May 3, 2011

Will, Kate & Sainsbury's Fresh Kitchen

Sainsbury's Fresh Kitchen (photo: PlanetRetail)
Too dark: Sainsbury's Fresh Kitchen in London's Fleet Street
Over a million tourists caught the Royal Wedding fever last week and came to join the celebrations in London.

Verdict Research estimates that the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton has boosted consumer spending in the UK by nearly €700m, of which €406m went on food & drink (champagne, cakes, crisps etc.).

Many retailers returned the compliment and didn't open for business on April 29 until 1 p.m. in order to allow staff to celebrate.

Much nonsense has been written about the damage to the UK economy caused by premier David Cameron's decision to hold the nuptials on a Friday. Admittedly, a royal wedding will not balance the budget.

But given that retail makes up about 60 per cent of national GDP, the feel-good factor alone will do wonders for Brand Britain. Will this, one asks, also extend to Sainsbury's Fresh Kitchen, the first stand-alone gastronomy concept run by a major British food multiple, on 77, Fleet Street?

Hard to find

The outlet opened in January and is doubly interesting for the German trade as Rewe Group launched its first convenience store under the "REWE to go" banner in Cologne on April 19.

It wasn't easy to find. In fact, the "Sainsbury's" part of the logo is hardly visible from the other side of the street.

Sainsbury's Fresh Kitchen is also surrounded by competitors. There are at least two or three "Prêt A Manger" and "Starbucks" outlets on each side of the road before one stumbles on this tiny operation of around 100m² (900 ft²).

The store is modern, and the staff are almost US-friendly with a frequent "May I help?" on their lips.

Limited space

Thankfully, the UK's second-largest grocer has resisted the temptation to clutter its latest concept with too many SKUs. After all, less is often more.

Interestingly, however, staff said that customers often complain about not being able to do their usual full shop in the store.

Given the limited space, the assortment has been reduced to a fairly routine fare of soft drinks, desserts, snacks, baguettes, wraps, salads, crisps, nuts, and a small choice of hot meals, including soups.

There were even a few gaps on the shelves. But, if these were out-of-stocks, they were cleverly disguised with "While we prepare fresh sandwiches..." signs.

The prices, according to Coverpointfood.files, are generally around 15 per cent lower than those of surrounding competitors. So, without any economies of scale, how can the maths add up?

Slow service & no loo

For a new concept with food-to-go pretentions staff were too slow serving the coffee. They seemed to juggle with pots of hot milk and coffee in order to obtain the perfect mix. Admittedly, the café latte was good, but the wait was too long.

There were around 15 stools and five small eating tables, but no washrooms. This is very surprising from a German viewpoint where the law stipulates that anyone selling food & drinks for consumption must provide a WC on premise.

Too dark

The designers were perhaps wrong to decorate the back wall to the kitchen in mock charred brickwork. Presumably, this is a creative touch aimed at conjuring up the old kitchens of Dickensian London blackened by the smoke of charcoal ovens. However, it runs the risk of making a small outlet unnecessarily dark.

It is a great feature to have a serving hatch connecting the kitchen and the serving area, but why not glass over the rest of the wall? This would have created more light, given the impression of more space and enabled customers to see the hopefully very hygienic conditions under which their fresh food is prepared.

Maybe it is old school, but shouldn't convenience stores always be light?  It is surprising how dark many of them are made to be. For instance, why does the new "REWE to go" in Cologne, in addition to various other dark fixtures, also have a dark ceiling?

Even the "Marks & Spencer Simply Food" outlets, which seem to sprout from every street corner in the UK, have a strangely muted dark olive green décor.

Convenience overkill?

But, perhaps one is only sick of the whole convenience universe. When Germans who do not know London ask what the retailing scene is like there today, one is tempted to answer: "Think of shopping in a big international airport and imagine this extended relentlessly over a whole metropolis."

Isn't one tired of all those freshly-cut sandwiches (the British Sandwich Association has computed that 2bn are consumed in the UK per year) and freshly-made salads in plastic take-away portions? It is all somehow a variation on sameness.

It is almost a relief to stumble on one of the old-fashioned "sarnie" makers. They serve their sandwiches on plates and call customers "darling" or "mate". The homely lack of sophistication is like a breath of fresh air.


Related article in German: By Mike Dawson in Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 6, 11.02.2011


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