Category Archives: Retail Concepts

A Little-Plus About Lidl

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A year ago, Germany-based grocer Lidl ‘invaded’ the United States. The company (whose name is pronounced leedl) originally set its initial US goal at 100 stores. That was scaled back, early this year, to 50. There presently are Lidl stores in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, with more stores pending in New York’s Staten Island, New Jersey, Delaware, and Georgia.

The up-coming stores are likely to be closer to the company’s 15,000-20,000 sq ft (1393-1858 sqm) European model, for a few reasons:

(1) The US stores, judging from the one I’ve visited (several times), are seriously trying to do too much, as almost-full-service supermarkets, than they can deliver;

(2) they dedicate 12-25% of their floor space to nonfood items that might, might, generate high enough profits to justify the company’s investment in them… but they might not; and

(3) while in-store bakeries certainly are a potential draw, Lidl’s scratch versions – as opposed to bakeries doing bake-off of frozen or otherwise- ‘almost-finished’ products, involve serious up-front and ongoing investments. And using only Europe-inspired recipes may not be as good an idea as Lidl executives imagined, because European and American tastes differ.

A company website notes that, “At Lidl, our bread and baked goods are authentic European quality and they are always oven fresh because we bake several times a day. Take a deep breath – that smell is our croissants oven-baked on site! We melt the right amount of butter, dash the perfect amount of salt, and layer each luxurious taste to be the perfect flakey bite. The baked goods are made using the original recipes and baking processes that we perfected across Europe.”

Something Lidl may never (so far) have been recognized for is the quality of its shopping carts. Beyond the now-standard area for small, delicate items, their cars feature handles that are heavier than the types usually found at US supermarkets, and Lidl’s handles have shaped, plastic grips for the user’s hands. While the carts feel sturdy, they are easy to maneuver, and seem to be constructed so as to not face the fate of so many carts: jammed or broken wheels.

The care and attention that went into designing those carts wasn’t exercised when the entry into US market was planned.

While generally some 35% larger than their European counterparts, Lidl’s US stores’ shopping areas don’t employ space efficiently. Aisles are too wide, compared to most US supermarkets; the first-in-view produce section features multiple displays of some items and, in mid-June, had no available peaches – a serious summertime favorite across the US. (Meanwhile, a roadside stand a few miles up the road from the Danville VA Lidl was offering “South Carolina Peaches”); Non-food bins, which feature ‘specials’ on Thursdays and Sundays, were empty on Saturday – a huge waste of space and, no doubt, many missed opportunities to sell something – anything.

Americans like prepared foods. Lidl doesn’t, one must assume, like to sell prepared foods, at least not in assortments Americans are used to. Oddly, one of the widest ranges of packaged foods comprises sauces destined, as per package directions, to be used to turn plain pieces of chicken into Indian-Indian – as opposed to Native American “Indians” – dishes. It would amaze me if there’s an even middling demand for Indian food in Danville, population 42,000  or so, where there’s nothing vaguely resembling an Indian restaurant or Asian food market within 40 minutes (in Greensboro, NC, of all places!).

This Lidl offers frozen Indian entrees, as well. A generous assessment assumes they must sell, because the display is always well-stocked. (Alternatively, these long-shelf-life items, prepared in Canada, may not be selling well at all – but let’s  give the benefit of the doubt and assume stock is turning over nicely!)

 

Given the amount of space dedicated to them, Lidl clearly loves to sell cookies, packaged crackers and similar snack foods: The company’s Danville store has oodles of them.

The bring-your-own–bags – or buy Lidl’s for a few cents each – system seems to be widely accepted by shoppers. (I keep a bag full of Lidl bags in the trunk of my car so when I’m in Danville, I’m prepared. On my most recent visit, a departing customer tossed me a few Lidl bags he didn’t need, so I added them to my ‘bag stash’.)

