Tesco is piloting a convenience format in Chelmsford. John Ryan visits and talks to superstores managing director Richard Baker.

Last week was tough for Tesco, if the reports following its results announcement were a guide. The general tone was that the ‘Tesco recovery’ had stalled.

To the disinterested observer it might have seemed as if they were back at the end of 2011 or the dawn of 2012, when Tesco was last at the end of a drubbing.

In truth things may not be so bad, and any of the analysts and assorted pundits who had visited the Chelmsford store last week might have revised their opinions about developments.

Since May 24 the store has been a trial format closely watched by the Tesco powers that be. And the reason is that this may be the future of medium-sized supermarket retailing for the grocer. It is the latest development in a string of new-look store interiors that the grocer has unveiled over the past 18 months.

Richard Baker, managing director of superstores, says the reason for making this location a trial was straightforward: “Chelmsford ticked all the boxes. It was due for a refresh, it’s in a city centre and it has a lot of convenience customers and lots of people shopping daily.”

The outcome is a 28,000 sq ft “superstore” (a Tesco catch-all term for any supermarket between 15,000 sq ft and 55,000 sq ft) that feels, in some senses, more like a convenience store. Baker refers to it as a “super convenience” store.

The translation for this is that ‘fresh’ and ‘food to go’ have all been pulled forward so that they are the first thing the shopper encounters when entering the shop.

Food to go, in its various forms, runs down the right-hand wall from front to back. At the front there are the drinks and snacks sections that have already been seen in the Metro store at Tooley Street, London Bridge. Like that location, these have apple green surrounds and on the upper surround, in white, are the words ‘breakfast’, ‘lunch’ and ‘dinner’.

If this is not a sufficient clue about the nature of the offer, the subtext reads ‘meal deal on the go’.

Time-of-day details

So far, so convenient, and to this increasingly familiar landscape has been added an olive bar in the mid-shop where shoppers can pick up deli goodies by weight.

Next to this and on a pillar there is a blackboard menu that outlines what is on offer by time of day. It’s the sort of thing that has been done in a number of supermarkets, such as Waitrose, for a while, but the clarity of the execution here cannot fail to impress.

The real action, however, is beyond the reasonably standard, albeit good-looking, chilled and time-of-day convenience offer.

In what really does look like a cross between Waitrose and parts of the Marks & Spencer food hall in either Westfield Stratford or High Street Kensington, there are a series of counters offering warm or prepared food, as well as fresh fish and a bakery at the back.

Those are the sort of things that might usually be found along the back wall in a Tesco superstore, but in Chelmsford they are different from a category perspective. On sale is hot pizza made to order - ‘create your own pizza in three easy steps’ - and a ‘City Kitchen’, for which read cheese, charcuterie and assorted options to ‘create your own meal’, this time in four simple steps.

Both these elements are new, according to Baker, and they add to the sense that what is being viewed is more food hall than Tesco supermarket.

The choice of font to indicate what each of the counter areas offers also adds to the posh eatery ambience.

Created in bold capitals with a matt silver finish, once again, this is more the domain of a US outfit such as Dean & Deluca than what is normally found in a UK supermarket.

Linking in fresh food

Overall the impression is, as Baker terms it, one of “super convenience”. And then there is the ‘fresh’ offer. This is located directly in front of the counters and like them it runs from front to back. All of the fixturing here is new and as in other refurbished Tesco stores there is a lot of wood cladding.

What makes it different, however, is the height. Everything is relatively low-level. Baker stands in the middle of an array of fruit and veg and observes that shoppers can see across the whole of the department, from one side to the other.

He also points out the long aisles that cut laterally across the shop, allowing the fresh and convenience shopper to see to the other end of the store where the words ‘Pharmacy’ and ‘F&F’ are visible.

Simon Threadkell, design and formats director, who has worked with Baker on the new look in Chelmsford, says that there has been a conscious effort in this store to link fresh and convenience through the use of equipment and by the lowering of heights.

That this has been achieved is clear and for those who are intent on using the store purely as a convenience outlet, it is like a cross between a Metro and an Express store that has been inflated to bring it up to supermarket size.

The rest of the shop is broadly representative of what the latest Tesco stores are about and it was closed for five days while the makeover was completed. It looks the better for the work.

A ‘super-convenient’ supermarket is a bit of a mouthful as a term and could hardly be deemed catchy. That said, you can see why Baker, Threadkell et al have arrived at this solution and, equally, why it is an important step forward for a grocer that has so frequently had fingers pointed at it for being the creator of retail leviathans.

The interesting question will be to see how quickly or otherwise this becomes standard city centre fodder for Tesco.

On first inspection, it looks the sort of thing that is likely to find favour with jaded supermarket shoppers and does go some way to undermine the negative press that Tesco received last week.

Tesco, Chelmsford

Address 47-53 Springfield Road, CM2 6QT

Size 28,000 sq ft

Product mix Food, general merchandise and beauty

Opened May 24