One of Greenwich’s biggest recent planning battles is set to resurface this autumn, Remember Ikea? One of ex-leader Chris Roberts’ last legacies to the area, Greenwich Council rushed through outline planning permission for a new 350,000-sq ft store back in 2014, to replace the now-demolished “eco”-Sainsbury’s and adjacent former Comet store.
Since then, attention has turned to exactly how a stonking great big furniture store that’s notorious for attracting huge traffic jams can be modelled to fit an area that’s already notorious for huge traffic jams.
Ikea took ownership of the site a year ago and demolished the former stores this spring,. Meanwhile, developer LXB – which was behind Sainsbury’s move down to Charlton – has bought the B&Q branch next door.
So, what’s planned? Eltham-based magazine SE Nine, which usually has decent contacts in Greenwich planning, reported on its Facebook page last month that the site would be a new Ikea format, an Order & Collection Point. This is smaller than a normal store and “packed with inspiration”.
“Particularly when it comes to our dedicated co-workers who are ready to share their home furnishing expertise and lend some specialist help every step of the way. They’re there to help you plan your dream kitchen, for example, or offer expert advice on your next project at home, no matter how big or small.”
There are only four in the UK – and the example cited in SE Nine’s report opened in Birmingham last month.
What else to do, then, but take a day trip to England’s second city?
Birmingham’s changed since the days of Telly Savalas rhapsodising about the Inner Ring Road. That infamous dual carriageway “concrete collar” has been broken, and the city centre now gleams with new shopping centres. The new central library is probably the finest public building in the country, while trams now purr past the brand new Grand Central mall, built on top of the once-dismal New Street station.
There’s still a way to go, though – and just off the new tram line, you’ll find Dale End, a run-down shopping street that’s been awaiting redevelopment for years. But it’s here you’ll find the third Ikea Order & Collection store, which opened on 18 August in a site vacated by Toys R Us a decade ago.
This isn’t a full Ikea store – it’s an outlet to showcase some of the Swedish chain’s new designs and to sell smaller items. You can also pick up goods you’ve ordered online and plan what you want to buy with the help of some of the store’s 30 staff. The store sits beneath a 1970s car park, and you can drive up and collect items there. One catch – collection costs up to £10.
You don’t get the full browsing experience here – that’s available in Ikea’s two main West Midlands store. The “marketplace” doesn’t feature here either – though plenty of its items are scattered around the store.
But there is a small cafe – and yes, there are meatballs too.
This is a test format for Ikea – and it seemed reasonably popular on the sunny Tuesday I visited. But it’s somewhere you’d go if you knew exactly what you wanted – or had money burning a hole in your pocket and a desire to design your own kitchen.
A format like this might deter people from driving great distances, once they’ve got used to it – the Dale End store openly points out the full range is found at Wednesbury and Coventry, and most customers seemed to wander in from the street. But will a larger version of this giant showroom work in a retail park?
You don’t have to go to Birmingham to get a sample of the Order & Collection Ikea. Because it’s now appeared closer to home, at Stratford.
To the 108!
There was a brass band playing Abba tunes outside the new store at Westfield Stratford City when it opened its doors last Wednesday.
This is a smaller affair than its Midlands counterpart – there’s no cafe for a start (I didn’t spot any meatballs either). It sits in an outdoor parade of other furniture stores – Dwell is next door, DFS is opposite – with the displays and planning studio distinguishing it from the rest.
Again, if you know what you’re after, this is brilliant (although from here, you could easily drive to stores at Edmonton or Lakeside). But it’s not one you’ll make a special trip just to browse through – it’d only take five minutes, for a start.
It’s entirely possible the presence of this store in Stratford will dampen some demand north of the river for a store in Greenwich – but you might not be so keen to pay £10 to collect a huge flat-pack bookcase which you then have to lug through a shopping mall to a car park you’ve paid £2.70 to use.
