In a quest for clarity and a more appealing store environment, Sainsbury’s has created a ‘milestone’ store in Welwyn Garden City. John Ryan visits and talks to head of store design Damien Culkin.

What is it about Welwyn Garden City? There may be a few more gardens than normal, but it’s not the only thing you notice and it really is quite a long way from being a city. It does, however, seem to find favour with retailers.

The town was one of the first to receive a makeover for the women’s department of the local John Lewis last year and now, just around the corner, a new milestone has been passed in the shape of a 60,000 sq ft Sainsbury’s store.

Actually, the new arrival is known internally as a ‘milestone’ store by the grocer and, according to head of store design Damien Culkin, is intended to act as a distillation of Sainsbury’s in-store best practice, as well as including a few new elements.

Let there be light

The most obvious of these is apparent as you approach the store – a ‘living wall’ filled with plants. This provides a friendly introduction to a store that, from the outside, is distinctly non-standard. For a start, the exterior has aesthetically appealing louvered wooden slats that form the background to the logo.

Culkin says that this is not just a matter of making something look good, but is also a response to some pretty tough hurdles that needed to be cleared in order to get permission for the store to be built in its current form.

The stringent planning climate also explains the square latticed windows that run the length of one side of the store. They look remarkably similar to the nearby neo-Georgian blocks that formed part of the original blueprint for the Garden City, as envisioned by Sir Ebenezer Howard in the 1920s. This has the twin benefit of making a large store look more human and also ensures that a high level of natural daylight permeates the interior.

It is worth noting at this point that this is Sainsbury’s 50th year in town. The first store was just across the pedestrian area in front of the current branch and is now a Poundstretcher. Sainsbury’s vacated this shop in 1982 and has had a store on the current site ever since.

Entering the store and riding the travelator up from the new car park, the shopper passes large graphics with information such as the fact that ‘93% of the wood used by Sainsbury’s last year was sustainable’.

All well and good, but it is the view at the top of the travelator that really sets the tone for the store. To the left, there is a very simple icon depicting a white trolley against a red background. There is a clarity about it that is part of the modus operandi that Culkin says was adopted for the new store: “We’ve tried to keep signage under control, so there is less material overhead,” he says.

He adds that when the signage for the store as a whole was considered they took out everything apart from that which was absolutely needed – such as the price and anything that may be legally required. “We then set about deciding what we’d like to put in and how it would help the shopper,” he says.

The result is a very clean-looking store, although arriving at the top of the travelator there is a large graphic informing shoppers about the living wall outside. ‘Our living wall provides the perfect habitat for the preservation and protection of flora and fauna, contributing to the overall health and wellbeing of the community,’ it says.

Maybe so, although given that this is a ‘garden city’ it is a little hard to see how a relatively modest patch of green on the outside of the building will add to the sum total in any meaningful way. It does look nice, however.

Turning 180 degrees, the shopper faces a fresh fruit and veg area that is warmer than the normal black plastic trays on a mid-floor unit that typify the average introduction to a supermarket. Instead, plain wood-covered equipment provides a gentle backdrop for the stock and the graphics on top of this are framed by wood of the same colour.

Now look up and the signage that is visible is different from the Sainsbury’s norm. Intended to look more “warm and friendly”, according to Culkin, the font is called ‘Slab’ – and shoppers should expect to see more stores with Slab across the floor.

Worth noting too are the selected symbols used to indicate particular categories – ketchup bottles, egg boxes and suchlike – all are used as an alternative to the printed word.

The bakery is a step forward, with a low, white, hi-gloss counter giving ample space for the freshly baked products, which shoppers can see being produced in the ovens behind.

Another level

On the mezzanine level, accessed either by lift or travelator, the sensation is of space. A large sign at the entrance to the floor stating ‘TU Clothing’ is a “statement of intent”, as Culkin puts it, and after that an outsize graphic of TV stylist Gok Wan tells you that it’s time for womenswear.

The graphics used on this floor are generally relaxed in feel, with many of them being studio shots and this is about as close to a standalone clothes shop, without opening a standalone, as is likely to be encountered in this country.

Look down and the racetrack walkway also helps to guide the shopper around the space, with a strip repeating the word ‘TU’ along its edge indicating where you are. This is followed by another that reads ‘Home’ and so on – simple, but effective stuff.

Follow all of this and eventually you wind up at the cafe. “It’s not Ottolenghi perhaps, but hey ho,’” says Culkin. It is, however, a restrained space that picks up on the brown-and-white colour palette that is used across much of the store and the great majority of the products you see in the cafe can be found on sale in the food areas downstairs –something that is frequently not the case in rival food retailers.

It’s now a little over two weeks since the store welcomed its first shoppers and to judge by the comments of a number of them as they entered the store, this is a success. It is also, along with a larger 100,000 sq ft store in Ashford in Kent, the first of several ‘milestone’ branches.

This week has seen more of the new-look shops opening in Marlow and Sevenoaks with a 100,000 sq ft single-floor branch opening its doors at Heaton Park in Manchester.

Sainsbury’s is currently one of the UK’s more successful retailers: it posted a 6.6% surge in profits for the 28 weeks to October 1. On the basis of what’s on view in Welwyn Garden City, there is every reason to suppose that it may remain one of the few that continues to defy the gloom.

Sainsbury’s, Welwyn Garden City

Location 44 Church Road, Herts

Size 60,000 sq ft

Opening date November 16, 2011

Store equipment manufacturing New Store Europe

Store design and masterplanning Twelve Studio

Bakery design JHP

Staff restaurant and colleague area design Pope Wainwright