12 January 2012

What Next for Sainsbury’s Greenwich?

Sainsbury’s have announced that they intend to close their pioneering low energy store in Greenwich just twelve years after it was opened by a very young Jamie Oliver.  Having led the team responsible for this project I am sad that it will no longer be used for its original purpose, but intrigued as to what the future will hold for the building and what lessons can be learned from its demise.

Sainsubury's Millennium Store

When Sainsbury’s Greenwich opened in the autumn of 1999 it was heralded by Sainsbury’s Chief Executive Dino Adrino who said,

“This store represents a watershed in supermarket architecture. We will learn from the energy saving features of this remarkable store and consider where we can use them again.”

The building won a host of accolades including the RIBA Sustainability Award in 2000 and was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize.  Within the first year of trading it achieved the highest Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI) score of any Sainsbury’s in the country, demonstrating that shoppers appreciated the natural lighting and innovative displacement heating and cooling strategy; conceived specifically to improve customer comfort and encourage increased customer dwell time.

So why after such a short period of time are Sainsbury’s moving on?  Well, I guess that the simple answer is that they have outgrown the building; their proposed replacement is almost three times the size and will sell a much larger range of non-food items as well as providing a base for online shopping.  Thing move fast in the field of “supermarketing”, it’s not that long ago that the same company were reducing the size of their Savacentre hypermarkets, subletting space to other retailers.

Is bigger really better for the customer?  Do you really want to buy clothes, electrical goods and other consumer durables when doing your food shop?  How do you reconcile creating a great customer environment for such a diverse range of products and is it really a good use of valuable urban land to locate the distribution hub for internet shopping within a store, when this use would traditionally be located in a low cost shed on industrial land?

So what will the future hold for Sainsbury’s Greenwich?  You would have thought that its logical future would be to provide a new home for another food store operator.  Maybe someone like Whole Foods Market who specialise in “high quality and organic products”?  Unfortunately not; you see when supermarkets sell stores they place a restrictive covenant on the building preventing it being used as a supermarket.  Not very sustainable; unless of course you are a shareholder.  Surely the community should decide, through the usual planning process, if the best reuse of the building would be by a competitor.  Is that not how the free market is supposed to work?

What about a covered market, offering small local producers to come together and in combination offer the convenience that supermarkets offer with the added advantage of supporting local businesses coupled with reduced food miles.  Here in Waterloo we are fortunate to have a store called Greensmiths who operate on this business model and the range, quality and choice is first class.  Now that really would be “localism” in action!

Unfortunately the most likely outcome is that the building will be demolished and the land redeveloped.  If this is the outcome then it will send a telling message about how supermarkets view their buildings and will stand as a powerful indictment of their collective claims of sustainability.