Repacking the supermarket
: Food retail evolution and futures

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Despite receiving little attention in the field of architecture, supermarkets represent a key shopping space in UK cities and are the main interface between consumers and food supply chains. Spatially, supermarkets are generic, designed to create a convenient shopping experience but beyond the consumer-facing space hides a complex, often invisible, food supply system. On the supply side, food continues to become more global, moving further than before to sustain cheap prices, choice, and all-year seasonality resulting in a precarious, hungry, and wasteful just-in-time system. On the demand side, consumers have become increasingly detached from these productive systems leading to mass malnutrition and over-consumption. These issues are only expected to become worse as they mix with the challenges of a pandemic, Brexit, and climate change.

This is the first architectural study to look holistically at supermarket shopping. It applies systems thinking to unpack the past and present and repack the future of food retail. Structured chronologically, the research analyses and reimagines supermarkets through the lens of three themes: consumption, culture, and climate. Four outputs are generated through a research-by-design methodology and the flexible medium of drawing: [1] A taxonomy of supermarket development: 1930’s-2020. [2] Thematic studies relating supermarket space to wider food systems. [3] Three propositional future supermarkets. [4] A speculative future supermarket taxonomy: 2020-.

The research suggests that current supermarket space is secondary to the processes and technologies managing food logistics; designed primarily to accelerate the flow of food and people through them. The thesis suggests that future supermarkets might better address inherent social and environmental issues by becoming more local, more efficient, more transparent, and more participatory. The experimental study tests a range of visual scenario-building and design approaches useful for designers to analyse and reimagine other spatial types within wider social, technical, ecological, economic, and political contexts.
Date of AwardJul 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsNorthern Ireland Department for the Economy
SupervisorGreg Keeffe (Supervisor) & Gary Archibald Boyd (Supervisor)


  • Supermarket
  • research-by-design
  • logistics
  • sustainability
  • future thinking
  • shopping
  • food supply chain
  • architecture
  • urbanism

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