I would like to have been a fly on the wall in the Waitrose boardroom earlier this week as the supermarket top ten dropped onto their desks.
It’s like the top ten Alan Freeman used to read out on Pick of the Pops, except this one deals in market share, and there’s no music accompaniment.
But the drama must have been palpable among the Waitrose execs, in those stripy green shirts of theirs, as the German discount chain Lidl leapfrogged them into seventh place. By the look of things, pop pickers, the Co-op will be next to be overtaken.
Waitrose and Lidl may be at opposite ends of the market, but those ends are increasingly entangled. Far fewer people now, I fancy, would profess to not wanting to be seen dead in one or the other.
I have never been inside a Lidl. I’m not being snobbish; there just isn’t one near my house. I’m cheap but I’m not driving 10 miles for frozen peas. But I have been inside Aldi, the other German discount chain, which overtook both Waitrose and the Co-op some time ago. In fact, for the last six months I have been doing our weekly shop there.
Earlier this year, they opened a branch not far from me, so I turned right instead of left and headed there instead of Sainsbury’s. When I got home, as if to underline the extent of my parsimony, I compared the bills. I had spent £70. An equivalent shop at Sainsbury’s would have cost me £28 more. You don’t have to be Vince Cable to work out that that is more than just a marginal difference.
I would have spent less still at Aldi had I not been seduced by the prices. Perhaps you recognise the internal dialogue: Only 29p for carrots? I’ll take a bag for us and one for the rabbits.
They were from British farms, too, as was the fresh meat.
This raised the question, why was Sainsbury’s so much more expensive? It’s a quality store so I could put up with paying a small premium. But not £28. That, as we used to say in Yorkshire, is taking the rise.
How is it possible for one or two supermarkets to charge so much less than all the others? It can’t be simply a matter of quality – I’ve been eating food from Aldi since February and I’ve yet to keel over from it.
Range comes into the equation; Aldi and, I believe, Lidl, carry far fewer lines than their rivals, and nearly all are own brands. But unlike those of the traditional supermarkets, they are disguised as real brands, often with packaging remarkably similar to more famous ones. And they are not sold as inferior alternatives to Heinz ketchup or Hellman’s mayonnaise, but as their equals. The chocolate digestive I am eating now, from a tube labelled Belmont Biscuits, may be a tad smaller than a McVitie, but it doesn’t seem to me to be any less chocolatey or indeed less digestive-y.
And who makes own brands anyway? In many cases, they are picked from the same production lines as the names we see advertised on TV.
So, have the other supermarkets been overcharging us all these years? In a way, yes. We’re paying for a whole raft of services that no one ever asked for but which we have collectively accepted as part of the British supermarket experience.
A customer help desk, home delivery, people in the car park wrangling stray trolleys… all nice to have, but not worth £28 a trip.
Then there is the presentation: it has become standard practice to tempt us with attractive packages containing less food than their size suggests. The space between the topmost flake of muesli and the top of the box is known in the trade as ullage – a name I’m not surprised they don’t wish to share with us. In contrast, the Germans know that space is money: the less ullage, the more boxes they can squeeze onto the shelves.
The checkouts are more tightly-packed still. I have only ever seen three open at Aldi at any one time and you’re bundled through faster than you can shovel the stuff into your trolley.
The odd thing is that their model is not radically different to the one pioneered by Tesco back in the 1960s. But as their customers and neighbourhoods became gentrified, so did they.
I don’t blame them. I’m all for upward mobility. But £28 is £28. By opening a branch near me, Aldi has proved that the two need not be mutually exclusive.
We’re paying for a whole raft of services that no-one ever asked for but which we hav