I live an hour’s drive from that store, so I visit only when I’m in Danville for another reason. So I can’t report on day-to-day traffic there. Press reports have said the company hasn’t been converting fans of other local supermarkets – of which there are not a wide assortment in Danville – to Lidl regulars.

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My visit earlier this month was either the ideal time for encountering little in-store traffic… or a portend of problems to come: There were very few shoppers, at 5:30 on a Saturday afternoon. But the good news is, for Lidl, many of the few were loading carts with well over $100 in merchandise. That’s four to five times what a press report a few months ago said the average Lidl ‘buy’ was.

I like Lidl. It employs some clever time- and cost-savers such as price-labeling your own bakery and produce items. (Walmart’s self-checkouts require one to try to figure out how some produce items are listed in the system – corn, peppers, and chilies can be problematic  — or enter the PLU code. The latter often are as hard to locate as the product-look-up system is to navigate. Not so at Lidl.

A few months ago, writing in Forbes, noted retail analyst Walter Loeb  wondered why, rather than spreading stores from New Jersey to Georgia, Lidl hasn’t focused on a more condensed area and positioned stores closer together. The current scatter-shop positioning, he noted, makes it hard for any store to have more than a very local impact.

Well, the company recently appointed a new head of the US operation, a 15-year veteran of Lidl, and he’ll no doubt put that experience to good use getting Lidl USA back on the track envisioned by envisioned by Klaus Gehrig, director of the Schwarz-Group, which owns Lidl.

On average, competitors have lowered prices more than 9% in markets where Lidl sets up shop. That suggests US consumers have every reason to hope Schwarz-Group becomes more profitable thanks to Lidl USA.

 

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McDonald’s Debuts New Chicago HQ

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McDonald’s has called a Chicago suburb home for 40 years. No more: The company recently moved its HQ into the city – in The West Loop location once home to Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios. CNBC said the area is “an up-and-coming neighborhood known for its trendy restaurants. It is here that Easterbrook foresees the company cultivating top talent and tapping into emerging food crazes.”

Craig’s Chicago Business reported that the company is leasing about 80% of the 600,000 sq ft (27,871 sq m) available in the newly-built, block-square building in what’s called the Fulton Market area of the city center. The $250 million (£187m) headquarters was officially opened on June 4.

In addition to office space, the facility also includes a floor dedicated to the company’s Hamburger University, a training ground for mid-managers, higher-ups and franchise owners in the company. More than 80,000 of them have graduated from HU, as the ‘campus’ is called.  (In Oakbrook, IL, the company’s former headquarters, HU occupied 130,000 sq ft (12,077 sq m). It occupies the entire 2nd floor in the new nine-story HQ building, which stands some 125 ft (38m) at its highest point.)

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Steve Easterbrook, CEO of McDonald’s, told CNBC that while the old HQ had “been a wonderful facility for us, it was a little detached from everyday life.” The new HQ definitely isn’t.

Its ground floor includes a restaurant open to the public. It shows off all the latest innovations in McDonald’s around the world, including menu selections (which often differ significantly in other countries from US offerings).

Truly, this is a photo story, so here are a few more from McDonald’s of their new HQ.

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Meet-up spaces

 

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The employee cafeteria, with stadium seating.
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“Work  neighborhoods”

 

 

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Roof-top work space, with views over Chicago.

Carrot Steak, Anyone?

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Carrots, Restaurant Hospitality said on June 1, are getting “a reboot” – as both a center-of-plate dish and in an assortment of ways as ‘sides’. The push to find new, markedly different ways to employ the brightest-colored of root vegetables comes, the magazine noted, as such other oft-neglected or underutilized vegetables as cauliflower and celery find their way into professional kitchens from one side of the US to the other – and elsewhere, as well.

Regarding carrots, the magazine went on, “Anyone who thinks carrots don’t belong in the center of the plate hasn’t seen the dramatic Carrot Steak at Detroit’s Lady of the House, one of the new breed of casual restaurants reviving that city’s dining scene. Beautifully simple, the “steak” is sauced with both Hollandaise and pesto.”

