The Lidl store opposite Tooting station in south London offers a clue about the direction the discounter is taking. John Ryan pays a visit

As a phrase, “store of the future” is almost as hackneyed as “right thing, right place, right time”. It’s one of retail’s hardy perennials, dredged up whenever real thought might be required (and when there is a wish to avoid this) and in consequence has been rendered largely meaningless. Stores of the future tend to fall into two categories: stores that have technology that purports to push boundaries, but which does not; and stores that try to be all things to all channels, which usually doesn’t work either.

“What is on view is a makeover of an existing store, standing perhaps as evidence that this refit is replicable across an existing estate”

A trip to Tooting in south London, however, may go further towards offering a glimpse of what the store of tomorrow will look like, at least as far as discount grocery retail is concerned. This is the location of a ‘Lidl of the Future’ and it’s conveniently situated directly across the street from the overground rail station.

20160504 095648

The ‘welcome’ graphic anchors the store in the community

There is in fact another Lidl store that represents the ‘full Monty’ as far as the grocer’s future is concerned, and it is in Rushden, Northamptonshire. That one boasts a full glass frontage and winsome external design features, both of which are absent in the Tooting branch. In spite of this, the point about the London version is that what is on view is a makeover of an existing store, standing perhaps as evidence that this refit is replicable across an existing estate. The refit was completed last year and there has now been time for the new look to become established.

Inside job

Practically, this means that while the outside of the Tooting branch looks pretty much like a standard Lidl, the interior has been given a root-and-branch facelift that very obviously sets it apart from its sister stores. Walking in from the large car park, therefore, the first thing that the shopper encounters is the ‘welcome’ graphic designed to anchor the store as part of the local community.

This is standard stuff for any supermarket these days and feels like many other Lidl branches. Step beyond the foyer and enter the store proper, however, and things do feel different from one of the grocer’s normal outposts.

“In total, the effect is both inviting and slick, more akin to the sort of thing that might be found in a department store food hall”

To the left is the bakery. In a standard Lidl, this consists of wicker baskets containing bread and pastries baked on the premises. These are arranged in a tiered and raked display that finishes about chest height. The same is true of the Tooting store, but where the norm is for everything to be open, the display in this instance is contained with a black metal frame, and in place of the wicker baskets are trays with Perspex fronts.

The whole frame is internally lit and, owing to the fact that everything is dark behind it until the eye reaches a matt-grey strip and a ‘Bakery’ sign, the equipment actually appears higher than it is.

In total, the effect is both inviting and slick, more akin to the sort of thing that might be found in a department store food hall (or perhaps Waitrose) than a discount grocer.

Different feel

Next up is ‘Sliced Loaves’, accompanied by a yellow outline icon styled to look like a slice of bread. This pattern of display and perimeter graphic is used across the whole of the shop. The choice of articles that have been selected for perimeter glory is curious at times, and ‘Kitchen Roll’ (accompanied by another outline icon) in particular looks mildly outlandish.

Nonetheless, the overall effect is not that of a discount environment, especially when the frameless upright chiller cabinets around the perimeter, complete with LED lighting, are taken into consideration.

Thus far, this shop has the supreme advantage of not only looking and feeling better than a normal discount format, but also demonstrating how other stores in the portfolio might be converted along the same lines.

20160504 095852

Perimeter graphics, such as this ‘Sliced loaves’ example, are repeated throughout

And so to the mid-shop. Like every other Lidl store, the Tooting branch is a mix of low-rise open-sided equipment, on which ambient products and the week’s deal merchandise is displayed, and a few chest chillers. What makes this store different is the use of signage and the equipment colour. Much of the equipment is brown; deals are highlighted in orange and black with an outline of an alarm clock.

There may be nothing extraordinary about any of this, but it does represent a considerable tidying up by the retailer. The ‘Lidl Offers’ signs on the freezer units, for example, are internally lit blocks, giving them added prominence.

At the cash desks, Perspex signs with coloured edges indicate the till numbers, and there is a hint of a healthier future with a sign informing shoppers that this part of the shop is a ‘Chocolate-free zone’ (packets of mixed fruit and nuts cater for impulse purchasing and help in dealing with pester power).

In line

The cash desks themselves are not special, even if the staff operating them work faster than those in the big four. The other point is that on the day of visiting (Wednesday mid-morning), there were a lot of shoppers with baskets stuck behind people with trolleys who were completing a weekly shop.

“The Lidl future does not seem, on this basis, to take into account the fact that owing to its location near a station, this is likely to be treated as a convenience store as much as a mid-sized supermarket”

The Lidl future does not seem, on this basis, to take into account the fact that owing to its location near a station, this is likely to be treated as a convenience store as much as a mid-sized supermarket. A lane devoted to basket-only shoppers would be an immediate step forward.

This quibble notwithstanding, Lidl’s Tooting store is one that shoppers will feel good about frequenting and, although many of the differences are cosmetic, it does seem like an altogether more upmarket affair that is likely to be mimicked elsewhere within the next couple of years. And if jamón serrano is your thing, then this, like every other Lidl, has one of the best deals around (a leg of the stuff at £29.99). Me gusta mucho.

Lidl, Tooting

Address 14 London Road, London SW17

Status The near future for the discounter

Highlight The bakery

Colour scheme Grey, brown and white with orange accents

Positive Easily replicable

Negative The cash desks