I AM staring at the future. It’s a packet of Brussels sprouts.
This is not just any pack of sprouts, however – as shoppers in a rival supermarket might say. This is a Morrisons pack of sprouts, next to leeks and green beans, but also plaintain, Chinese Lotus roots and mooli, a type of East Asian radish.
The green veg is resting on top of a layer of ice, put there to keep the food fresher and reversing a supermarket industry tradition of leaving it on a grimy-looking metal tray.
This alteration is only one of dozens of innovations in food and drink that Morrisons is trialling in its “lab” store in Kirkstall on the edge of Leeds. There is also a florist’s, a tea and coffee bar, orange juice squeezed in front of you, and seemingly more products and more choice than in any other branch of the Yorkshire chain. A range of clothing could be next, with veteran fashion designer George Davies, the man behind Per Una at M&S, believed to be in talks with Morrisons, although the store said this was “pure speculation”. It is with the drinks in the Fresh to Go section that the changes begin, explains Scott Gilbert, store general manager.
From here, through the fruit and veg section and round to Market Street, perhaps Morrisons’ best-known concept, there is a vast array of new products. Salami Finocchiona and Prosciutto crudo have joined the traditional slices of tongue and pork pies on the deli counter, there is nearly a third more cheeses to choose from and there are more than 40 types of pizza, with those under the Pizzeria brand made in an open kitchen on show to customers.
“In the past we have just put something in store, now we are asking people what they want,” said Mr Gilbert, who gets daily sales reports to show which products, new and old, are doing well. “Everything is pretty fluid. If customers don’t like something we get to know about it.”
The trials started in September as the supermarket has been trying to improve its food range under chief executive Dalton Philips, who took over in March last year.
It’s part of the Irishman’s plan to make the Bradford-based retailer fit for the 21st-century and on Tuesday it took its first step into online retailing by spending £70m on internet baby products seller Kiddicare. It also has plans to trial new convenience stores and an online food operation.
It is in Kirkstall, however, that customers can get a taste of Morrisons’ future.
The store, which attracts about 42,000 customers a week, ranging from students to middle-aged professionals and the retired, has been subtly redesigned, with some furniture and fixtures removed, to make space for more food lines as well as the entertainment and home products that were rolled out in most stores from late last year. A 32in Techwood flat screen HD TV, yours for only £279, is only a few feet along from the jars of Nutella, and one wonders what Sir Ken Morrison, the life president and former chairman, makes of it all.
That remains to be discovered but if his regular customers are anything to go by, he would be pleased. The changes mean they can do most of their shopping under one roof and a 70-year-old Bramhope woman told the Yorkshire Post she was impressed with what was on offer in the new department in Kirkstall, branded as Your Home.
“I think it is quite good value. There is a lot of cheap stuff from China (elsewhere on the high street) but this is fairly good quality. There is more choice.”
Jen Wilson, 19, a student at Leeds Metropolitan University who was stocking up on food, crisps, cake and vodka before a birthday celebration, said the range of household goods made life easier for her.
“It means you don’t have to go into town. It is a walk rather than a bus fare and it has everything you want.”
Partygoers like Miss Wilson are also presented with a vast choice of alcohol, with upmarket Charles de Villers NV Brut Champagne alongside 1.5 litre bottles of Lambrini Bianco for £2.99.
Why does all this matter? If Morrisons is to retain its position as Britain’s fourth-largest supermarket, then it needs to change, which is why analysts at Shore Capital last week urged the chain to “modernise and broaden its food offer” and speculated how it could introduce a clothing range.
If Mr Davies is coming on board, as rumoured, then it won’t be long before we find out. In the meantime, the best glimpse of Morrisons’ future can be found in its Yorkshire heartland.