The arrival of Sainsbury’s in Hertford draws a line in the sand for the supermarket that wants to be “number one locally”.

Hertford is a historic town. By the time of the Domesday Book, it had three mills, two markets and two churches and was one of East Anglia’s (just) more important locations. And until recently it has been pretty much at the heart of Tesco country. Cheshunt and the supermarket’s head office are less than 10 miles away.

Now things have changed, however, and instead of one large supermarket in Hertford, there are two. Sainsbury’s has opened a store at one end of the town centre – a suitable distance from the Tesco shop, which was among the first to be given the ‘warming up’ treatment of lower units, wood and more graphics earlier this year.

And given the amount of attention that has been focused on Tesco’s activities in the town, it might seem surprising that Sainsbury’s has deemed it a good idea to break ground in this part of the world.

But it’s easy to understand why Sainsbury’s would have been tempted. On offer was a 19th-century building that had been derelict since local brewer McMullen had moved and created a “macro micro brewery”, as Sainsbury’s director of store design Damian Culkin puts it.

“This is our first foray into Hertford,” he says. “The aim was to put some of the work we’ve been doing over the last year, starting with Portswood (Southampton), and to do something here.”

He adds that the store is part of the grocer’s mission to be “number one locally” and certainly, arriving in the car park, the vista is almost bucolic.

This may be a modern supermarket, but the view is of trees, a river, a large green park and a building with the kind of fancy brickwork that captains of industry liked to create to remind them of places such as Florence or Venice. To the latter, Sainsbury’s has added a piece of what is now known as ‘vernacular architecture’, in a manner that fits with what was already there.

Culkin observes that a panorama of this kind is not without its drawbacks. “It’s a conservation area and we weren’t allowed to do anything with the building itself,” he says. On a brisk trot round the whole of this new Sainsbury’s, Culkin points to the “hand-made” bricks, fashioned to complement what was already there. Externally, this is an exercise in blending in.

Culkin says McMullen is “quite a big deal locally – the brewer owns quite a lot of the town”. This has meant that, in order to fit in, a degree of fieldwork had to be undertaken. “We wandered round the town and found things that tell the story of Hertford,” he says.

Local flavour

The work has informed many of the graphics that mark this store out as being part of Hertford, instead of just putting a sign stating ‘Welcome to Sainsbury’s Hertford’, which would be the normal retail modus operandi for those seeking to be ‘local’.

Indeed, step into this 28,000 sq ft store and among the first things that are evident are line-drawn overhead graphics of houses and landmarks around the town. But it is not a visually busy interior. Culkin says “taking the clutter away and making it easier to navigate, as well as communicating value” has been one of the major pushes that Sainsbury’s has been engaged in when creating this interior.

“This is first and foremost a fresh food store. We’ve not just done a smaller version of what we do everywhere else,” says Culkin. He adds that the store has a “more authentic market feel” and as progress is made past the fruit and veg department, a series of shop-in-shop counters are found along the back wall.

This is what Sainsbury’s might have looked like back in the day, well the counters anyway. Except that while there are still white-coated staff waiting to provide service, the new low-level counters allow customers to get up close and personal with the produce, which really is a theme imported from market retailing.

Down the aisles

This is a supermarket, however, and there still have to be long aisles to ensure that the requisite number of SKUs can be given shelf space. And as in other supermarkets, there is a long central aisle that cuts across all of the others.

At its end there is the bakery and patisserie counter, which has been given a white tile and fancy font treatment lending something of the feel you might get when entering a Viennese konditorei.

The real purpose of this is to ensure that the gaze is taken across the whole of the space and to maintain interest levels as the shopping journey continues.

Culkin says research shows that any visitor to a supermarket tends to look at only one side of any aisle, meaning that “50% of the offer is delisted”.

Glance down the aisles in this store and there is remarkably little point-of-sale material jutting out from the gondolas but, where there is, it almost alternates from side to side along their length. The idea is that the shopper’s eye is taken from one side to the other, ensuring both sides of each aisle are viewed.

And so to the checkouts. Nothing terribly remarkable about them, but as almost everywhere else in this store, there is a large amount of natural daylight, making standing in line less of a chore.

It is worth remarking that on the midweek day of visiting, the car park was far from full. This was a pretty sharp contrast with the Tesco store where the constraint seemed to be how many cars could actually get in and park – but this is a much newer store and perhaps the good people of Hertford need a little time to get used to the idea that there is something other than a supermarket whose name begins with a ‘T’.

In terms of customer experience, and it is sometimes hard to use that word in association with visiting a supermarket, this really is quite pleasant. And if you’re from Hertford, the efforts that have been made to show something of the town in-store will be apparent. Even if you’re not, there is a lot to be said for taking a supermarket environment and giving it a lift in terms of graphics and layout.

This is a sympathetic treatment of a fine structure and a good-looking supermarket to boot.