Sainsbury’s has opened its largest store to date, but does bigger mean more for the shopper? John Ryan visits the new store in Crayford

It’s quite easy to dismiss a store that is billed as ‘bigger than anything we’ve done before’. Size really isn’t everything and bigger may actually mean more difficult to find your way around and further to walk when you emerge into the car park, arms laden.

Yet this was the notice provided by the Sainsbury’s press team about the extended Crayford store. Crayford, in case you’re wondering is more or less where southeast London’s suburbs morph into Kent and the Dartford crossing is just around the corner.

As such, it is relatively easy to overlook and it’s the sort of place that is not going to benefit from a healthy tourist trade: you go there because you have to or because you live there. For Sainsbury’s, however, it is clearly ripe territory and it has just completed a project to turn an existing 45,000 sq ft branch into a 100,000 sq ft behemoth.

And at first glance, the press team is right, this is a very big store.

But is this enough to make it worthy of comment when compared with, say, a store with a footprint that is perhaps 5,000 sq ft smaller? The answer is probably no, but what makes this store interesting is that it represents a considerable move on from what the retailer has done in other large stores elsewhere.

The limit of size

As in the grocer’s other superstores - think Sydenham and Hayes for example, both of which are also in London suburban locations - when you stand inside the main entrance of this one, there’s an awful lot to see. The two things however that will probably strike you are the mezzanine floor, flagged up by a series of mannequins wearing the products and staring down at you from a chrome balustrade, and the fact that to the right, the ceiling seems to go on forever.

Sainsbury’s trading director Mike Coupe says that there is perhaps a limit to how big you can realistically go with a supermarket. “If you look at the Continent, there aren’t many stores that are more than about 120,000 sq ft and you get to a point where there’s a law of diminishing returns. The real question is how big do you go and when do you reach that point?fashion”

To an extent this is avoided in Crayford by the insertion of a 20,000 sq ft mezzanine level, meaning that the true footprint of this store is 80,000 sq ft, keeping it well within the boundaries that Coupe outlines. The other question might be whether increasing the size of a store by about two and a quarter times equates to a corresponding uplift in turnover?

Coupe is quick to scotch this supposition: “You’ve got to remember that clothing sells at a slower speed than food.” The whole of the mezzanine is a Sainsbury’s clothing shop, a new addition to the store, so a proportion of the sales per square foot will be slower than in its previous incarnation.

Nonetheless, what the inclusion of a clothing shop and a very substantial general merchandise area beneath the mezzanine does give this store is authority in non-food. Looking at the clothing area first, it manages to do so through the careful use that has been made of the space.

In place of a 20,000 sq ft barn with a relatively high ceiling, this part of the store features clear merchandise departments, each of which has high walls and equipment that starts high and then dips in the mid-shop creating a valley-like effect. Not only does this make better use of the space, but it also means that shoppers are in a position to inspect the area that is relevant to them with ease. This is instead of shoppers finding their way through high aisles filled with clothing, that tends to be the way of things in George at Asda and, to an extent, in Tesco.

There are also new merchandise departments within the area, such as sports and swimwear and a lot more point-of-sale material, with colour photography and graphics being used to identify each department. And, as noted on the balcony overlooking the main food and general merchandise floor, there are mannequins, whether it’s the lower torsos used to add a little interest to the denim shop, or the full-size headless version that can be seen sporting a Sainsbury’s two-piece suit in the men’s area.

The landscaping and layout of the clothing departments is the outcome of work conducted by Sainsbury’s with design consultancy Household and works to make a large space digestible and relatively attractive.

Adjacent to all of this is the cafe, a large space that in spite of a long white counter looks a little back-of-house, probably owing to the high ceiling and standard fluorescent lighting overhead.

Heading down the travelator and turning right, the shopper is plunged into the store’s general merchandise area. This has everything from toasters and kettles, to an O2 mobile phone store concession, created by consultancy JHP. It would be beyond the ambit of this magazine to detail the many different merchandise elements that make up this part of the store, but a highlight has to be the technology department and the seasonal Halloween area, although Sainsbury’s has a long way to go before it can catch up with Asda and Tesco in this category.

There is also the matter of adjacencies. It’s one thing to have a technology department, another to be forced to locate it at the point where general merchandise ends and food begins, at the back of the shop.

Practically, this means that as TVs and suchlike end, there is fish. Yes, the fish counter, one of several fresh food and food-to-go counters located along the store’s back wall, is cheek-by-jowl with the slick apparatus of modern living. “It is one of the more interesting adjacencies, but then you have to have a break somewhere,” as Coupe notes.

Beyond this, it’s food all the way, with the exception of a smattering of baby clothes, which have been dual-sited on a ground floor aisle (next to nappies) and on the mezzanine upstairs, and a pharmacy shop.

Sainsbury’s has worked with its long-term design partner Twelve Studio on the ground floor and the layouts make sense and the area is easily navigated thanks to large single-word beacons overhead. This may be a big space, but when it comes to finding your way around, it’s pretty much child’s play.

So where does this leave the press office and its statement about this being the biggest Sainsbury’s store to date? Given its size, an argument could be that it’s the greenest store in the retailer’s portfolio in terms of the amount of energy that will have been saved thanks to the whizzy devices used to recycle the chilled air in the store and the 15 200 metre-deep boreholes underneath the car park that are used to heat water.

There are in fact a number of superlatives that could be produced when talking about this store relative to the rest of the Sainsbury’s estate, but probably rather more pertinent is the fact that it represents another step forward in the continuing story of Sainsbury’s in-store development. Crayford is a stepping stone and it seems certain that the next two 100,000 sq ft stores, in Lincoln and Stanway in Essex, will add to what is on display here. Every little helps, as somebody once said.

Sainsbury’s, crayford

Location Crayford

Size 100,000 sq ft

Food/general merchandise/clothing split 45,000 sq ft for food: 25,000 sq ft GM: 20,000 sq ft clothing

Opening date September 29

Design Sainsbury’s in-house team working with Twelve Studio, Household and Pope Wainwright