The Lidl USA PR team must have been looking forward to overseeing the biggest story in American grocery retailing in 2017. A fiercely competitive and impressive retailer parking its tanks on Walmart’s lawn with an ambitious store opening programme in multiple states up and down the east coast. Plenty of journos and analysts were in attendance as the stores opened, keen to evaluate the credentials of what could become a major and destabilising force in the sector.
The day after the stores opened, Amazon announced the acquisition of Whole Foods Market and the Lidl PR team suddenly had to face the realisation that they were stewarding only the second biggest story in American grocery retailing in 2017. It was that day that I visited the Lidl store in Winston-Salem. Now: I acknowledge that visiting a single store the day after it opened is probably not the most rigorous foundation for having a point of view, but it’s never stopped me in the past, so away we go.
The look and feel of the store was instantly highly impressive, certainly compared to a number of European iterations that I have encountered over the last 20 years. Plenty of natural light and informative and stylish graphics, coupled with the store’s spaciousness, made for an enjoyable shopping experience. The bakery was very well done, with handsome fixtures and sampling galore, and it sat nicely alongside produce. As is familiar in Lidl stores elsewhere, special offers in produce are a key part of the proposition. Lidl USA has adopted the Fresh 5 moniker for its five discounted fruit & veg items, although availability issues when I visited meant that the offer was more akin to the Fresh 2 or 3.
The chilled offer was extensive and featured a compelling array of convenience food, replete with pizzas the size of a small family car, and the cheese range was very good indeed, including many domestic and imported SKUs under the upscale Preferred Selection brand. Private label was obviously a key feature throughout, but one got the sense that the PL development team had struggled to meet the store opening deadline. Rather than using the myriad phantom brands that you would expect, many PL SKUs looked like half-finished generic items from the 1980s. A chap from Aldi that I spoke to in the store was baffled by the PL range, noting that it was nothing like as impressive as he had feared. As with any market entry, the store was populated by a mix of real shoppers and about a dozen men in chinos and polo shirts who were all clearly from the competition, checking out the assortment and pricing.
There were loads of big brands in the mix too and Lidl was not shy in calling out price differentials between its own brands and national brands. The non-food specials zone – badged as ‘new surprises’ – was pretty much as expected and numerous shoppers were availing themselves of general merchandise bargains.
Booze was a real highlight: a huge selection of chilled beers (Boss Light sitting unashamedly next to Bud Light) was positioned alongside a brilliant wine department with excellent POS. The health & beauty section was a classy affair, although the absence of Lidl’s flagship PL range in this category was another curious omission.
The broader grocery range was decent, augmented by some nice areas devoted to organic and gluten free, and the merchandising and displays were generally top-drawer throughout. One surprise for me was that Lidl had not gone for the ‘healthy checkout’ approach that it has deployed in most European markets. Instead the checkouts were festooned with all sorts of confectionery, sorry, candy in addition to some healthier options.
The checkout experience was very pleasant indeed, although it should be noted that I enjoyed the introductory phase where assistants were packing bags for shoppers – this was limited to a short period following the opening of stores before the more Lidlesque regime of self-packing was unveiled.
All in all, I really liked the Lidl USA proposition. Store design, ranging and service were all excellent and when the PL team finally catches up with the property team, the assortment will be a lot stronger. I’ve been notoriously wrong on predicting the fortunes of new entrants to the US market (Fresh & Easy was slightly less successful than I went on record as suggesting it would be), but I reckon that – with a couple of tweaks – Lidl USA should do just fine.
Bryan Roberts, Global Insight Director