We seem to be continuing a happy run of visiting some tremendous stores so far in 2017, with last week featuring a trip to the Continente store in Gaia, near Porto. Located in a shopping centre adjacent to the parent company Sonae’s headquarters, one would expect such a store to be on its A game. However, I can recall at least two horrific examples where the store closest to a retailer’s head office were beyond abysmal, so proximity to the big cheeses is not necessarily a guarantee of excellence.

Thankfully, this experience was not repeated here, with the store reflecting many of Sonae’s endeavours to keep its larger stores at the forefront in terms of innovation, relevance and shopper-centricity.

Thankfully, this experience was not repeated here, with the store reflecting many of Sonae’s endeavours to keep its larger stores at the forefront in terms of innovation, relevance and shopper-centricity. The Continente chain has arguably been less pressurised than similar operations around Europe, thanks in part to the fact that its stores are generally urban hypermarkets that require less effort to get to than is the case with other chains and also due to the fact that the onslaught of online competition in general merchandise is less advanced in Portugal than elsewhere.

That is not to say that Continente is having things all its own way. Pingo Doce continues to ramp up the pressure with its strong perceptions in terms of fresh ranging and EDLP, while Lidl is causing the typical pandemonium that we have come to expect. Continente itself would be the first to acknowledge that it needs to raise its game in fresh ranging and merchandising and has made solid progress over the last couple of years in evolving its offer and marketing these very real improvements.

The store is a very impressive affair, with notable features by no means limited to fresh. The general merchandise departments are excellent. The clothing offer – which largely comprises the Mo in-house range together with lines from sister chain Zippy – is well presented and sits very nicely alongside the health & beauty department.

Toys are a real stand-out, multi-coloured lighting festooned above some great interactive fixtures and excellent VM. The books section is also well-thought out, some nice décor topping off a great range which is enhanced by a seating area for browsing.

The superlative deployment of bespoke lighting, graphics and decorative touches is a hallmark throughout the store and there is plenty of imaginative verve that has gone into almost every section. Whether it’s the illuminated signage for home improvement, the lovely end-caps in petcare, the 3D graphics in frozen, the awesome Haribo pick n mix or the toilet paper display (yes really), there is an almost endless cavalcade of design innovation that piques the interest or raises a smile.

The food and drink departments live up to the standards set out in GM. There are a couple of islands in fresh – world cuisine and prepared meals – that pack a punch, while other counters like meat and fish are superb, once again leaving me very envious in light of the relatively meagre offering of defrosted fish and centrally-processed meats that are on offer in many UK supermarkets I frequent. It being Portugal, there was also a massive space devoted to bacalhau, the dried and salted cod that is a staple in the local cuisine.

Produce was a good, solid proposition, with a thorough range set off well with some stylish fixtures. The bakery was fantastic and was sited alongside a compelling instore café complete with ample seating area. The range of meal options here was extensive and using the seating area enable you to cast an eye over what is one of the best wine and spirits departments around.

The rest of grocery was full of distinctive touches, notably the aforementioned Haribo shrine and the deployment of a large number of branded end-caps that enabled manufacturers to showcase their wares in a hugely impactful fashion. These varied from beer to stock cubes to laundry detergent and, despite the humdrum nature of some of the categories involved, they added significantly to the sense of visual appeal and theatre in the store.

Proof that grocery retail can be fun, playful and engaging. Definitely one for the bucket list for anyone in European grocery.

Bryan Roberts, Global Insight Director

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