There have been some nice bits and pieces of innovation in terms of store concepts from Sainsbury’s in recent years: Holborn, Alperton, Nine Elms, Redhill and Pimlico all spring to mind. Noteworthy, perhaps, that all of these stores are within or alongside the M25.

In order to see the latest thinking from Sainsbury’s, though, one has to complete the arduous trek beyond Watford and into the snowy Midlands. Once your satnav has taken you to the old, vacant Sainsbury’s, one then has to complete another lap of the student-heavy town of Selly Oak before actually taking the correct turning into a retail park that hosts the new Sainsbury’s, an M&S Foodhall, Greggs, Costa, Next (incorporating another Costa, Paperchase and Clarks), Card Warehouse, Superdrug, JD, Wilko and The Works.

It should be pointed out that, once you’ve found it, getting into the carpark is a dream. Leaving the carpark, however, is a Sisyphean ordeal that suggests either its design, or the phasing of nearby traffic lights, is woefully misguided. Anyway, onto the store itself.

Under development for the best part of ten years, this store is a bit of a whopper at 67,000 sq. ft. If the retailer was in possession of a time machine, I suspect they might travel back and get the designers to lop off at least 20,000 sq. ft., but Sainsbury’s has risen to the challenge of filling up a bigger box in a charming and effective manner.

In terms of general merchandise, Sainsbury’s has deployed its group assets – Argos and Habitat – very nicely. Instead of simply plonking in discrete concession-style boxes as it has done in other stores, Habitat and Argos are seamlessly blended into the broader GM assortment.

Argos order kiosks are dotted around the place and, while there is still an Argos ‘store’ it is subtlety integrated into the broader proposition. The toy brand Chad Valley (a choice morsel picked off the Woolworths carcass by Argos ten years ago) has a very strong branded presence in the toy section.

Third-party involvement is self-evident, including a Silentnight mattress display (available through Argos), plenty of sophisticated activation from both Hasbro and Mattel in toys and an Oasis fashion concession. The later complements the Tu clothing department well and perhaps offers shoppers an extra reason to visit.

The toy department really is a triumph (among the best three I’ve seen in a grocer this year), with some nice digital solutions from Mattel and plenty of interactive fun courtesy of Hasbro. A very valiant attempt to soak up some post-TRU market share.

As for the grocery proposition, which takes up more than half of the store’s sales area, there is plenty to like here too. Bypassing a striking floral display, one enters the fresh department that emanates from the focal point provided by a well-executed standalone counter offering hot food to go, coffee and pizza.

Produce is enhanced by some nice ceramic work on pillars, while the chilled department – pretty standard to be honest – is distinguished by what is becoming the standard addition of a Sushi Gourmet counter.

Given that virtually all of the major grocers are adding sushi counters, one wonders when peak sushi will be arrived at and whether British sushi demand is even remotely close to British sushi supply these days.

One really impressive aspect of the HBC department is a real step on in the beauty offering. Something Tesco has been pursuing in recent years, Sainsbury’s is now also giving Boots and Superdrug a run for their money with a beauty offer that wouldn’t look out of place in a department store. Good work.

This progress has been accompanied by the creation of a new wellness proposition that sits amid grocery. Including groceries, supplements, chilled drinks and superfoods with varying degrees of credibility in terms of scientific claims, the new section enjoys some nice touches in terms of merchandising and design.

However, it lacks a sense of identity and destination, instead being something that you discover by accident. The introduction of overhead signage or tweaks in décor, fixtures or flooring might help in the future, but as things stand it feels a little lost.

As with stores like Pimlico, food counters are stupendous. A long run of them along the back wall includes fish, meat, deli, meals for later (curry and pizza), hot chicken, patisserie and bakery. The look and feel of these is lovely, thanks to great displays, nice signage, LED lighting and a shedload of wall tiles.

Wrapping things up once shoppers have navigated the array of checkout options (standard, self-checkout, self-scan and ‘smart shop’ – using the self-scan phone app) is the Food Market. This innovation is very much in line with the ongoing trend for the bringing together of more niche foodservice offerings to create a greater whole – think Market Hall, Boxpark, Bang Bang etc. – and the overall impact is very good indeed.

Compared to the standard supermarket café proposition – and no disrespect to the much-improved offerings from both Tesco and Morrisons – this is a very convincing array of foodservice alternatives, encompassing a coffee bar, Fresh Kitchen (traditional meals & snacks), Wok Street (Chinese) and Little India Kitchen (err, Indian). With informal seating and a large number of booths, this is a million miles away from the standard JS café format and very much the better for it.

The Selly Oak supermarket is described by the retailer as an experimental store. Some of the experiments – dining and toys – are explosive successes, while others need a bit of fine tuning, like the wellness department. Overall though, the experiment gets an A for effort and A- for attainment from me. I thoroughly recommend a visit. But park somewhere else though.

Bryan Roberts, Global Insights Director

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