Sainsbury’s revamped Hayes branch in west London shows that a store of the future can be just that. John Ryan visits

Mention the term store of the future and it’s hard not to stifle a yawn. This has to be one of the most overused phrases in retail design and the reality is almost always a blind alley that has nothing to do with the present, let alone what is to come. Yet retailers still employ those same words, although they mean little or nothing and may even be a term of relative abuse.

Receiving a call, therefore, from Sainsbury’s press office about a visit to a store of the future in Hayes is likely to elicit something approaching a groan, not because there’s anything wrong with the store (there probably isn’t) but because of the image that is inadvertently conjured up.

In the event, Sainsbury’s remodelled Hayes shop, the latest guise in the grocer’s store development story, turns out to be very good indeed. Situated on the main Uxbridge Road that runs through one of those faceless parts of west London close to Heathrow airport, this 88,000 sq ft (8,175 sq m) giant is a key element of the Lombardy retail park.

Until November last year it was about a third smaller than its current form and had one floor rather than the two from which it now trades. Both facts make this an unusual store by Sainsbury’s standards, as it is now the second largest branch in the portfolio (behind the south London leviathan in Sydenham) and perhaps more importantly, it is the only one of the grocer’s stores with two trading floors.

The latter fact is significant for a simple reason: it has allowed Sainsbury’s to create a floor that works as a standalone clothing shop. When moving through a store, the normal progress is to start with the fascia and then methodically work through the space, taking in the various parts of the shop. In this instance, however, it makes sense to begin upstairs, for no better reason than that this is probably the most novel part of what has been done.

A long travelator takes shoppers up to the first floor, which is on the left-hand side of the shop. Getting to this point involves coming in through the main doors and passing the food, which, as in all supermarkets, offers shoppers fresh fruit and veg as the first thing they encounter.

By providing an alternative in-store route to its clothing offer, Sainsbury’s would appear to be doing what BAA did at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 last year when it offered visitors shops that were “on the way, but not in the way”. Normally, the central objective of any Sainsbury’s shopper would be to buy food, so stocking up on clothing is a separate mission and one that will probably benefit from its own dedicated space.

The first thing the shopper will notice upon arriving upstairs is that there really is a lot of space. This part of the store has a curved ceiling that soars high above the floor’s 15,000 sq ft (1,395 sq m) footprint. Sainsbury’s commercial director Neil Sachdev is responsible for the development of new stores at the grocer and has a track record when it comes to creating two-floor supermarkets. This is his first two-floor store for Sainsbury’s – he joined in 2007 – but in his 28-year stint at Tesco, he built 35 outlets with travelators and a mezzanine level. “Space is important. It’s how you use that space better that matters,” he says. “In the past we perhaps lacked a bit of confidence about this, but since the Sydenham store, confidence is sky high. We are also now more consistent in the way we build stores.”

Clothed in glory

Certainly, on the clothing floor, which leads to the cafe, there is a simplicity about the way things have been done. The goalpost-style “portals” festooned with lifestyle graphics (pictured bottom right), first seen in the non-food areas of the Sydenham store, southeast London, have been used as a navigation aid on this level. This is hardly necessary, however, owing to the four-lane highways that form the aisles leading from one end of the floor to the other.

And here’s the thing. This may be a clothing floor, but it still feels like a supermarket insofar as the aisles are sufficiently long and wide for trolleys to be wheeled between the display fixtures two abreast. In merchandising terms, the displays are predominantly about commodity presentation, although many of the high units, which are double- or triple-hung, have accessories displayed alongside them. As such, the emphasis is on a value-based offer and pricing looms large at every turn.

There is also room for expansion. Sachdev points to the roof and says that, if need be, an extra floor could be created for the cafe, freeing up more space for clothing.

Back downstairs in the main part of the store, an extensive homewares department is located underneath the mezzanine. At 73,000 sq ft (6,780 sq m), this floor stretches away into the distance. And in keeping with best supermarket practice, it has a bank of tills at the front, including large numbers of self-service terminals, followed by merchandise, followed by a promotional aisle at the heart of the store. As on the floor above it, this level incorporates many of the elements first seen in Sydenham, but also includes a number of the green components that Sainbury’s unveiled at its eco-store in Dartmouth, Devon, in August.

Pride of place on this floor probably goes to the wines and spirits department. Conventional supermarket wisdom has it that this should be at the back of the shop and in the aisle furthermost from the main entrance. Or put another way, booze alley is at the end of the shopping journey: a reward for those male chauvinist types for whom supermarket shopping is another cross to bear. At Hayes, however, it is in the middle of the shop, the equipment is lower and it occupies two wide aisles’ worth of space, creating once more the impression that you have walked into a shop-in-shop rather than just another aisle.

Finally, stand outside in the car park and admire the view. The white metal curves and arches that combine to create the shopfront have a contemporary feel that looks unlikely to date in a hurry.

Sachdev says that this store is part of a developing portfolio of formats all aimed at answering the question: “How do you put your best foot forward?” The next project on a similar scale will be a 70,000 sq ft (6,500 sq m) shop in High Wycombe, scheduled for completion in the autumn. In the meantime, at Hayes Sainsbury’s has gone a long way towards defining what a store of the future really should be. This is the kind of shop you would like to see elsewhere, interpreted this way. It is a little slice of an improved future rather than something that has sprung unfettered and uncontrolled from a designer’s drawing board.