On a September morning nearly 16 years ago, I watched Jamie Oliver fire a little white cannon to open the “eco” Sainsbury’s in east Greenwich.
Last night, on a warm June evening, I watched it close for the last time.
At 5.58pm, people were still wandering into the store. If it wasn’t for people leaving through the entrance rather than the already-closed exit, you’d have thought all was normal.
Then some staff filed out, and at 6pm, a smiling security guard took charge of the door.
As the staff posed for photos, the final shoppers left. Some shook the security guard’s hand, one hugged him. A young woman next to me turned around as she left and said, “bye bye, Sainsbury’s”.
And that was it. One of the staff patiently explained to a man he was too late to do his shopping, I toddled off to North Greenwich station.
While watching the scene, I realised just how much people will miss this supermarket. It may not have worked as well as Sainsbury’s intended, but with its distinctive shape and natural light pouring through, it was that rarest of stores – one that was a pleasure to shop in. People even came from across the river. A favourite of stock photographers, you could see it on the news and know it was our Sainsbury’s. Not any more.
Of course, the “eco” store wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. And coming home at ten to midnight last night, when you’d expect stock and equipment to be being moved out, the lights shone as brightly as they ever did on what’s now a ghost supermarket. Maybe we’ll never know how ecologically-friendly this building really was.
From 9am today, the action moves down the road to Gallions Road in Charlton. The new store may be bigger, but it won’t be open through the night like its predecessor. It’s already in hot water over its giant signs, which were refused planning permission but appeared anyway.
It’ll probably lose custom from the Greenwich Millennium Village, which grew up behind the store and whose residents treated it as their local. It’ll certainly lose a chunk of custom from those who won’t be able to take the bus there any more – Transport for London having refused to extend route 202 from Blackheath to the Charlton store, despite the store developer offering money.
With wider trends in the industry favouring home delivery, smaller shops or discount stores, I wonder if Sainsbury’s will come to regret going for such a huge new store.
As for 55 Bugsby’s Way, the future is bleak. There’s no news on any short-term use for the doomed building. Ikea’s planning permission for the site remains only outline, the Swedish furniture giant poised to submit a full planning application after what, by all accounts, seems to have been a token consultation with local community groups. There’s even talk of Ikea eyeing up the adjacent B&Q site.
Like so many of the Greenwich Peninsula dreams of 1999, the eco-Sainsbury’s turned out to be a false start. Now there’ll be a solid block of big-box retail with enormous car parks for a full mile between Greenwich and Charlton. And people say London’s short of places to build new homes in.
Would it have been better if Sainsbury’s had never come here in the first place? It depends how much you can tolerate Asda, I guess. Or if you want a steady, big-name employer to give people work – and the staff at the Greenwich store have been exemplary over the years. The new store will have more of them.
But in future, if a stranger approaches your town and offers you an eco-supermarket, you may wish to think very carefully before you accept…