Marks & Spencer’s new Simply Food store in Sheffield successfully fuses an innovative eco-friendly design with an inviting shopping environment. John Ryan pays a visit.

Simply Food

Location Ecclesall Road, Sheffield
Size 12,400 sq ft
Architect Lewis & Hickey
Contractor Wates Retail
Lighting Philips
Lighting consultant LAPD

There was a time when being green was thought to be a good thing. If you were a retailer that could boast about energy saving, then that would be sufficient to have shoppers flooding through the doors, or such was the thinking. The only thing that seemed occasionally to be overlooked was that shops remain shops, rather than sustainable juggernauts, and people still have to like them.

In recent years this has meant that some of the more sustainable new stores that have attempted to part shoppers from their money have actually turned out to be those that were the most yawn-inducing. It’s almost as if in the headlong rush to be ecologically friendly, all the usual rules relating to shops and shopping were ditched as hoards of windmills and solar panels appeared everywhere.

Last week, however, there was a welcome change to this very rough rule of thumb as Marks & Spencer opened a ‘learning’ store in Sheffield. The store is a large Simply Food with a selling area of 12,400 sq ft. The term ‘learning’ is instructive, according to chief executive Marc Bolland, who was on ribbon-cutting duty on the day of opening. “This is not a complete format where we will use everything again. There will be elements that we will use in other stores, but we will learn,” he said.

As far as Sheffield shoppers were concerned, however, there seemed a good number of positives to be gleaned from this one immediately. Within 30 minutes of the 10am opening, the car park was packed - not something that many stores can say at this time in the morning. And on arrival, the first thing that they might have noticed was that this branch of Simply Food doesn’t look like a new store. Instead, it blends in almost seamlessly with the local Ecclesall Road streetscape where most of the buildings are Victorian and brick built. Bolland comments: “If I ever built something now, I would do it this way.”

The reason it does so is simple. M&S has clad the building with reclaimed brick from a former mill about 30 miles down the road. The outcome is a structure that looks appropriate; it does not jar with everything around it and is complemented by a Forest Stewardship Council-certified Western Red Cedar wood (grown in the UK, naturally) that has been used to add to the aesthetic side of things.

Grow your own

The other noteworthy element about the exterior is the green wall at the rear. Anybody who has been to Westfield London or the Anthropologie store on Regent Street will be familiar with this kind of thing, but to make this particular vegetative structure more relevant to the local area, it has been covered with plants specific to the Sheffield area.

There are, as might be expected, all the bells and whistles that have become part of this kind of retail structure: bird boxes in the car park, wood and steel bus shelters and a former brownfield site that used to house a petrol station but which has been reclaimed. The point about all of it, however, is that it looks like a place where you’d like to shop and one that just happens to be greener than most other retail stores.

Head for the interior and the same strictures apply. This may be an eco store but it’s a shop that’s worth having a look around. There is an immediate sense of warmth, imparted by the birch wood cladding of the interior perimeter walls. The normal modus operandi in instances of this kind would be to put panelling like this as the underlay to which plasterboard would be applied. M&S appears to have made a virtue of necessity and the graphics - giving shoppers category information and telling them about the store’s green credentials - have been applied directly to the birch panelling.

“Sustainability can’t be a fashion. I think there’s some way to go for us and our customers”

Marc Bolland, Marks & Spencer

There are, of course, a large number of items that contribute to the store’s capacity to save energy that will not be apparent to the shopper and are probably overlooked. Yet they do matter.

Perhaps the most tangible of these is the lighting. M&S director of Plan A Richard Gillies says that, as far as he is aware, this is the first store in the UK that is lit entirely by LED lights. Again, from a customer’s viewpoint, this may not seem important, but the work that M&S has done with Philips to create a store that is lit in this manner should not be underestimated. From overhead to in the freezers, LEDs are everywhere and, while this may represent a sizable investment, the total lifetime versus cheaper but shorter lifetime bulbs argument can be readily applied.

Customer connection

A nice store then and one that will be shopped for no better reason than that it is a pleasant environment in which to spend time. M&S seems to have grasped that there is rather more to being green than, well, being green. “The consumer has to be able to connect to it. The technical wizardry that probably makes more difference to this kind of thing may not make that much of a difference as far as the consumer is concerned,” says Gillies. And equally important is that fact that almost everything in this store will be subject to close scrutiny and if it meets muster will “very quickly become spec”, as he puts it.

It is more expensive to build a store of this kind than a standard M&S Simply Food store by about 6%.

This, however, is a very considerable improvement on where M&S was when it worked on its first more sustainable stores in locations such as Bournemouth and Galashiels. “Anything below 10% is within shouting distance when it comes to payback and you should consider that there can be 6% price variance between contractors. It’s also worth bearing in mind that this is a one-off and that if it became a standard then costs would come down further,” says Gillies.

For Bolland, Sheffield is the latest in a series of milestones: “I think sustainability can’t be a fashion. I think there’s some way to go for us and our customers,” he says, adding: “Let me not take credit for the work done by Stuart [Rose]. What has been done so far has been a very good example for many other companies.”

Bolland should know, his background on the board of Heineken - which has a long history of sustainable practice - and the work he set in motion as chief executive at Morrisons (following the lead set by M&S) prior to arriving at M&S, means that the underlying precepts of Plan A will continue.

“It’s not a matter of ticking boxes. There are always things to be done,” he comments. All of which notwithstanding, the new Simply Food store in Sheffield is absolutely worth dropping in to pick up a sandwich or a packet of Percy Pigs if you happen to be passing, because you’ll want to.