Sunday, 15 November 2015

Face to face with the UK's retailing scene

Two weeks I've been in England now, all but two days of which have been spent in Ealing, and a lot of shopping has gone on. It's fascinating to compare the retail industry in the UK with that in Poland - it's not just the prices, but the approach, the business model.

Let's start with my favourite - Waitrose. The nearest big supermarket to my father's house (1.2km). This is a posh, up-market chain (think Piotr i Paweł or Alma Market), but there's many more of them. Legend has it that when a Waitrose opens in your neighbourhood, house prices shoot up. Craving squid linguini en su tinta? Waitrose will have it, and a wine to go with. Posh shop = posh prices. Don't come here looking for deals on Heinz Baked Beans (much cheaper at Lidl). Do come here for variety, novelty and customer service. So many first-class cheeses, from across Britain and Europe. Now, my father has a MyWaitrose card. So he gets discount coupons. This is great. Buy anything at Waitrose, and you are eligible for a free coffee from a posh coffee machine. Buy stuff for over a fiver (weekdays) and you can pick up a free newspaper. Spend a bit more at the weekends and get a free paper and coffee... Every month, my father gets coupons. Spend 40 quid and get eight quid off. And the offers combine - buy six bottles of wine, get 25% off. So we bought six bottles, came to £45, got the 25% off and the £8 off, so we paid just over £29 in total.

Next up - Lidl. Exactly the same business model as in Poland - surprise and delight the customer. It's now the run-up to Christmas, so there are all the Deluxe-branded goodies like that giant Parma ham, smoked reindeer meat, huge jars of anchovies - most competitively priced; half-price Roquefort... and more - I really recommend Hatherwood's Green Gecko IPA, brewed by Marston's at Wychwood for Lidl - better than any beer I've bought from Waitrose. (Can we hope to see Green Gecko in Jeziorki Lidl during British Week?) We have two Lidls - in Hanwell and in Greenford. Both very diverse and multicultural in terms of clientele. And all those Lidl brands, Lovilio, Milvona, Galereux, Baresa, Whacktoffo (OK, I made the last one up) that feature in Lidls across our great continent.

Marks and Spencer. Food. The saviour of Britain's great clothing retailer. Going head-to-head with Waitrose for the high-end consumer seeking premium food. M&S is where I've ordered food for my mother's wake on Friday; posh canapés, pétites patisseries, fruit kebabs, vegetarian sandwiches, pork pies - more than enough for 35 people - for less than £200. Shopping in the Ealing Broadway M&S food hall today, I was amazed how packed it was. How many people come here to buy... food. Far more than were shopping for shirts and socks upstairs. Must say though, the customer service is excellent. My father bought a black coat for the funeral, but the sleeves were too long. For £15, the sleeves were shortened by an inch, the bottom button repositioned above the top one, the entire job totally perfect, done on time.

Polski Skleps. This is a revolution. Parade Delicatessen, opposite Ealing Broadway station, has just closed its doors forever, after serving Ealing's Polish community since 1952. Its place has been taken by the likes of Kujawiak (West Ealing), Delight (Greenford), Mieszko (Hanwell) - much larger formats than the cramped Parade Deli. The new wave of Polski Skleps have an incredible variety of branded Polish products, imported from Poland or made in Britain by Polish entrepreneurs (bakers in particular). World-beating Polish soups, bread and smoked meats. Polish music is blaring from the speakers, most of it żałosne - Disco Polo played on the keyboard of a broken pocket calculator in a minor key. A vast range of Polish magazines. Many products which are immediately replaceable by UK products, but sporting a Polish brand and sold at premium prices. Lays Crisps are, after all, Walkers Crisps in the UK. But then a mega TV paka of Lejsy brings back the magic of a night back home watching Tańce z Gwiazdami na Lodzie like a grab-bag of Walkers just cannot do.  A sign says in both languages "minimum sale of beer - two cans". This is where the tins of Perła, Tyskie, Warka and Lech that line the gutters and grace the parkland of the London Borough of Ealing come from. At Kujawiak, I bought some chilled gołąbki and pierogi z mięsem as well as a large loaf of sourdough rye bread. Further up the road I came across more Polish shops - in one, a kilo of Polish apples was £1.49, in the next, £1.99. In Poland, a kilo of apples would be between 1.49 zł and 1.99 zł. So six times as much.

Co-op. There are two on Pitshanger Lane. I LOVE Pitshanger Lane. It is the essence of an English village high street, located in a London suburb. With its high-class butchers, its fish & chip shop, its cafés and the (Duke of) Kent pub that my mother used to call "my second address" when I still lived at home with my parents, Pitshanger Lane is a great place to meander down to. The two Co-ops are not the cheapest shops but the one at the western end of Pitshanger Lane is 0.9km (just over half a mile) away, and so the nearest food shop to home, a lovely walk down Cleveland Park. The Co-op sells the essentials - milk, butter, tomatoes, Lavazza Qualita Rossa - but little more. Ah. And, very important round these parts, you can get a fresh copy of Tydzień Polski every Friday morning. The Co-op is a grown-up convenience store, delightfully located compared to all of the above.

