I recently arrived back from a corking holiday in the USA, although as any retail geek can attest, holidays are basically a series of store visits in more clement weather. There were a few chains along our route that I had not been able to see before, including Safeway, Bashas’, Smith’s, King Soopers, Natural Grocers, Harmons and WinCo Foods, and I managed to get into most of them alongside more typical vacation activities of climbing up things, cycling through things, photographing things, eating lots of things and drinking lots of things.

WinCo has a reputation that precedes it of being something of a unique concept, melding together warehouse club, supermarket and hard discounter to create an extreme value proposition in a pleasing, if spartan, instore environment. As a private company, financial details are unavailable, but WinCo (given its ongoing expansion) has evidently been able to flourish in the face of the competitive onslaught from Walmart that has troubled a number of mainstream supermarket operators.

It trades from around 130 stores in the West, having expanded from its Idaho heartland into Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington, Oklahoma, Washington, Texas, Utah and Nevada, and generates sales in the $7 to $8 billion ballpark.

Positioning itself as the ‘Supermarket Low Price Leader’, WinCo trades out of relatively massive stores in the region of 100,000 sq. ft. Very little of this space is devoted to general merchandise save for an aisle or two given over to media, seasonal, outdoor and household: the retailer instead offers an enormous range of groceries designed to appeal to an increasingly diverse shopper base.

The store I visited, in Utah, was rather impressive. With its high racking, sparkling floor and bold red and white signage, it was more than faintly reminiscent of a Costco. This impression was reinforced by a leaning towards larger pack sizes in many categories, but elsewhere the store was more like a regular supermarket, with counters dedicated to meat, deli, sushi, bakery, seafood and bakery.

Produce was nicely done and I also really liked the bulk foods department, where shoppers could pick up gigantic pack sizes and also purchase loose product in categories like confectionery, coffee and pet care.

WinCo’s value credentials were vividly demonstrated in a number of different ways. General signage proclaimed ‘Low Prices: Every Aisle, Every Department, Every Day’, while on-shelf labels highlighted ‘Extra Savings’ promotions and also price comparisons that pitched WinCo against Walmart, Smith’s and Lucky’s. WinCo’s eponymous private label was used well across most categories to underscore the value message and there was plenty of info at the store’s entrance detailing how WinCo was able to deliver savings to shoppers.

Two other aspects of the store that really impressed me were standards and service. Despite being a colossal outlet focused on delivering low prices, the store was virtually spotless and availability and facing up were both spot on – proof that value doesn’t necessarily come at a price. Customer service was exemplary: staff were plentiful, pleasant and helpful and the shopping experience was consequently a delight. This reflects, perhaps, the fact that WinCo is employee-owned, meaning that everyone has skin in the game when it comes to customer satisfaction.

I’m really pleased I took the time to visit: there is a lot to learn from a retailer like this.

Bryan Roberts, Global Insights Director

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