San Francisco is home to weird and wonderful food stores, Westfield’s innovation centre and plenty of No7 products. John Ryan visits
San Francisco is a long way from Europe and it would seem reasonable to expect that it would have less in common with the Old World than, say, any of the big US cities on the East Coast, simply owing to geographical and therefore cultural proximity.
To an extent this is the case. This is the land of the healthy, or wannabe healthy, and there are food retailers meeting the need for the next wonder product, enticingly displayed, at almost every turn.
The seeming preponderance of retailers pursuing this goal does put it at odds with the European norm.
San Francisco is also where many retailers and brands have their headquarters, and it is the perfect place to see the product alliance between UK high street giant Boots and pharmacy-cum-supermarket Walgreens.
The downtown shopping area is also home to a very large Westfield mall, which looks like a cross between St Peter’s church in Rome and Brent Cross. It is relatively old and due an overhaul, but it is also the location of Westfield Labs, where the shopping centre developer and owner has an in-mall office dedicated to coming up with innovative ideas for its centres.
The technology giant’s headquarters are a couple of states north of California in Seattle, Washington, but it has put its best retail foot forward with this standalone store in the Westfield centre. This is a large space and at first, and second, glance it has a remarkably Apple-like feel to it.
Products are displayed on wooden tables, there is a semi-discrete glass-walled space for tutorials and suchlike and there are members of staff everywhere.
That said, it is different from the Apple blueprint. Large parts of the perimeter wall are a continuous screen detailing Microsoft products and content and, in terms of layout, this is a long, open front instead of the more usual Apple entrance.
It is also worth noting that Microsoft has sufficient confidence in the four coloured squares that compose its logo to dispense with the word ‘Microsoft’ at any point before the shopper enters the store.
Whether it is indeed as robust a brand icon as the Apple logo is a moot point, but it is a bold move.
It’s been about 18 months since pharmacy giants Walgreens and Boots revealed they had formed a strategic alliance following the acquisition by the US retailer of a 45% stake in Alliance Boots.
On the Walgreens website there is a page ‘Introducing Britain’s most trusted brand’ (aka Boots) with links to beauty products from No7, Botanics, Boots Expert, Boots Extracts and Champneys - all core brands for the UK retailer.
Yet to get a real sense of just how much has been done since June 2012, a visit to a Walgreens store is necessary, and the retailer’s Powell Street shop is one of the best places in the US to get a snapshot.
The beauty and pharmacy section is on the first floor and, as the shopper steps off the escalator, almost the first thing that comes into view is a mid-shop unit bearing No7 products. This is tall, black and glossy and topped with an internally lit No7 logo.
Beyond this, another No7 unit can be seen. All this even before the homegrown brands are visible, most of which are displayed on clinical-looking white fixtures, making the contrast with the Boots product range even more stark.
The shopper will struggle, however, to find the other Boots brands that are listed on the website. The rest of the floor is actually an exercise in making a beauty and health offer feel more welcoming than would normally be the case, thanks to a pressed tin ceiling and exposed brick walls - this is a long way from pharmacy chic.
Head back downstairs and the customer will find a massive mid-shop food-to-go counter with a model of the Golden Gate Bridge suspended above it, and, further back, an ambient food offer.
The checkouts are located at the front of the store, on the left-hand side, with a graphic on the wall behind them that reads ‘Happy and healthy on the streets of San Francisco since 1937’.
That is accompanied by monochrome shots of the city, along with a green Mustang that appears to be driving out of the wall and that looks like the sort of thing Steve McQueen might have driven. The effect is about reinforcing the brand’s long-term local heritage.
Sur la table
When asked to name a good US kitchenwares retailer, most Europeans who are interested in such things will probably name Williams-Sonoma.
There are, however, a lot of other outfits that plough the same furrow and Sur La Table (pictured above), in the Westfield mall, is proof that Williams-Sonoma does not have things all its own way.
This store isn’t as upscale as a Williams-Sonoma branch and prices are correspondingly lower, but for those in search of interior and kitchen products that have a Gallic feel to them, this is a good place to visit.
The small shop punches above its weight in terms of the abundance of product on display - the ceiling, perimeter and mid-shop are all used to showcase items.
For those familiar with an old-fashioned French ‘quincaillerie’ (a hardware shop), Sur La Table appears to take its design cue from this form of retail and has then made it exclusively about the kitchen.
Far West Fungi
Down by the city’s waterfront and forming part of the tourist-led Fisherman’s Wharf area, there is an indoors space in a 1920s building that contains
multiple small foodie retailers.
Of these, one of the most obscure is Far West Fungi, a shop with an offer almost entirely focused on mushrooms, wild and cultivated, and which indicates perhaps that this is California, where single-category food retailers are in a position to turn a profit.
As far as display is concerned, the store has market-style baskets of fungi of different kinds, but it also shows off its products in bell-jars next to signs stating ‘mushroom mini-farms’.
At $25, these are less about buying items that will be thrown into a stew on the same evening and rather more to do with creating something that will prove a talking point for household visitors.
This is perhaps less Far West and rather more Wild West as far as food retail is concerned.
The Westfield Food Experience
The Westfield mall in San Francisco is home to Westfield Labs, which is “focused on innovating the retail ecosystem by leveraging the social, mobile and digital market opportunities that converge the digital shopper with the physical world”. That may be so, although it is a little tricky to understand what it actually means.
It involves an office on Westfield San Francisco’s fourth floor where in-mall digital novelty is dreamt up. In the shopping centre itself there are posters everywhere urging shoppers to ‘Eat well. On Time’ with a picture of a smartphone displaying images of food on the screen. This is “coming soon”, and means shoppers will be able to order food in the centre from a desktop computer or mobile device before arriving.
This idea is a Westfield pilot, but perhaps one day it will reach the developer’s Stratford and London outposts.