Grocers constantly strive to improve the in-store experience to win over shoppers in a competitive environment. John Ryan finds out what the future of food shopping looks like.

In the UK over the last couple of years, the pace of change seems to have heated up in the grocery sector as a crowded marketplace becomes ever more competitive and retailers seek new ways of presenting products to their customers.

Major players Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer each own their own slice of the market, thanks to careful targeting, but this still means a cutthroat marketplace and a consistent move towards improving store interiors. While each of these retailers may have its own take on what’s happening in the sector and how to deal with the challenges confronting them, each is responding in its own way to the demands of online food shopping, more frequent shopping trips and the consequent increasing demand for convenience.

The real winners in all of this are the shoppers, who are getting better stores and who really do have a wide range of formats and ways of buying.

This means improved store environments featuring greater amounts of theatre and in-store communication (something that would have been much rarer not long ago when supermarket customers seemed to be processed rather than looked after), and a melding of the physical and digital worlds.

Retail Week asked four of the industry’s leading lights, as far as creating the interiors in which people shop for food are concerned, how things are changing and the direction of travel for the future.

Nayna McIntosh

Nayna McIntosh

Nayna McIntosh

Director of store environment and product presentation, Marks & Spencer

“One of the things that we have been looking at for the last 18 months to two years is the customer experience, particularly in light of the moves we’ve been making with in-store technology and our online shops. The question we have been asking, not just for our food offer, is how can we join the two worlds of online and shop-based retailing together?

“For instance, in some of our stores we’ll have wine experts who can talk about regionality and provenance. But now in pilot stores we’re giving the guys iPads in order that they can help shoppers to access the broader M&S wine range beyond the store and we think this is something that we can do in other areas of food.

“I think we’ve probably put more theatre into our food retailing business than our clothing over the last couple of years. We’ve done this with the deli bars that, because they have products that aren’t found in the rest of the food department, are a complete destination. Then we’ve added props, so there are blackboards, maps to show where things come from and pasta machines that allow the product to be made as the shopper watches, for example. It’s about making things more interesting.

“Our ‘event zones’ are found at the entrance to our food departments, and even in our Simply Food stores they have been rolled out. They are displays that treat food in almost the same way that you might fashion. It’s dead easy to create a display using, say, biscuits and chocolates, but you have to do more than that - even if it’s about taking wicker baskets and playing with them to generate interest.”

Damian Culkin

Damian Culkin

Damian Culkin

Head of store design, Sainsbury’s

“What we’re seeing is a divergent format focus. In the past, supermarkets were places you went to buy groceries. But now supermarkets have got into areas they didn’t previously own, from coffee shops and clothing to general merchandise and online.

“The picture has dramatically changed in the last 10 years. Now we operate on a format basis and when we try something like Fresh Kitchen [a food-to-go format that was tried out in 2011 but later shut] we try to adopt what works quickly and if it doesn’t, we close it very fast indeed.

“We therefore always ask, what can Sainsbury’s bring that will be different? What will be credible, allowing for the heritage of the brand? In King’s Lynn, which we opened last year, we feel we’ve got things right. It’s about online and offline and how to get the two worlds to mix.

“I think that fresh [food] will be increasingly important, as will time-of-day merchandising, but we’re finding that an online thread runs through everything - all centred on the product, of course.”

Tim Greenhalgh

Tim Greenhalgh

Tim Greenhalgh

Chief creative officer at design consultancy Fitch

“All the briefs we’re getting at the moment are about convenience. To my mind, convenience now is moving beyond size and location. Now you have to think about how you align click-and-collect as part of a convenience format and still retain a sense of the local community.

“The question that has to be asked is how can a convenience format deliver more than it can hold?

“From a stylistic point of view there’s really not that much that is happening, other than perhaps a greater emphasis on getting the personality of a supermarket brand to shine through with improved in-store communication.

“We’re also recommending that retailers concentrate on getting a ‘PHD’ - balancing the physical, human and digital worlds.”

Simon Threadkell

Simon Threadkell

Simon Threadkell

Design and formats director, Tesco

“The key for us at the moment is being locally relevant. At our Bishop’s Stortford and Thetford stores in East Anglia, which we worked on last year, we tried to tailor the offer to suit the local catchment. Now we have taken that idea and moved on with it.

“In Kensington, which is a very affluent area of London, we’ve gone for time-of-day merchandising and also catered for what is a very diverse ethnic mix. What I’m describing is more surgical and specific design thinking that targets local communities.

“We’re also asking how do you create a more connected store, where ‘click and connect’ and ‘endless aisles’ [screens located on gondolas at the ends of aisles] allow shoppers to browse extended ranges.

“And, of course, we’re looking at our existing stores too. How can you make an existing store a more relevant destination that will deliver a great in-store experience?

“Finally, we’re looking at how we can reinvigorate the conversation we have with our customers, through graphics and a clearer and more friendly tone of voice. We are keeping it local and relevant and at the same time making sure that we don’t miss out on ‘connectivity’.”