Southern Co-operatives is trialling four new formats aimed at giving the in-store experience a warmer, less clinical feel. John Ryan samples the ambience at pilot stores across the South.

Mention the word Co-op to some people and an image persists of a utilitarian shopfit coupled with an also-ran merchandise range and the feeling that the stores are in some way second best to the big supermarkets.

This would of course be unfair, as these are stores that, for the most part, are not intended to form the basis of a big weekly shop, but rather to serve local communities. In most cases their most obvious direct rival would be a convenience store, the kind of place visited because people happen to be passing or because the shop is within easy walking distance.

The characterisation of Co-ops as lacklustre would also be misplaced. In recent years, the various organisations that comprise the movement have made big strides to update stores and much has been made of the ethical and environmental stance taken by the group. As in every other retail outfit, there is however room for improvement, although the steps taken by Southern Co-operatives seem a move in the right direction.
Southern Co-operatives has 120 outlets, having added 13 two weeks ago, when it acquired some of the former Nearby Stores that came onto the market following the Weston-super-Mare-based chain’s descent into administration last month. It has a portfolio of variously sized units across Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset.

Practically, as general manager of commercial operations Philip Ponsonby notes, the Southern Co-operatives portfolio is something of a mixed bag. In design terms there is a base level, but is is not entirely as the retailer might wish it to be. “We have been focused on clean lines and efficiency, but they weren’t as warm and inviting as we wanted,” he says.

Following a pitch in April last year, Southern Co-operatives appointed Hove-based design consultancy CDW to help rectify this. The outcome has been four new formats that in terms of colour palette and tone of voice go a long way towards addressing the over-clinical approach.

The first of these, a small shop in a Bognor Regis suburb, was christened Neighbourhood Top-up and opened in July. This was very much a prototype for things to come, according to CDW partner Ralph Scott, and much of what can be seen in this store has been developed subsequently. With stripey zebrano wood treatments for the counter at the front of the shop and graphics that run around the upper perimeter emphasising the fresh nature of the offer, it is certainly different from a normal Co-op. As a top-up format it is also some distance from what might normally be expected of the sector. In addition, the store boasts an in-store bakery at the back of the shop, an element common to all of the new blueprints.
The Bognor store was built on the site of a former Co-op that was demolished in 2007. The 1,400 sq ft (130 sq m) footprint of the new store is around half the size of its predecessor but Ponsonby says it is 14 per cent ahead of target. A success therefore, and one that has already been given the nod by Southern Co-operatives’ management. More Neighbourhood Top-ups to follow, then.

Pillar of the community
It is with the “community” store in Emsworth, an affluent small town near Chichester, that Southern Co-ops’ new design really hits its stride, however. Launched in October with a 2,000 sq ft (185 sq m) footprint, this is bigger than the neighbourhood format and is therefore intended to service the needs of a broader audience.

Externally, it bears a logo referred to by Ponsonby as an “interim” solution. While this is different from a run of the mill Co-op sign, a decision has yet to be taken on whether it will be used across the chain. Ponsonby says that the reason for this is that the emphasis to date has been on establishing a consistent in-store appearance. That said, the windows have been given a full treatment. Blanked out, they are filled with large graphics that take the form of words with icons illustrating them, including: “delifresh”, “beers&wine” and “fresh&fruity”.

Inside, as well as the in-store bakery there is a long deli counter and the front of the store is devoted to fresh food. On the day of visiting, January 2, queues had formed at the deli, where the majority of the food was being served to order, rather than in pre-packaged quantities. Picking up on the delifresh graphic in the window, the light olive wall immediately behind the counter carries a message reading “delifresh taste the world” in white and darker olive. Overall, the impression is more Waitrose than cheap supermarket and the store feels in keeping with upmarket Emsworth, a yachting fraternity haven apparently.

Directly in front of the deli counter there is a mid-floor fresh fruit and veg fixture of the kind familiar to big supermarket shoppers, but which is rarely found in smaller food retailers. Above this, a series of circular lanterns with printed patterns carry some of the messages found on the store's exterior. These also serve to direct the eye deeper into the shop. Ponsonby says that sales have increased 21 per cent at this location since the refit and this format has also been given the thumbs-up for a roll-out.

With the third, “food to go” format, located in a secondary shopping area of central Southampton, Southern Co-operatives has been at its boldest. As Scott remarks, this is an area with a lot of passing trade from offices and the local competition does not look as if it has kept pace with the times.

Standing outside this store, you might be forgiven for thinking that you are looking at a modern coffee bar rather than a supermarket variant, and to an extent you’d be right. The front of the shop is occupied by a very large counter-cum-servery, clad in the same zebrano as Bognor’s neighbourhood store, and is more snack bar than store. This section is separated from the top-up area at the rear by rafts that run across the ceiling and down towards the floor. As a format, this has all the components found in the other trial stores, but is much more of a move away from what might normally be considered the Co-op’s core competence.

Finally, a convenience store format is programmed to open in Gosport, Hampshire, at the end of this month, aimed at capturing the spirit of the new look, but working from a smaller footprint.

All in all, 2009 looks reasonably fair for Southern Co-ops. With a tranche of new stores under its belt and a refurbishment programme that will lead to nearly a quarter of its stores being remodelled this year, the retailer may be typical of a new breed emerging in the credit crunch landscape. For retailers in a position to acquire and refurbish during the next 12 months, this will be an interesting time.