Sainsbury’s has opened a new store in King’s Lynn that breaks a few of the accepted rules about supermarket design.

If there is one sector that has been plugging away on the store design front this year, it has to be food retailing. Whether it’s Morrisons, busy installing chiller displays with vapour trails descending on the fresh produce, or Tesco applying wood to units, this is the year in which the big four have put on their thinking caps.

For Sainsbury’s, it’s been a good year – the numbers have been positive and it’s been a matter of incremental change as far as in-store design is concerned.

Or at least it has been until around a fortnight ago, when the grocer opened a big store on the outskirts of King’s Lynn. Big, in this instance, means 72,000 sq ft, with a shade over a third of that number being devoted to non-food. Sainsbury’s head of formats and design Paul O’Hara says that this is more than would usually be devoted to non-food in one of its branches, and it does provide a clue about the direction of travel in supermarket layout.

It is also the second Sainsbury’s outpost in King’s Lynn (pop. 42,800) with a smaller shop being located in the town centre. This store is opposite a somewhat superannuated-looking Tesco, which is slated for complete development and to have a branch of Tesco-owned garden centre retailer Dobbies on the plot next to it.

Creative and authoritative

For the moment at least, the new Sainsbury’s looks like the only game in town and on the day of visiting there was hardly a space in the large car park fronting the building, while on the other side of the road the Tesco car park was a ballroom. This is hardly surprising – it is hard to miss the new structure with its appealing timber frame and frontage, especially when set against the red brick “vernacular” of the Tesco structure.

Step inside and the view is a little less familiar. This is not ‘another wooden supermarket’. Instead, the first thing that the visitor will probably notice is the sign for the cafe, off to the far right, after which the impression will be yellow and black.

As a navigational aid, yellow and black is frequently associated with power tools or, at a pinch, the colour scheme associated with radiation hazards. What does not immediately spring to mind is a cook, crockery or pots and pans shop, yet that is what the cheerful signage overhead and on the mid-shop equipment demarcates.

O’Hara says that in this store “are some hero non-food areas”. That view finds support from head of store design Damian Culkin, who says that the yellow signage gives this part of the shop a “more creative and authoritative feel”.

Maybe so, but what really impresses is the attention to detail that has gone into creating a lot of the mid-shop equipment. Everybody is familiar with wood cladding these days and during 2012 it has become de rigueur in certain supermarket quarters, but for the most part it does still look like, well, cladding.

But in this store it has been installed with sufficient skill to pull off the illusion that you are looking at something rather more substantial. And then there is the visual merchandising. Perhaps more than anywhere else this year, supermarkets have pulled out the stops when it comes to making their products look more attractive, and a quick inspection of the pots and pans area makes this very clear.

At the end of the gondola, a shelf extends to allow a Le Creuset-style range to be displayed. Representatives of the Fresnoy-le-Grand-based cookware brand could be forgiven if they came to visit the King’s Lynn store for thinking that this is almost better than some of the outlets through which their wares are distributed. This is an upscale presentation.

Fashionable interior

And in front of this, there is a service desk. Nothing terribly remarkable about this perhaps, except that it does look much better and more carefully crafted and contemporary than most service desks that shoppers will encounter in a supermarket.

Culkin says that when it comes to store design, many observers have been inclined to view Waitrose as a benchmark of excellence, but that it feels like this Sainsbury’s store has reached the same level. On the evidence of what is on view in the cook shop, this seems to be the case.

There is, however, plenty more to look at in the non-food area and the biggest portion of the space is given to clothing. Like Tesco with its new format F&F shop-in-shops in Pitsea and Woolwich, the aim is to create a semi-discrete, more fashion-led space than might normally be expected within a supermarket environment. This is achieved through pause points in the form of silver goalposts, underneath which mannequins are positioned. And in the clothing aisles themselves, there are rails that alternate between allowing the merchandise to be forward or side hung, with a few curved rails that add pace and variety to the whole.

Culkin is clear that this is not about beating Topshop or Topman at their games but rather about creating a fashionable interior. On this reading, the clothing shop-in-shop is a distinct move on and does encourage browsing behaviour of the kind more usually found in a standalone fashion store.

Leaving the non-food area and plunging into the two-thirds of the store that is devoted to food, much of what is on view seems familiar and many of the cues that are provided are taken from the smaller branch that opened in Hertford earlier this year.

Note should be made of the pharmacy, which again functions as a real shop-in-shop and is located just behind the main run of cash desks. Culkin and O’Hara are clearly proud of this one and its green and white lines are reminiscent of a Continental pharmacy.

This is a step forward for Sainsbury’s and until Tesco gets its act together in the town, this is the default choice for shoppers in the area. It also looks and feels good, which still remains something of a surprise when shopping in a supermarket, come to that.

Sainsbury’s, King’s Lynn

Opened November 21

Size 72,000 sq ft

Non-food 26,000 sq ft

Structure Wood

Most notable novelty Yellow and black signage

Store design In-house, Twelve, and Pope Wainwright