There are two other Order & Collection Ikeas in the UK, and they’re both on retail parks – the first opened in Norwich last November, the second is in Aberdeen. Publicity for the first Irish store – on a retail park near Dublin – describes how it is designed around “real people”.
A sitting room on display, we are told, has been designed for Paul (33) and Simon (35). They are a couple with “a strong sense of style”. They bought their city centre apartment together just over four years ago and like to indulge their love of cafes, art galleries, wine bars and eateries.
Simon is passionate about wine, and more particularly red wine. Ikea has built a sittingroom adorned with vases, glassware and textiles. A collection of wine glasses sits on shelves lining one entire wall. Pictures abound – including a framed picture of a bottle of Malbec. The effect is both trendy and personal.
It’s some way from the Lakeside Retail Park. But if you think of the new homes coming to the immediate area, this approach would make sense for Greenwich.
An Order & Collection Ikea would mean the retailer has resisted calls to use the format used at a store in Hamburg. You’ll find the store in Altona, a western district that sees itself as a class apart from its neighbours (sound familiar?). Ikea has three stores in Hamburg, but the Altona branch was, when it opened in 2015, its only “high street” store in Europe.
To the S-Bahn!
The first thing that strikes you about the Altona Ikea is its size – it dominates a pedestrian shopping parade in the same way an old-style department store does. Its bulk comes from an efficient use of space that’s rare in London – walk around the back of the store and you’ll find that deliveries go into the basement, car parking goes on top.
In between, you’ve three floors of shopping space to mooch around in – with lifts next to escalators to get your trolleys upstairs. The “marketplace” is spread around the store, rather than being at the end of your route..
The ground floor almost acts as a standalone store, with its own cafe facing the street – ideal for shoppers who just want to pop in and out again – a bit like the UK Order and Collection stores.
Head up to the first floor and things feel more like a conventional Ikea – you’ll find more furniture displays and a huge restaurant. Once you’re on the second floor, you’ll find the huge warehouse shelves along with the food store.
On the weekday I visited, the store was doing a reasonable trade. Plenty of people were heading to and from the station with Ikea goods – there were no queues for the car park, which had 300 empty spaces.
There aren’t free deliveries here – it’s 29 euros to hire a “sofa taxi” while there are a range of bicycle options starting at 10 euros. You’re reminded of these at almost every turn. This isn’t a Dutch-style cycling utopia, but taking a bike here is much more popular and easy than it is in London.
There’s wrapping paper available to help people take their goods on public transport – this is probably one of the best-connected shopping parades in Germany, with national and even international trains stopping here along with buses and local rail services.
Is this a revolutionary Ikea? Not really – it’s simply the traditional store remixed to suit a very well-connected high street. Perhaps there are a few less furniture displays than a traditional warehouse, but it offers the same comprehensive shopping experience as a retail barn with a vast car park outside.
It’s easy to imagine this format working in a typical zone 3 or 4 London high street. Drop this into Eltham, Bexleyheath or Bromley and it’d be wildly popular, although it’d probably bung up the traffic.
But there’s no high street to drop this into in east Greenwich. To recreate the Altona store in SE London, the developers would have to be bold and create their own high street, a retail destination that driving wouldn’t be the default option to. Despite its leadership’s willingness to do opaque deals with developers, this would surely be anathema to a council that’s trying to reinvigorate Eltham and resuscitate Woolwich.
And while the cycling options might work for the expanding Greenwich Peninsula community, the surrounding terrain – both natural and man-made – would make it a tough ask for the rest of us. Fancy pedalling your goods up Westcombe Hill?
So, despite the clamour for the Altona model Ikea, the Order & Collection version – a format which deters many speculative trips – may be the least worst for east Greenwich. Short of not building the thing at all, it may offer the best chance of avoiding the insanity of the four-hour queues that greeted the opening of Reading’s Ikea in July.
We will find out just what is planned in the coming weeks.