In New York City, the author went on, Dirt Candy restaurant “has won raves for its creative, vegetable-based cuisine. The Carrot Slider there features a double dose of carrots since it’s served on a carrot bun.”

The Dirt Candy folks are something else: Another of their offerings is …

POPCORN BEETS

Why have fries when you can have these instead? Salt-roasted beets fried in a corn-meal batter and served with our Thai green curry sauce that tastes like Thailand’s version of ranch dressing, it’s snack food elevated to the level of a street drug: totally addictive.”

Other carroty formulations were cited in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio, restaurants.

The article went on to note that, because many college students are vegetarians or vegans, vegetable-based cuisines, often creatively featuring carrots, are increasingly popular at campus dining facilities. And bartenders, too, are getting into the carrots-as-an-ingredient game.

Possibly anticipating a jump from professional kitchens to household, Walmart – at least my local one – just substantially increased the amount of produce space devoted to carrots.

As Bugs Bunny was wont to say, “What’s up, Doc?”

 

Lidl Alters Stock, Prices In Danville VA Store

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The Lidl store in Danville, Virginia has been open a couple of months. It’s already made some (much needed) shifts in its product offerings. And, though staff on hand on a recent Wednesday afternoon reported business has been “good,” it was pretty slow on our second visit.

That, for the company, is the bad news. The good news is how ably they work with consumers wanting to return something – often a hassle ao competitors’ stores. On our first visit, we’d bought a device to catch and kill houseflies. It didn’t work. Despite the fact it was many weeks before we could get back to the store (it’s nearly an hour’s drive away), the return process – done at the checkout, not a consumer service counter – went smoothly… once a manager was located: That took a couple of minutes.

A bit later, at the conclusion of the same visit, we realized that a bottle of wine we’d purchased was not the one we wanted – a less than one-third the price of the one we walked out with. I immediately walked it back into the store, spotted the same manager on the floor, and he OK’d a return even though, he said, Virginia law bans the return of wine. (Since we’d only bought it moments before, and had the receipt, he reckoned the law could be ‘waived’ (read ‘overlooked’.) We returned to one of the checkouts – only three were open on this slow afternoon – and were promptly issued a store ‘gift’ card.

Back in the chilled foods section along the right wall, it was clear that someone has paid attention to the fact that people on Virginia’s Southside don’t have much interest in Indian food, as the choices in the heat-and-serve section have been trimmed (to one!) and other, similar meals have been culled, as well.

The bakery’s offerings are more numerous, and samples are more in evidence – with a lighted sign rotating through the day’s offerings.

But one of the greatest changes – hardly unexpected for a new, price-oriented store – has been the push to drop prices – an effort evident in most every department. One dramatic example: whole “young” chickens were offered at $.69 (69 cents) per pound, down from $.99 – the price of comparable birds at Food Lion, along with Walmart, a chief competitor in Danville.

(The town – a small city, actually – used to have two Piggly Wigglys and a Harris Teeter. One of the former was replaced by a Walmart; The latter simply pulled out of the market. There’s one Save-A-Lot, a limited assortment discount store. It’s so NEVER busy, you wonder why it’s still in business.)

Lidl needs to do, in this and other locations, product shifts to reflect the fact locals aren’t interested in “Cheese [or anything else] from Europe”. Most of their new US stores are in small, often rural, unsophisticated communities. The natives there don’t know (or care) about brie or other ‘specialty’ cheeses, or foods from foreign lands. But they do go for Lidls’ bakery goods, many of which – such as fresh bagels, croissants and similar pastries – are all but unknown beyond the products offered in the bake-it-yourself section of the dairy aisle.

