Although a relatively modest supermarket in the modest town of Didcot in Oxfordshire may not look that exciting, it might actually represent a rather excellent ace up Asda’s sleeve as it seeks to fight back against the discounters and recover a few years of market share erosion.

It emerged in press reports prior to Christmas that a big chunk of Asda’s supermarket division (the bulk of which are former Netto discount stores) were not profitable and that the retailer was looking at achieving greater efficiencies in order to preserve its status as the cheapest supermarket in the country and to further close the price gap between itself and Aldi and Lidl.

The problem with the Asda supermarkets is that you are looking at buildings intended (by Netto) to carry about 5,000 – 6,000 SKUs actually selling 12,000 or more products. The result can often be akin to the unfortunate combination of a food bank and a snow globe, with cages everywhere, shelves towering up to the ceiling and a sense of loosely organised chaos. I understand the temptation to stock as wide a range as possible, but the net result can often be profoundly sub-optimal.

Didcot is not the first attempt by Asda to take more of a direct competitive stance against the discounters. The rather brutal Asda Essentials concept (95% private label in an Aldi facsimile concept) had extremely mixed results from a two-store pilot and disappeared shortly after its inception. This concept, on the other hand, looks like a total goer.

Trading from 8,000 sq. ft. on a new housing estate with a new college a stone’s throw away, this store stocks around 4,500 SKUs and opened for business in late October last year, about a year and a half after Chris Walker joined Asda from Lidl to spearhead a revival of the Asda supermarket division.

With the lower SKU count, the store has freed up a bit of space which makes the overall shopping experience a very pleasant one. Shoppers walk straight into a food-to-go proposition that should do pretty well with the nearby students, and then into produce. Although not at the top of its game availability-wise when I visited, the department looks sleek and has a thoroughly ample range of regular fruit & veg as well as the usual value added veg dishes.

The ready meal and convenience offer was excellent, including a very good meal deal on the Extra Special premium range, while the bakery and pizza counters were both very smart indeed – a great look and feel with some decent product on sale too.

There is a central display of ‘Manager’s Choice’ items: these are a mix of GM lines (toys and towels when I visited) plus grocery items such as loo roll, cleaning and laundry with fairly attractive price cuts. Changed weekly, this area is more than eerily similar to the aisles of special buys on the German discounters, but equally it serves its purpose well: providing reasons to visit and offering a bit of seasonal relevance too.

The narrow range in every category is a merciful relief. With two or three SKUs (economy, standard and brand/premium PL) in many categories and sub-categories, the tyranny of choice is avoided and I reckon you could whizz round the store in about 15 – 20 minutes to compete a comprehensive trolley shop. Bearing in mind that discounters have been winning due to economy of time and economy of thought as much as economy of money, this streamlined range really is a godsend.

There are a few signs around the store that efficiency is high up the agenda; noteworthy features include gravity-fed shelving for soft drinks / cordials as well as bread being shelved on trays. Neither technique is particularly beautiful, but one suspects that shoppers will neither notice nor care.

The overall look and feel of the store is something I really like. The lighting, flooring, fixtures, graphics and décor come together to create a decidedly pleasing ambiance. Wandering through the store and into booze brings up a few more highlights, notably an excellent craft beer range, the bay of Extra Special wines and the booze chiller, which is further evidence of Asda’s mindfulness of shopper missions in this new concept.

With the inclusion of lockers outside the store to house click & collect for ambient, chilled and frozen groceries, this Asda store is a very encouraging indicator for the potential direction of travel for Asda’s smaller store estate. Fine work indeed.

Bryan Roberts, Global Insight Director

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