply swipe your choices, which will then be packed automatically ready to be picked up later. Virtual reality has been used in Scandinavia to help customers design kitchens, and could one day find a place in our supermarkets, while the technology already exists to project three-dimensional images without the viewer wearing special goggles or headsets. The inventors, CRL, say that "Vistral" is going to be used in a retail application (though not in this country) very soon, and they also believe that their "Sensaura" system, which uses conventional hi-fi speakers to relay sound from apparently moving points, will reach the high streets in the near future. The potential for displays and advertising is enormous: "People are gobsmacked when they see the three-dimensional images," says Dr John Holden, CRL's senior principal engineer.

One would imagine that Somerfield customers were gobsmacked, too, when they approached shelves of Spillers' new Purrfect pet food and the labels began to talk to them. It was an arresting tactic that falls well into the latest thinking that supermarkets must become more interactive with customers, giving a sense of dynamism and personality. Safeway Milton Keynes, for examples, is trialling a customer TV channel which broadcasts price promotions and in-store initiatives into the aisles. "We're going to see a lot more of this sort of thing and a lot more advertising in stores," Scamell-Katz says. "The US already has trolleys with video screens that play ads for certain products as you approach the different sections. We're also going to see a lot more touch-screen information - for instance, the ability to print out recipes."

However Steve Ryder, head of design and point of sale at Tesco, believes that the fun factor can be taken too far. "Our customers wanted us to make the stores more interesting and exciting, and they have received our new visual merchandising very favourably," he explains. "But our emphasis at present is also on making shopping easier, in terms of steerable trolleys, the service you get at the checkout, clarifying information and so on." Scamell-Katz agrees. "All the retailers are a lot more aware of human interaction," he says. "We're developing a new checkout, reconfiguring the shape so as to give the customer and member of staff the chance to chat. And we're working with supermarkets on the way people actually shop. A retailer in the Netherlands has reformatted its store lay-outs so they're based around the idea of a recipe - for example, a chicken area with vegetables, garlic and different sauces sold alongside the meat. We think this is where a major change is going to take place. It's only once you've got the functionality right that you can start putting the icing on the cake."

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