Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Tesco Chelmsford - Believe The Hype

There are some who say "never go back". Well, today I visited the store where I learnt the basics of retail during 8 wonderful years. It is a small, unassuming store tucked away behind a busy town centre in a south eastern county town. And last month, Tesco changed it in a way that makes it completely unrecognisable from the store I left behind 13 years ago.

For my retail alma mater is Tesco in Chelmsford and no, not the big sexy one, but the 30 year old superstore in the town centre. It's already causing a buzz on Twitter and is such that the supplier I work for actually asked me to visit (usually I tell the boss which are the hot stores)

For this is their latest trial concept - Super-convenience. Although its DNA lies with Tooley Street Metro and smaller scale front of store work in Chester, it owes a lot to the Morrisons Fresh Markets. This isn't surprising. as Tesco aren't always the innovators but are always the implementors . That healthy paranoia gives a healthy respect to their competition and they always start with an assumption that others are doing things better than them. This is why it pains me to see the money-draining "pro" indie brigade say you can't take them on. It's a cliche, but really it isn't rocket science - it's knowing your market!

Superconvenience is one of 3 current concepts in the Tesco superstore world and a clear sign that they are finally flexing their greatest asset in their engine room stores - adaptability.

We all think we know Tesco, but unless you're someone in the trade who travels around the country looking at hundreds of stores, your definition of a typical store is your local branch. I recall a journalist having an anti-Tesco rant last year and picking on their identikit clock towers popping up everywhere - a design feature they phased out over 15 years ago!

But this diversity can become an asset if you know how to play it. Asda don't get this - they have a brainwashed belief in the Bentonville mothership vision of the locality reflecting the store, not the other way round. While this does work with genuine hypermarkets (where the store IS a genuine destination), it doesn't elsewhere - Asda regard a small market town store in North Wales the same as their store in the middle of Bury or one on a big council estate in Leeds. Few shoppers are bothered about locally-sourced products, but they are passionate about the right choice of products to suit their lifestyle.

And that's where Chelmsford gets it so right - a clever "for now/ for later" split of the store is intuitive yet still offers temptation to take you round the whole building. 

On entry, you can't help but think of Morrisons fresh market - low level produce followed by ready meals and essential dairy on low level chillers with food to go and more traditional counters along the side.The core of the food to go section is a tidy, well organised corner in a pleasant lime green with grey tiled flooring. Even though there was a steady lunchtime stream of people during my visit, it never felt congested - just bustling. And infectious

The food to go offering is attempting that holiest of retail grails - time of day - with a choice of bacon rolls, breakfast panini, granola and porridge that switches to hot pizza slices, salads and soups at lunchtime. By the way, I had the pizza - £1.50 a  slice and it was beautiful!

But while this section is matched by Morrisons, where the store steps it on is in ambient - something Morrisons seem to have abandoned once you're past Beers, Wines & Spirits.

Visitors to stores such as Salford, Bishops Stortford and Kensington won't find anything new here but the well-executed simplicity and subtle tricks are well executed. The general merchandise and clothing area - with a blue-grey take on the now ubiqituous wood flooring for this kind of area - is compact and well located at the back of the store. It kind of makes it into the "for even later" part of the store. If you're rushing round doing just a top-up food shop, it's visible but not in a way that makes you resent it by forcing you to walk past aisle upon aisle of stuff you really don't want to buy on that trip.

I'd also like to pray tribute to the staff in the store. From the greeters, the guys on the counters, the guys trying to explain the new car park ticketing system to the people replenishing the shelves - service was genuine, warm and efficient. You could feel the pride in their store and it's one of the most important things to have if you're trying to improve store ambiance. It's not the pretentious "ownership" of the partners in a Waitrose nor the happy-clappy cult followers who work in Asda - it's real, the belief that makes you work hard for your customers and your team. A lot of credit must go to the store manager, who I'd like to extend my warmest thanks to for speaking to me today and coping with an over-excited and emotional retail geek! She's doing a great job with the store, the team and dealing with what must be a constant stream of nosey blokes like me.

I'm loathe to make wild claims, but I think this is as close to a perfect store as you will find in the UK right now. It is the right offer in the right location sold in the right way by people doing things the right way. Is it sustainable? I think so - Tesco's simplicity is there underpinning it and the riskier elements look to be flexible enough to avoid adding uneccessary wastage costs. Tesco stores built in the mid-80's tend to be this kind of size and location, so they could be sitting on a goldmine.

In terms of the competition - JS probably don't need to worry just yet, Asda simply just have the guile or the balls to do any of this while Morrisons - well, they've had their bluff called. If this works, Tesco will be going hell for leather to roll this out and Morrisons will need to match them. Indies? Visit the store - look at the photos. There's EASY stuff to copy for YOUR store there.

Photos to follow

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