This week we leave the perils of our horsemeat-scandalised UK supermarkets behind to go and take a look at what they’re doing in Canada – with a visit to the flagship Toronto store of food retail chain Loblaws.
Housed in a huge 1930’s building that used to be home to the Maple Leaf ice hockey team, Loblaws opened in 2009 and is described as “a unique store concept” by executive chef, Mark Russell who confesses that when they started out, “nobody knew whether it would work.”
Once inside the store you can see what he means. It is nothing like a conventional supermarket. Compared to the ‘big four’ here in the UK – where store designers stay in their comfort zone to follow a familiar pattern of store layout and retail interior design – you can see why this concept was such a gamble for Loblaws – but it really works!
Described as an ‘un-supermarket-like experience’ by Retail Week, the main entrance at Loblaws leads shoppers straight into an area furnished with seats from the original ice hockey arena on one side and a bustling self-service cafeteria along the opposite wall.
In the centre of the store, 25 staff are on view freshly preparing portions of meatballs and stroganoff for the store’s best-selling range of ready meals. A refreshing contrast from UK supermarkets where most kitchens and cooks remain hidden from view – and perhaps a welcome addition here in the light of recent food scares.
The thing which really sets Loblaws apart though is the effectiveness of their visual merchandising. What you get is what you see – accompanied by huge lettering – painted, tiled or carved into the concrete to drive the message home. Here you will find walls of cupcakes, towers of vegetables and blockades of cheese.
At an aesthetic level, the historic credentials of the building are emphasised. Many walls are stripped back to bare concrete – for example the escalator stairwell has been decorated with 129 chairs from the old ice hockey arena which have been arranged on the wall to look like a maple leaf.
Whilst the specific location-inspired designs at this flagship store are unlikely to be repeated elsewhere on such a magnificent scale, it is certainly a delicious break from the purpose-built hangar-like buildings and interchangeable supermarket designs that we have in the UK. And for designers seeking inspiration in developing the future of supermarket design, it demonstrates how food can be made as a appealing as a fashion collection, with visual displays to excite and interest whilst enhancing the existing environment.