Supermarket sweep

Store design, differentiation and consumer experiences are crucial to supermarkets in their bid for further expansion

Supermarket expansion is showing no signs of abating, with big retailers leading the way in store design standards.

Market leader Tesco opened seven new stores in December 2006 alone, and plans to launch a further 300 international shops.

Morrisons has announced it is overhauling its brand identity in an attempt to expand beyond its Northern roots, while the Co-op Group and United Co-operatives are in merger talks to create a business with a turnover larger than Sainsbury’s.

Despite the fact that each supermarket appeals to a different demographic, and product, price and convenience is important to the consumer, design remains fundamental to the success of the business and each store faces challenges to keep the formats simple and up to date.

According to Simon Threadkell, creative director at Fitch, who has worked with Tesco in Kensington most recently, supermarkets have become completely dominant and people are starting to look towards products – their provenance and organic nature – and design.

‘If they are going to spend an hour in a store, customers need an experience that goes beyond value and choice,’ he says. ‘Where once supermarkets were almost sheds with merchandise, now they are very strong brands themselves. They must work very hard to use design to clearly position them,’ he continues.

‘There is a growing mistrust of supermarkets, so they have to communicate their position on values very strongly. In-store, things like cafés are important, so the experience becomes something you don’t begrudge. There are also different levels of the market – if you go to Asda, it is a bright, cheerful, friendly environment and shows value. It is very personal and design is used to communicate that. Waitrose is cleaner and crisper and reflects that the customer is being talked to,’ he adds.

Threadkell talks specifically about how practical level design helps influence. At Kensington’s Tesco he turned the fish counter around so that the fishmonger now stands on the same side as the customer, creating a good service feeling. ‘Contemporary supermarket shops are really representing old-fashioned shop values. Design works when it is communicating the business to the customer,’ he says.

Looking forward, supermarkets must stay one step ahead of their rivals, and with the rise in Internet shopping, simple convenience formats of large chains are becoming enormously successful for topping up the shopping list. Somerfield launched Market Fresh, by JHP Design managing director Steve Collis, a few years ago, while the next Tesco Express or Metro is always just around the corner.

According to Collis, there will be a growth in quality convenience retailers. ‘They will be rolled out in commuter belts, so when the lettuce starts to wilt mid-week, people can get off the train, go to the store and grab what they want. The bigger supermarkets will try to push convenience. There will be a shift to the convenience side and simplicity,’ he says.

‘I think Tesco tries to be all things to all men within one great environment. There is a big need to have clarity in spaces, to keep it very simple and clear. This is about going to the shop and knowing what you need to buy, so you can make it utilitarian, but with some joy in the experience. I think [design] is so dependent on the level you are selling at. There’s value and there’s quality/ organic and fresh food on the one hand, or a mountain of Stella from Asda on the other,’ adds Collis.

Collis believes the design of Waitrose’s stores in the future will become even more like a food hall than it already is. ‘It is almost not a supermarket,’ he says, ‘and it will become more segregated in its own sense. Tesco will have more layers, rather than just one vast shed – not just the value side.’

Jim Thompson, managing director at 20/20, believes design plays a different part for each retailer – a smaller part for a giant such as Tesco, where convenience and price stands out. Sainsbury’s design and experience is central, on the other hand, because it aims to inspire and give ideas. For Asda, design is about tactical, price-driven changes, while Morrisons’ interior is part of an older, more traditional world. In each case, simplicity is the key for the future.

Thompson says, ‘The store design for many of these retailers is also differentiated by their size and format, so customers know there is a difference between a main shop and a city centre convenience store. Simple things make a great store – good lighting, the right colour palate, inspiring merchandising, great communications, good packaging. It’s easy to get them right and just as easy to get them wrong.’

Thompson highlights that, while its easy to say that retailers’ design must move with the times, ‘with the capital expenditure of big supermarkets so high, it is very difficult to radically change stores without big budgets’.

Perhaps the supermarkets’ own slogans are food for thought for their designers – ‘try something new today’ because ‘every little helps’.


• Tesco is the UK’s first-placed supermarket brand among shoppers, with a market share of 31.5% and plans to open 300 new international stores
• Asda comes second with a 16.6% market share. It launched additional store formats last year
• Sainsbury’s is behind Asda in third place with a 16% share
• Co-op and Morrisons have big expansion plans in the pipeline

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