There was much discussion on the wireless this morning about the 6-1 Barcelona victory over PSG being the greatest comeback in European football. This is clearly incorrect, as the greatest comeback in European football was Hendon beating Wealdstone 5-4 after being 4-1 down at half-time.

Nonetheless, it got me musing on the topic of significant reversals in fortunes in grocery retailing. This morning saw the release of some rather pleasing numbers from both Morrisons and Carrefour, two retailers who have had a rather chequered history in performance terms, plus there are other examples such as Tesco with their phoenix from the flames recovery, or Whole Foods, which has swiftly transitioned from golden child to naughty step after a few quarters of less than ideal numbers.

I can now add Real to the list: Real has long been something of a laggard, both in terms of fellow components of the Metro Group (where cash & carries and Media Markt have left the food retail division in the shadows) and in terms of the German grocery market, where discount and supermarket operators have given hypermarkets a rather stern test.

Real has been something of an enigma for most of my career. It has scaled Olympian heights of innovation with its future store; it has been witness to some of the most dismal instore experiences I have encountered; and it had the very great pleasure of being paid a vast some of money to take Wal*Mart Germany off the hands of a hugely humbled American parent company.

I’m delighted to report that Real has delivered the greatest comeback in the history of hypermarkets. I’ve seen a few photos and read bits and pieces of stuff about the Markthalle concept in Krefeld, but nothing prepared me for the general levels of genius that I experienced yesterday. I don’t wish to upset the tourism officials there, but Krefeld is a city which I had previously only been aware of as the birthplace of musical genius Ralf Hütter and because the local firemen play a game of football every year against firemen from Leicester. Now there is Markthalle, I strongly suggest that you add this city to your itinerary with a fair degree of urgency.

The fresh food and counters area is quite possibly the best I have experienced in 20 years of visiting thousands of stores around the world. If it isn’t the best, it certainly joins the pantheon of awesomeness alongside the likes of AH XL, Jumbo Foodmarkt, certain WFMs, Wegmans, the odd Carrefour and a few other favourites in markets such as Finland and South Africa.

The look and feel is astonishing, underscoring the importance of often neglected store features like flooring, ceilings and lighting as well as more obvious components like fixtures and merchandising. This store is a good reminder than a bit of gloom alleviated by state-of-the-art lighting is visually tremendous, a nice reminder for supermarkets in the UK which seem intent on making their stores resemble floodlit squash courts, resulting in a soulless sterility which fails to support the food offer.

There are too many highlights to single out individually here and my limited vocabulary would be challenged by the sheer number of superlatives that this would require. However, special mentions must be extended to the bakery, the cheese counter, the produce section, the world’s greatest meat counter, the wine bar, the oyster bar and the wonderful central food court / salad bar / restaurant area. My burger was excellent.

In ambient grocery, highlights that have lingered include very good efforts in areas such as free from, organic, world foods, confectionery, pet and herbs & spices. Yes, herbs & spices. In 99% of stores, herbs & spices are the very definition of ‘lazy afterthought’, but here they are celebrated and brought to life in a great set of fixtures.

Non-food, housed in the rear of the store, was full of pleasant surprises including a tremendous health & beauty department, a delightful take on fashion, an immersive toy section, a well-executed technology area and a bike department that could give any specialist a run for its money.

The household goods and cookware area was a treat. There was plenty of superb merchandising with a clear amount of investment and input from suppliers and the store’s merchandisers have done very well in terms of co-locating GM lines with grocery products to generate some inspiration.

I was surprised to see white goods included in the mix, and to be honest I’d be amazed if any visiting gourmand will be hefting a tumble drier into their cars after polishing off some oysters, so I’d suggest that this space might be put to better use. That this is the sole minor criticism of the store gives you some idea of how good this place is.

There was a nice thread of technological innovation running through the outlet, with ESL and video screens being deployed well by retailer and suppliers alike, plus there were several touchscreen kiosks around the place which enabled shoppers to order online and delve into a broader range. The checkouts were well manned and a pleasure to use and there was plenty of sampling to prompt further interaction.

This store is proof positive that – when faced with punishingly brutal competitive pressures from the likes of Aldi, Lidl and Kaufland – the correct response is not to indulge in some futile pricing gestures but instead to become everything that your rivals cannot be: a sensory and engaging temple of food.

That’s what I call a comeback.

Bryan Roberts, Global Insight Director

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