I’ve written about some of Kesko’s excellent store format innovations in the Finnish market in previous years and previous jobs, but I am delighted to reveal that I made a return trip to Helsinki this week and now get to write about an absolute belter of a store.

Kesko has a distinctive structure: a big parent organisation with scale and expertise in marketing, buying, systems, logistics, loyalty, non-food etc. that services a network of independent shopkeepers who are able, to an extent, to flex and tailor their offer to meet local demands.

Overall, I believe, this is a good way to run a supermarket business. Rather than a network of formulaic stores with similar ranges and characteristics, Kesko is able to trade through stores that are more embedded in their local communities with better curated ranges and services.

The K-Citymarket in Järvenpää is a compact hypermarket in a town of 45,000 citizens that is also served by two K-Supermarkets, a K-Market, a Lidl and one each of the S-Market and Prisma formats operated by market leader S-Group. The three latter competitors are intensely price-driven, creating a situation where K-Citymarket shopkeeper Markku Hautala has made the wise choice to create a unique store concept that is light years away from the competition. If you can’t be the cheapest, it makes sense to be the best.

Hautala is a third-generation K-retailer whose family have been running supermarkets for over 80 years. Hautala himself has worked within Kesko for over 20 years and has been running K-Citymarket Järvenpää since 2007.

His store is a constantly evolving concept that aims to blend the worlds of restaurant and grocery retail – the store’s website goes by the name of grocerant.fi – and it underwent its most significant reinvention as part of major overhaul in 2017.

In order to finesse the ongoing reiteration of the store concept, Hautala has sought inspiration from restaurants and stores around the world, including flagship examples such as Jumbo Foodmarkt in The Netherlands, Edeka in Dusseldorf and chains like Wegmans in the USA. This means that the food section of the store is among the best I’ve ever encountered, partly due to the soaking up of global best practice but also to the fact that the store is wholeheartedly obsessed with shopper experience.

Hautala asserts that the purpose of the store is to enrich the lives of local people and this mission shines through in almost every aspect of the grocery offer. The produce department is intended to create the “best welcome in Europe” and it’s fair to suggest that the proposition is not far off the mark.

The department has a wonderful array of juicing options, including the rarely spotted pineapple juicing machine – this one, I believe, is the only one in Finland. The rest of the produce section boasts bespoke lighting, canvas canopies, digital screens, some nice hand-designed overheads as well as some funky living wall-style décor. Another personal highlight was the herb section: so often commoditised and neglected, this instance was a real treat for the senses.

The back wall was home to a run of service counters, including a very charming bakery operated by Finnish bakery and confectionery supplier Fazer and an excellent fish counter. The meat counter initially raised an eyebrow as it didn’t really exist: instead a prep room was busy using state-of-the-art machinery to prepare cuts of meat, burgers, sausages etc. that were packed in CO2. Rather than a lavish service counter, the focus was on freshness and quality. Pleasingly, some of those lovely beef ageing cabinets had been deployed too.

The jewel in the crown in this part of the store was the sushi counter. In an era when seemingly half the supermarket chains in Europe are busy rolling out franchised sushi counters, this may at first appear thoroughly unremarkable. However, all is not what it seems. Instead of going down the franchise route, Hautala instead went on a number of research trips to Japan, looking to bring the greatest expertise and ingredients to an unassuming Finnish town.

The sushi counter in K-Citymarket Järvenpää is therefore one of, if not the, biggest sushi sellers in Europe, selling around 3,000 kg per week with a target of increasing this to 5,000 kg thanks to the installation of a second sushi kitchen and an improved queuing system for shoppers. Under the watchful eye of a Japanese sushi master with 15 years of experience, the proposition is of the highest quality at the lowest prices: a combination that means the average time a piece of sushi spends on the display is just 11 minutes. People travel to Järvenpää from as far afield as Spain and Italy purely for this store’s sushi: remarkable stuff.

The ambient section is noteworthy for a number of reasons. Firstly: no supplier promotional money is accepted by the store in exchange for shelf space, meaning that gondola ends are given over to new or bestselling SKUs rather than branded promotions. The ladder racks alongside each end are intended to mimic the Zara approach to fashion – grocery items that are new, refreshed or on-trend.

Compared to other hypermarkets, the height of the shelves has been reduced, top-stocking is not deployed, and the aisles have been chopped in half in terms of length. Combined with the fact that product and category adjacencies are top of mind, the end result is one of total shopper-centricity and a store that is a joy to navigate and shop. As Hautala told me: “The aim is not to sell you as much as possible. The aim is that you wish to come again.” How delightfully refreshing.

Other call-outs for the broader grocery offer would include a superlative beer department and the second-best pick n’ mix I’ve seen all year.

As well as other food-for-now features like a gelateria – supplied by the instore ice-cream factory – Italian pizza oven, coffee bar and salad bar, sits the instore restaurant (I’m aware the restaurant looks empty in the photo – it is closed on Mondays).

The restaurant – Gastro Bar Sesonki – is overseen by globally acclaimed chef Matti Jämsen. It is noteworthy for many things, but perhaps most of all because all of the restaurant’s ingredients are sourced from the store that it is located in. This means, for example, that the amazing burgers in the restaurant (I can utterly recommend these) are on sale from the meat fixture at a very affordable price. This also plays on the themes of localness and seasonality that are hallmarks of the restaurant menu. The ambition is for the restaurant is that it will become the only one within a supermarket to receive a Michelin star: I’m really not going to bet against that happening.

I doubt I’ve met many people in this industry that are as knowledgeable or as passionate about food and grocery retailing at Markku Hautala. His store is one of the best I’ve ever experienced, and you really should visit if you get a chance.

Bryan Roberts, Global Insights Director

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