Super New Markets?

Standing five minutes walk away from Victoria Station, on Wilton Road in London is a new style of supermarket.

The new ‘Market Store’ concept being piloted by Sainsbury’s aims to bring customers closer to produce, and to encourage people who are real foodies to be as creative as they can in their approach to what they buy and what they cook.

Staff behind, and in front of, fish, meat and cheese counters are provided with training as to where the produce has come from, and how it was made. Customers can try as much as they like from each counter, and even take cookery lessons in-store from a resident chef.

All of which sounds remarkably unlike a supermarket, and more like that other type of market which has been growing in popularity – the farmers’ market.

Follow Wilton Road just a little bit further into Pimlico, and this is where the local farmers’ market has been setting up at weekends for nearly a year, selling local produce from farmers within a 100 mile radius of London.

So is this another example of supermarkets trying to increase their hold on the market, or a radical concept in shopping being trialled in London?

Walking into Sainbury’s Market, Pimlico (the second of its kind, the first is in Chelsea) it is immediately obvious this is not a typical supermarket.

But going a little further one also notices that although it is not typical, it is still supermarket.

As soon as you enter you see stands where you can go and ask questions, and taste wine, there is a counter where you can sit by and watch a cookery demonstration (scallops wrapped in pancetta with salsa verde), and counters where meat, cheese and fish abound.

The staff are friendly, and seemed to know a reasonable amount about where the produce on offer came from. The meat at the Butchers counter was all British-sourced, but the salad counter was offering everything from coleslaw to cous cous.

The floor is black and the layout is different. You choose your main base for a dish, be it fish or meat, before coming across vegetables sauce ingredients and wines, which Sainsbury’s sees as a more logical way to plan what you are going to cook.

The aisle style is gone, and customers can wander round in a less regimented way which is a relief from the usual discovery of ‘Rats, I’ve forgotten the milk’, and having to backtrack against the flow to scowls from fellow shoppers.

Diana Hunter from Sainsbury’s said at the launch of the store: ‘Following many months of research into the shopping habits of Londoners, we have developed a store that combines the abundance of fresh seasonal foods and personal service of a market with the specialist gourmet offering of a foodhall.’

And my initial impressions are that it seems to be working.

A spokesman for Sainsbury’s explains further: ‘We really based this whole concept on what customers were asking us for. We are definitely looking to attract the type of shopper who is into food and wants to be creative with what they buy and how they cook it.

‘People also wanted us to increase the interaction between shoppers and staff, making it a less impersonal service. But we also provide everything which your average supermarket stocks, from loo roll to scouring pads.’

This is true. Further inside the store becomes more like a typical supermarket, with roomy aisles for products like toothpaste and washing powder before we come to the checkouts – a never ending row stretching far into the distance.

So by the end of the shopping experience in the new Market Store, you are reminded of where you are: a completely different place toPimlico Farmers’ Market, a quarter of an hour’s walk away at the weekend.

Sue Thompson from the National Association of Farmers’ Markets agrees that the two shopping experiences are completely different: ‘We have had reports from London Farmers’ Markets that this type of shop is not affecting their takings or their popularity.

‘Shopping at a real farmers’ market and shopping in a supermarket are always going to be fundamentally different, and I think consumers appreciate this.

‘In a farmers’ market one can learn exactly where an animal was reared, what it was fed, and all the details that people in Sainsbury’s will not be able to answer, because it is direct communication with the producer. And the money people pay for the produce goes direct to the producer, rather than giving a cut to the supermarket, which customers appreciate in this day and age, when awareness of the importance of what we eat is growing almost daily.’

Therefore Ms Thompson sees no threat to farmers’ markets from these new kinds of supermarkets: ‘We are attracting a different kind of shopper because it’s not just about buying British. It’s about the whole experience, from seeing friends and having a chat on a Saturday morning, to buying food which helps the environment and the economy.’

So it seems that there may well be room for both styles of food shopping for the people of Pimlico and most likely people from further afield. For foody urbanites who are learning about cooking and want to be more creative there is a supermarket with a difference, and for people who are dedicated to supporting local producers and want to have a social shopping experience whilst supporting farmers, Pimlico Farmers’ Market provides exactly that.

May they both do well in their respective fields.