There are very few things that I have been ahead of the curve on. Arguably, I helped usher in the grunge era by looking like I had covered myself in superglue and rolled around a branch of Millets long before those whippersnappers in Seattle. My profound love of burgers predated the ongoing upsurge in gourmet processed cattle eateries, and I was definitely a trendsetter in leading the country music revival in the UK.
One other area where I like to think I might have set the agenda is my loyal patronage of, and praise of, Iceland, way before it became borderline trendy. Not the Iceland the country – land of The Sugarcubes, the Bonus supermarket chain with the second-best pig logo in global retailing, or that excellent clapping thing at the football; but Iceland the retailer – the humble British purveyor of frozen foods and assorted other sundries.
Iceland – after several dark episodes in its history – is once again enjoying success, arguably against the odds as theoretically it should be getting crushed by a German pincer movement. Although Aldi and Lidl have ramped up their frozen ranges and have a chunky geographical and demographic overlap with Iceland, the latter is flourishing and continues to win new shoppers as well as extracting more funds from loyal converts.
This is in part due to improved, and slightly more aspirational, marketing; in part due to very real improvement in the range (Iceland’s own, as well as exclusive partnerships such as Greggs, Pizza Express, Slimming World and Millie’s Cookies); and in part due to exciting format developments. Alongside the creation and expansion of the genuinely impressive Food Warehouse concept, the core eponymous concept is also getting a refresh – and very nice it is too.
There were many column inches devoted to the unveiling of a new iteration of the Iceland format in Clapham, but as that is south of the river and I am lazy, I’ve not yet been to visit it. Luckily, a leaflet through the door alerted me to the fact that my local store has been a recipient of some TLC so I popped along to take in the improvements.
It’s frustrated me in the past that many folk equated Iceland with frozen food, but I guess that is an occupational hazard given the chain’s name and heritage. The range of chilled and ambient has long been respectable, and produce, bakery and BWS have all been more than adequate too, although the brands carried might not make it a destination for wine snobs or beardy craft beer types.
In this refreshed store, what becomes clear is that the retailer is seeking to play up these categories, making a real point that bakery, produce, chilled meat and booze are key parts of the offer. While my shoddy photos might hint at availability issues, it should be pointed out that I popped into the store not too long before closing time. Regardless, the non-frozen categories – fresh meat in particular – are much improved and can yield up some amazing treats with pleasingly modest prices.
Clearly though, frozen is the star of the show here, and the new freezer kit and graphics made navigation a doddle. Whether you’re looking for Greggs sausage rolls, doner meat, ostrich steaks or emoji effigies constructed from dead turkeys, everything is easy to find. While I might jest about some of the frozen lines, there is very much a renewed focus on the premium, the healthy, the gourmet, and the aspirational. Iceland – while still some way behind its cross-channel peer Picard (whose wares are available through Ocado) – is the home of some very fine foods indeed.
There is some strong momentum behind Iceland at the minute and there has been some extremely favourable coverage in the media over the quality of some of its frozen meals. With the marketing looking solid, a surprisingly good online service and a store estate that is benefiting from the ongoing refurb programme, Iceland looks set for its robust trading performance to continue for the foreseeable future. Certainly, my occasional visits have become more frequent and I can only recommend that you revisit Iceland – it really is a lot better than you might think.
Bryan Roberts, Global Insight Director