Title: 100 years of respect for the customer
Pages: 46 - 47
Author: David Wainwright
Text: 100 years of respect for the customer
Lord Sainsbury talks to David Wainwright about the way the design policy of his grocery business has evolved from a long tradition of the best food, at reasonable prices, for the greatest number of people.
"We have well designed in packaging and point-of sale material because it gives the right impression of cleanliness and tidiness." Lord Sainsbury is the head of a family business with 250 grocery shops in the south of England. The strong, clear design associated with Sainsbury's is no accident. Nor, it must be said, is it a new thing, the result of the work of a single designer or the influence of the ColD. Sainsbury's design policy has evolved, logically and rationally, with the growth of the company. It is the direct result of decisions taken during 100years.
Lord Sainsbury is a Labour peer. He is a grocer whose marketing philosophy is that the greatest number of people are entitled to the best food at the most reasonable prices. Good design, to him, is an expression of this philosophy in graphic terms. "Our policy has never played down the customer's intelligence, commonsense or good taste."
He is the third generation in the business, which was begun when his grandparents, Mr and Mrs J. J. Sainsbury, opened a dairy in Drury Lane in 1869. They insisted that their shop should be clean and tidy, and always serve fresh food; and they prospered. Their eldest son, J. B., was the great expansionist.
J. B. opened many new shops. "He was typical of his generation in his approach to visual matters," says Lord Sainsbury, "but he was very concerned with the quality of materials used in the shops. The shopfront was mahogany, the counters were marble-topped, the walls were tiled and the floors were Italian mosaic."
Lord Sainsbury is still a family grocer. With his silver hair and warm manner, he could still stand in a shop doorway in white coat and apron and inspire confidence in the customers. He is still, significantly, in spite of his elevation to a life peerage four years ago, 'Mr Alan' to everyone in the Sainsbury offices in Stamford Street, Blackfriars.
If his grandfather formed the tradition of cleanliness and freshness in the shops, and his father strengthened this by seeing that the shops were furnished in the cleanest materials, it was 'Mr Alan' who introduced clean, consistent graphics in the company's print and packaging.
"I knew about the way graphics had been used in companies - I met Frank Pick of London Transport several times, and Sir Stephen Tallents. Our advertising agents at that time were Mather and Crowther, and our account executive was Sir Francis Meynell.
"Sir Francis Meynell was the first great influence. I wanted to get discipline - one of my words - into the look of things, and an avoidance of fussiness.... It may be my own reaction
to Victorianism. Simplify, simplify."
[Lord Sainsbury, photographed by Brian Shuel.]
At this time, to the surprise of other retailers and the irritation of manufacturers of branded foods, Sainsbury's, as company policy, banned the display of any point-of-sale or other advertising material in its shops, other than its own. This was certainly the critical managerial decision in the introduction of consistent graphics.
"The second design influence," Lord Sainsbury went on, "was Leonard Beaumont. He was with Mather and Crowther before the war, and did a great deal of work for us. He joined us as design consultant in August 1950." It was Beaumont who standardised on Albertus as a typeface, and for 14 years kept a watching brief on the company's graphics.
In 1964, on Beaumont's retirement, the company appointed its own designer, Peter J. Dixon. He now has an internal design studio of four graphic designers, who carry out the design of packaging, point-of-sale and advertising material and all other print. Venus is now the dominant typeface, but Dixon is not tied to it and can go right away from it if this is necessary to maintain a marketing advantage.
Dixon was chosen by J. D. Sainsbury (Lord Sainsbury's eldest son, and the director in charge of marketing) to whom Dixon is responsible.
"Dixon's appointment coincided with the introduction of a great many of our own brand goods - we now have more than 350, both foods and what we call non-foods," Lord Sainsbury explains. "It also coincided with the increase in the number of self-service shops, in which the quality and attractiveness of the packaging is important in influencing choice.
"Of course I personally don't see everything now- I leave that to my son. And in any case you mustn't interfere with the design - you must never say 'Put this here and that there and change the colour to blue.' To get good design you must give creative freedom to the designer." He laughed. "Every now and then I might criticise something: it's a reminder that the old man's watching!"
Lord Sainsbury's own office is unobtrusively modern and uncluttered. The desk, of wood inlaid with brass strips and a black leather top, has two Italian multicoloured alabaster paperweights. The desk chair is black leather, the two visitors' armchairs upholstered in red tweed.
It was Lord Sainsbury who decided that the company would not pile its goods on the counters or go in for the supermarket techniques of lucky-dip barrels. He deliberately chose to keep the shops plain to limit the point-of-sale material (thus giving additional impact to whet there is) and to rely on straightforwardness. "Fussy design is bad marketing," he said. "I choose clarity."