Retail needs fresh thinking to keep those tills ringing

Who said that supermarkets were competing largely on price these days? From a design perspective it looks as though they are trying to beat off their rivals through developing new formats, particularly at the ‘local’ end of the scale.

News that Sainsbury’s has acquired convenience chain Jacksons adds to a portfolio of store types available to its customers. The interesting thing is that the supermarket giant is retaining the Jacksons brand, as it did with its previous convenience store acquisition Bells, adopting the ‘celebrity’-style tag ‘Sainsbury’s at…’ for both chains. We wait to see how the likes of Tesco and Asda respond – and if customers are convinced by this hybrid approach.

But supermarkets aren’t the only retailers rethinking their outlets. Shops of all sorts are getting a makeover, some promoting new concepts. We expect it of fashion brands such as Diesel, which has revamped its Covent Garden store (see News, page 3) and the new-look Body Shop was long overdue when the first one opened in July. But more radical ideas are coming from elsewhere. Take Boots the Chemists’ move to create private booths in its pharmacy departments, courtesy of Era Studio. It may seem an obvious departure as the nation’s chemist seeks to humanise its otherwise clinical interiors, but with supermarkets and the like soon to be allowed to dispense drugs, its timing is crucial.

Then there is the approach taken by Milestone Strategic Design for fledgling car supermarket Karma, which adds a café, play area and other facilities to the showroom (DW 19 August). It’s not a big departure for retail generally and by no means as adventurous as Volkswagen’s spectacular ‘theme park’ at Wolfsburg in Germany, but it still makes a welcome, customer-driven change for cars.

Of course, not all retail innovations pay off – witness Marks & Spencer’s ill-fated Lifestore venture. But retailers have learned that they cannot afford to stand still. Complacency is one of the factors blamed for the recent poor performance of M&S’s main business, for example.

While other sectors might be struggling, retail looks set to continue to provide a good source of work for designers across all disciplines, albeit at knock-down prices. But the real trick is for design groups to move beyond the usual refit and inveigle their way on to the strategic side, bringing in new ideas that challenge conventional retailing.

Sadly, few retail design specialists can make this leap – and it takes a particularly astute client to go for a big shift in a sector that is totally dominated by sales figures. But it’s worth going for. If design groups don’t then someone else will.

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