I’ve been wanting to visit Slovenia for quite some time and last week finally provided an opportunity – and what a lovely place it is too. Ljubljana is a beautiful city; Slovenian food and wine is awesome; the locals are a very friendly bunch; and the there is some fine retailing to be experienced. It was nice to see some very decent department stores and some retailers that I was not that familiar with.

Obviously, as is always the case with going to any European city, there is also the usual cavalcade of familiar names like Zara, H&M, Decathlon and McDonalds, but there was much more of a local flavour (with a decent amount of Austrian thrown in) to the retail scene.

The largest retailer in the country is the formerly state-owned giant Mercator. It trades through a number of companies including wholesale, retail, real estate, tourism, fuel and manufacturing. Tracing its roots back to a wholesaler founded in 1949, it expanded rapidly through acquisitions and organic growth to become a regional powerhouse by the end of the 2000s.

In 2014, it became part of the Agrokor Group, the Croatia-based conglomerate that is active primarily across food production and retailing. Its retail division is a regional leader with over EUR4 billion in revenues and around 1,800 stores in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro.

Mercator is a business that is dominated by smaller store concepts that straddle supermarkets, c-stores and neighbourhood outlets. I was lucky enough to visit one of its few hypermarkets, a flagship store that was the second Mercator hypermarket to open for business.

The store trades in the Ljubljana suburb of Šiška and is located in a mall that also houses a wide array of restaurants and specialist stores including some big brands in clothing and footwear. The store itself is around 6,500 sq. m. and was refurbished in 2016. It offers around 35,000 SKUs and has a leaning towards the premium end of the spectrum in terms of proposition.

The refresh of the store was very much geared around the shopper: “intended to provide Mercator’s customers with more fun and a unique and interactive shopping experience.” This is an aspiration that was certainly achieved. The perimeter of the store is devoted to fresh categories and food-for-now / food-for-later. Visually, it is stunning, and it very much delivers in terms of experience too.

The food craft skills on display are brilliant. Whether you are watching sushi being freshly rolled, bread being baked from scratch, beautiful cakes being made before your very eyes, pizzas being built or butchers setting about their trade with gusto, there is an overwhelming sense of theatre and authenticity.

The front of the store is devoted to floral and produce, the latter merchandised with imaginative fixtures and plenty of stylish black and white signage. Just beyond produce are counters devoted to juices, salad, sushi and food-for-now/food-for-later. The latter includes a vast array of prepared foods which can be consumed instore at a dedicated seating area or can be taken home.

The back wall houses a self-serve bakery fixture, service bakery counter, pizza counter (which looked incredible), patisserie, local foods department, a long run of dairy chillers and the meat counter, the last of which was among the best I’ve seen.

In the far corner of the store sat a remarkable deli island: sumptuous displays of cheese and charcuterie including two handsome vertical ageing cabinets and a riotous outbreak of cross-merchandising. Lovely stuff. The fish counter – complete with lobster tank – was also great, rounding off one of the finest store perimeters I’ve encountered in around 20 years of store visits.

In many flagship or new concept stores, the perimeter of food porn is great, then one gets the sense that the retailer has run out of ideas and/or money, leaving a centre-store that is pretty routine and drab. Not so here.

The level of innovation, playfulness and fun continues throughout the store, elevating categories such as organic, health & beauty, BWS, baby, frozen, household and water beyond the ordinary, ensuring that the entire shopping trip is memorable and interesting.

BWS was marvellous, the whole department deploying ‘loads of rocks in metal cages’ that one usually sees alongside motorway embankments. I’ve never seen this building material used in a store before (and if anyone knows what this construction material is actually called, I’d be grateful to hear from you) and it certainly made for a striking look and feel. This was also the case in the beer department too, with lengths of copper piping making the section resemble a brewery.

The front corner of the store housed a stylish health & beauty section as well as the ‘Dream Factory’ – a spectacular area devoted to baby products and toys which was also home to an instore play area. This is a great concept – one can only imagine how Toys R Us might have fared with this level of innovation and instore standards.

Other memorable highlights included the greatest piece of toilet paper merchandising in the history of supermarkets, a five-metre-high water feature in the soft drinks aisle, an ice-cream department that was styled in the fashion of a traditional ice-cream cart, an organics section covered in AstroTurf and some really solid bits of shopper marketing from suppliers.

When the store reopened in 2016, Mercator stated that: “A unique shopping experience is becoming an important factor in retail success. Today, consumers can purchase most products in various places, including online, but the classic store represents the space and the place where these products gain a new dimension. Today’s consumer is seeking ways to make life easier and reduce stress; they seek entertainment and the feeling that the retailer is dedicated to them at the moment of purchase. We aspire to achieve this at the renovated Mercator Šiška store.”

Three years on, I can say with the utmost conviction that this aspiration was achieved in absolute spades and that Mercator Šiška continues to be an illuminating beacon of how to rise beyond mediocrity and achieve true differentiation. World-class.

Bryan Roberts, Global Insights Director

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