If there is a time to compare the grocer’s offers it is in the week before Christmas. The pressure is building with just a week of trading before the turkey goes in the oven and all the stops have been, or should have been, pulled out.
Whichever way you cut it, the year has been tumultuous for all the retailers. Sainsburys has probably been dealt the best hand of cards with Tesco, Morrisons and Asda making the best of what they have.
Sainsburys has an uncanny way of remaining un-flustered despite the competition. It maintains standards well, clear foyer, store POS well implemented, well stocked with few range gaps. Bulk stacked areas like beer are even deployed in such a way that there is little to impinge on the customer’s shopping experience.
While that makes for a stress free shop, it misses opportunities for the customer to be sold to. Marketing is understated, subtle, but is that what the customer actually now wants? Have they had their fill of product messages shouting at them at every turn and tripping them up in the aisles? Sainsburys has been very active in reducing prices but there is little to suggest this to the customer. A loyal customer might notice but a new customer wouldn’t know.
The store that we visited was quiet. Too quiet for the week before Christmas which should be a time of energy and excitement in retail. We think Sainsburys is overly reliant on its loyal customer, who is less frills and thrills than that of other grocers. Like the overstocked afterthought of TU clothing, Sainsburys has built it, so therefore the customer is expected to come.
In stark contrast Asda is all about excitement. The grocer has backed Star Wars in a big way, way beyond any of its competitors and if it converts it will be a big win for Asda, right when it needs a lift.
Asda POS is bold without being brassy, well executed and strong enough to attract attention signposting apparently good prices where in Sainsburys it did not. Fill was muted without significant gaps but entirely appropriate for the time of the week, ahead of weekend peak trading and the run up to Christmas.
The store was busy with an energy about it, customers shopping ambient goods in volume. End caps and hotspots were well set up with a good degree of seasonality for brands and its own Extra Special label. The strong merchandising and great customer service created an atmosphere where customers would be tempted to add items to their basket, feeling the seasonal mood.
Where Asda was a disappointment was in merchandising. The numerous FSDU’s across the store would interrupt customer flow, navigation of George clothing was compromised in the push for volume, and fresh merchandising lack clear range architecture. Worse still was the fact that the bank of TVs for sale weren’t switched on. Criminal for this time of year.
Tesco availability impressed us. Even in areas that were not yet at peak for the season, like in fresh, the amount of gaps were negligible and stock build looked effective. In ranges that were passed peak, clearance was professional and seemed to have reduced the risk the most of the grocers that we looked at.
Merchandising in Tesco was logical and interesting, e.g. tableware essentials with easy browsing of nice open low level displays, making non-food particularly easy to navigate.
Whilst the overall impression of the Tesco we visited was that of a clean formatted store, with FSDUs kept away from high traffic areas, other parts of the store felt scruffy and neglected off the cleaning rota – a sign of slipping standards and staff under pressure perhaps.
The balance of POS was not right with opportunities to flag great offers missed in favour of Christmas POS that fell flat, so missing the point on both counts. Thank heavens for the service led shop floor staff and engaging checkout staff.
Morrisons was one of the stores where finally we felt the POS and decorations worked well together in tandem, with price messaging still strong even in the well-executed and stocked seasonal aisle. Morrisons had also backed Star Wars but not to the same extent as Asda and looked like it would sell through.
Out of the seasonal aisles, Morrisons showed the most gaps in availability and range which just should not happen. Fresh areas were low level of fill and the serve over areas were not as good as in other retailers on the day. For a grocer that stands by its sourcing and provenance, displays missed the mark.
We were largely impressed by the stores that we visited, and no, we didn’t have low expectations. But we felt that there were still obvious opportunities being missed in more than one grocer:
- POS: getting the balance right between Seasonal and everyday pricing and promotional POS is difficult. A complete change of store POS is expensive but more thought and consideration needs to be given to how seasonal can integrate with everyday POS to convey excitement and key messages.
- Store standards: just one scruffy aisle is too many and we saw a few. The volume of footfall and longer opening hours doesn’t help but that really isn’t any excuse.
- FSDU pollution: well organized and positioned FSDU’s and stacks are effective but can impinge on traffic flow and create frustrating scruffy bottle-necks in peak trading.
- Service: putting a grumpy, stressed employee in a Santa hat doesn’t sell turkeys. Fix the stress, manage expectations, and then work on their Christmas cheer.
Who do we think will have the best Christmas? Well it is all relative. Sainsburys will continue to trend slightly up on the year with no big surprises despite the most engaging of Christmas adverts. Asda will pick up a bit compared to Q3 like for like comparisons but will struggle to maintain it post-Christmas. Tesco and Morrisons will probably continue to be slightly down on the year as they have been in recent months.
So despite some pleasant surprises in our walk around of the grocers, there was little to suggest to us there will be any big surprises in the Christmas trading updates. Expect more of the same but with ever more creative headlines from retail journalists trying to make them sound more interesting!