Are UK supermarkets failing customers?

Ever hungry to bring fresh inspiration, this month I’m taking a literal approach: by talking food.

It’s been a little over two months since I made a firm commitment to myself to eat more healthily. The result has been a summer filled with food exploration, tantalised taste buds and, best of all, the feeling of being re-energised, leaner and fitter for the hard work that lies ahead as retail gets back to business after the summer break.

My recent personal journey begged questions not only about what kind of food I should be eating for lunch or dinner, but also the question of ‘what kind of retail experience I want when I go food shopping’. Due to pressures of work it’s all too easy to reach for that quick fix that provides an instant hit of satisfaction. But all too often, you’re still left feeling empty. Sadly, it’s a similar, all-too familiar story in retail too.

Big changes lie ahead in grocery retail.

I’ve always been suspicious of people who aren’t interested in food. And in the past few months I’ve become increasingly curious about why most of the UK’s grocery retailers pay so little attention on trying to truly tempt us with their instore proposition.

There are big changes ahead for UK grocery retail. How will the Carrefour and Tesco strategic alliance develop? Will the expected launch of the latter’s new ‘Jack’s’ format really challenge the big discounters? What lies ahead if the CMA gives the go-ahead to the planned ‘Sainsda’ merger? Who else, perhaps, does Amazon have on its radar? And, if it does swallow a UK supermarket up, will the effect be a positive one? In less than 12 months, Amazon has all but taken over in-store messaging space within Whole Foods Market in the US, with the arrival of the ‘Turquoise Invader’ (blanket in-store promotion of Prime membership). The result is so in your face that it’s hard to escape. In fact, you almost forget that it’s even a food business – a far removed experience from what Whole Foods has built its reputation, and experience, upon.

[…] similar in concept to but very much better than even the best Waitrose store.

There is an undoubted and growing trend for high-quality, niche, boutique supermarkets that specialise in fresh and regional indie grocery brands. Travel beyond these shores and there are many great examples that demonstrate just how much we’re being short-changed by our supermarkets in the UK. So that’s what I did. In search of the answer to what really makes a supermarket worth visiting, I stopped off in Faro and Dusseldorf to experience two particularly great examples.

The first of these is boutique Portuguese supermarket chain Apolonia. Its proposition genuinely impressed me, and that’s no mean feat for someone who visits as many stores around the world as I do each year. Instore, there’s a whole range of edible wonder available. It serves the right mix of basics, smaller hard-to-find specialist indie food brands (from European and British), and of course, great service. In terms of overall offer, it has the feel of a deli supermarket. Creating differentiation through range and quality, Apolonia is very similar in concept to, but very much better than, even the best Waitrose store here in the UK. Although they share the same DNA, the execution of one is wanting.

For many years, Waitrose was held up as Britain’s finest example of grocery retailing. Out of all the big UK supermarkets they were the last to expand, and made themselves deliberately better. But the current issues at Waitrose are well documented. For me, many of its troubles are a result of it becoming the polar opposite of the original brand intent. While it still does some things well, it has morphed into too much of a ‘me too’ and needs to rediscover the identity that once made it great if it is to re-establish both its offer and relevance. Inside Waitrose there is change afoot, but will it be as bold and brave or quickly and thoroughly executed as the business requires? Time for procrastination is well, over.

[…] expansive, refined, cultured and lavish.

Another retailer that adds more than a dash of something special is Zurheide Feine Kost in Dusseldorf. Last month I was invited to meet its senior management team and explore the jewel in its crown – the ‘Food Adventure’ Store, which opened in March.

I don’t want to give too much away (I’ll be talking about this concept more in the coming weeks) but the attention to detail in store is breathtaking. No expense has been spared. It’s expansive, refined, cultured and lavish. In stark contrast to our big food retailers, this is a bubbling, sizzling and sparkling example of how it is possible to get grocery retailing so right.

As well as the expected key departments – produce, bakery, dairy, ambient and household consumables – it features an array of eateries, with everything from a premium beef bar, to vegetarian restaurant, gin bar, olive pressing station, take-away bakery and even a hydroponic salad section (one for a Google search).

During my visit, retail standards were visibly and slavishly maintained; in the same way you would expect a Michelin star chef to run his kitchen. And as in a restaurant, presentation is everything. The methods used were subtle, with each product type tastefully and discretely differentiated through design. Refreshingly, there is an emphasis on imaginative VM and display features, rather than promotional activity – all reinforcing food preparation, provenance, ingredients, taste and enjoyment.

Later this month, it will open its doors on a Sunday for one day only to welcome paying (yes, paying) guests as part of a regional food festival. Tickets cost 1000 Euro. Would I buy one? Honestly, I would – I was left in no doubt that the experience that lies instore really would be worth it. I can’t ever imagine saying that about Sainsbury’s, Waitrose or M&S Food – but I would for Daylesford Organic Farm in Gloucestershire. Another must-see if you’ve never visited.

These stores really awaken my senses and put the joy back into grocery shopping. It was certainly a welcome antidote to the altogether bland experiences back home. Visiting supermarkets in other countries, you realise just how uninspiring most British supermarkets are. Most are still consumed by the race to the bottom to be the lowest on price, yet there’s a whole world of more interesting colour, flavour and taste, aesthetic as well as culinary, that could and should be whetting our appetites. Someone in the UK just needs the vision to serve it up.

Originally published in Retail Focus magazine (retail-focus.co.uk) September 2018.

Look out for Visual Thinking’s new grocery retail Insight Briefing. Coming soon – late September.

By Karl McKeever

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