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VM inspiration: Sainsbury's Archive

The Docklands branch of the Museum of London houses a truly fascinating collection of images from the Sainsbury’s archive. From images of old store-fits, to ground-breaking packaging of the 1960s, looking back on the retailer’s past is an interesting means of considering current food retailing.

The change from stores that relied on staff assistance to self-service took place in the 1960s, and was revolutionary. After a trial of self-service meat counters in the late 1950s, the high marble counters of Sainsbury’s stores that were ubiquitous in every southern high street until the mid-1960s, were radically transformed by rows of freezers and open shelves in fewer, larger stores across the South East.

Although the return generated by the self-service stores was clearly the future of mass food retailing it is interesting to compare the difference in focus in terms of VM. In the old-style stores, the merchandise was the focus with cheese and bacon arranged on the counter and rows of jars on shelves behind. To our eyes, the new style stores showcase the freezers and the open shelves: the hardware of store fixtures rather than the merchandise.

Another change we have completely accepted is the removal of sweets from the till points.

Sainsburys, originally a south London-based company, was radical in its store-fit from its early days. The original stores featured beautifully tiled panels, both inside and outside the store. These were created by Minton Hollins, who used Italian craftsmen to make them. Looking at classic Sicilian tiling, we can perhaps see the inspiration. The choice of colour both reflected the brand and popular interior colour schemes from the earliest days of the brand.

The very early store also featured magnificent Edwardian mahogany screens, which divided the managers office from the sales floor, as this one from the Kenton branch until the mid 1970s.

In 1973 this was still in place, with hygienic, acrylic covers for the displayed food in comparison to the open counters of the original stores. We associate the classic, open-counter display with delicatessens and premium department store food halls today.

Sainsbury’s has been radically innovative in its packaging. I was charmed by the four-egg eggbox, created in 1953 when egg rationing ceased. These were in use until 1956 when they were replaced with a sturdier design

The most radical change came mid-way through the 1960s when cleaned-up, fresh graphics swept through the own-brand range, as for this carton for frozen cod.

The archive is on permanent display, and well worth a look.