Tesco. The Tesco in the old Hoover Building (the world's second-greatest Art-Deco building after the Nebraska State Capitol) can almost compete with the smaller Polski Skleps when it comes to fullness of range of Polish products, but misses in one area - soups. Whether in jars (best), sachets of liquid (second best) or sachets of powder (acceptable at a pinch), Polish soups reign - żurek (sour wheat), ogórkowa (pickled cucumber), grochówka (pea), krupnik (barley), grzybowa (mushroom), barszcz (beetroot - best in its Ukrainian variation) or pomidorowa (tomato). Sadly, Tesco does not stock these. But in general, a pleasant enough shopping experience, even though the fabric of the magnificent building is starting to get shabby. I remember Tesco Hoover from its post-opening glory days in the 1990s.

Sainsbury's. I don't know, I didn't go in a Sainsbury's. I mean, why on earth should I go into a Sainsbury's? Like, nothing's on offer here that I can't buy elsewhere, it's not the cheapest shop, it's not the nearest shop...

Summing up then. Food in Britain can be cheap when you shop around. The UK food retail market is going in two directions - up market and budget. The middle is falling away rapidly. Retailers have to surprise and delight; Lidl is doing this well. I've never stepped foot in an Aldi, so can't comment on how it compares to Lidl as an up-and-coming challenger to the UK's Big Four. But my shopping preferences suggests which way UK food retailing is going.

And Poland? What about Poland? A completely different market. Poorer, though catching up really quickly. Different dynamics. More about that on my return, no doubt.

This time last year:
Bricktorian Birmingham

This time three years ago:
Welcome to Lemmingrad

This time five years ago:
Dream highway

This time six years ago:
The Days are Marching

This time eight years ago:
First snow, 2007


Bob said...

Great observations as always. Don't know if you read but Lidl is entering the US market

Anonymous said...

In my city of Bydgoszcz, there are Biedronkas everywhere. I have 3 in walking distance. They seem to open anywhere there is space. I'd love to shop at Lidl, but it requires a bus or tram ride to the "suburbs". Apparently they feel their stores have to have parking for dozens of autos.

It's strange, as German Lidl stores are often in the city centre, without parking.

AndrzejK said...

Not sure I would agree that Piotr and Paweł and Alma are anything like Waitrose (apart from their aspirational intent). Alma has this strange idea that 70 brands of olive oil are what people really want.

The really great thing about Waitrose is their policy of opening additional tills as soon as thare are more than 3 people queing up. And there is none of the Alma staff problem of answering any enquiry "not my section of the store you need to ask someone from the relevant department" - a problem shared by the local Bricoman in Wilanów which has driven me to distraction over the last two weeks as I undertake a major renovation of the house!

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Bob, Anon from Bydgoszcz - amazing to see how dynamically Aldi and Lidl are growing in the UK. This month the two of them have reached combined share of 10% of the UK food retail market (Kantar WorldPanel, Nov 2015). Be interesting to see how Lidl's formula takes on in the US! A propos city-centre parking, it must be said there's not a single Lidl in Warsaw's Srodmiescie - all Lidl stores are located in the suburbs.

@ AndrzejK - Waitrose staff will take you to the product you are looking for. My father says that the average Tesco customer will be better able to help you than Tesco staff.
Alma could certainly learn a thing or seven from Waitrose.

Anonymous said...

And I'll bet none of the UK chains bother you with "mass drobne?" (have you exact change). This slows down lines more than anything else while granny digs out her change purse and starts looking.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Anonymous:

Every UK shop - even Polski Skleps - start the trading day with an ample cash float. I went to Kujawiak in West Ealing to buy goods worth £11.27, and offered a £20 note. I was surprised not to be asked for the końcóweczka. I received a £5 note, three £1 coins, 50p, 20p and three pennies. Bez problemu!.

Worth bearing in mind that a one penny coin is worth SIX TIMES more than the grosz coin.

dr Marcin said...


Try to buy at Polski Skleps something for less than 10 GBP just using a debit/payment card. Almost typical notice is Płatności kartą akceptowane pow. 10 funtów/ Card payments acceptable beyond of £ 10 Why?

dr Marcin said...

Worth bearing in mind that a one penny coin is worth SIX TIMES more than the grosz coin.

There's is something more worth bearing in mind. That's that a purchasing power of the Average-British-Taxpayer is many times higher than that of the Polish one. And there's none of a merit of an unfavourable exchange rate towards Polish zloty, but because of the flagrant low level of wages in Poland comparing to those of British at an almost the same (if not higher) levels of productivity and labour effectiveness of Polish employees like the British ones. So, what's on that?