Some reports have said Lidl isn’t doing the business it expected to in its launch stores. But as someone pointed out, the privately (German-) owned company has deep pockets, and is committed to a long term success in the US. There is every reason to put faith in that – and the fact that both Lidl and Aldi, it’s German-based cousin, which also is growing its US store count, will continue to disrupt the US grocery-selling scene for years to come.

Instore Robots Are H-E-R-E!

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Marty the robot is being tested at Giant Food Stores on Union Deposit Road in Lower Paxton Township, Pennsylvania.  (Photo: PenLive.com)

An increasing number of food retailers are using, or planning to use, instore robots – not to replace existing workers, but to do some of their tasks more efficiently. In the end, the theory is, everyone benefits: The retailer can keep a better handle of out-of-stocks at the shelf level, be quickly notified of spills and other issues requiring special attention from a worker, and check prices from shelf labels, to ensure prices posted and those in the front-end system are in sync; Employees get help keeping track of where stock is needed; Customers are more likely to find shelves fully stocked (or being restocked, as they shop), enjoy a safer shopping environment as spills, etc. are dealt with quicker, and, as a bonus, get to watch a so-far-unusual piece of technology work their favorite store’s aisles.

AndNowYouKnow, the produce blog/newsletter, reported a few days ago on a pilot robot-using program in a Giant Food Store in eastern Pennsylvania. This Ahold USA store is running the pilot in association with Badger Technologies. They intend to have the robot, called Marty, up and working in 12 stores by sometime next year.

The ANUK also noted that other retailers considering or already employing robots include Walmart, Amazon, and Target. A Digital Trends story in September of last year noted that Walmart is planning to shift some workers to other roles and let some 7,000 go as robotic or newly-automated systems are introduced for ‘back room’ operations such as billing and accounting. The Wall Street Journal noted that one objective of the new hands-off processing of invoices and cash, among other things, is “to put more staff in contact with shoppers.”

CNBC, in a report primarily about Amazon’s growing home delivery services, noted that Walmart also has announced a deal with smart doorbell maker August to provide customers an in-home delivery service: It will enable Amazon delivery personnel to have one-time access to home so they can deliver and put away, where appropriate (as with frozen or refrigerated items), at least part of an order.

Services such as these, plus driver-less trucks, are going to play increasingly important roles in stores and households of the surprisingly near future.

Watch this space.

Gambling Machines Among Latest ‘Added Values’ Items In US Supermarkets

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Generally speaking, grocers aren’t gamblers: Traditionally, they’ve tended to hew to fairly traditional approaches to marketing and selling food. At least they did until a few years ago.

Then, faced with new competitor types – such as hard discounters such as Aldi and Sav-A-Lot (and now, Lidl) – and an increasing emphasis on store periphery departments, retailers started stepping up their game, expanding their offerings and, most recently, paring prices to the bone.

A growing number, including New York State-based Wegman’s, and Connecticut-based Stew Leonard’s, added an entertainment factor by bringing ‘backroom’ business to the store floor: Putting in-store baking operations front-and-center; providing a window into juice- and milk-bottling operations (Stew Leonard was a pioneer in this); taking sampling to a new level with educated offerings of featured wines … the list goes on.

But following at least two other Illinois grocers in truly breaking new ground recently was a Piggly Wiggly store in Antioch, where several video gambling machines were introduced. Store owner David Karczewski told the local Daily Herald newspaper that while the machines hadn’t been part of his original plan when he applied for a license to sell alcohol within his store, he quickly realized that the liquor permit, which also allowed him to introduce video gambling into his grocery store, sounded like a good idea.

He’s subsequently said he’s been proved right: He told the Daily Herald that they’ve earned him a number of new customers.

Hardly surprisingly, some community members have objected to the presence of gambling machines in a family-focused establishment, while town board members say allowing gambling wasn’t their intention in approving the store’s liquor license. Store owner Karczewski, meanwhile, said he installed the machines to give his location a competitive edge against larger competitors, and he’s been pleased with the many new shoppers he’s seen in the store.

His innovation, Food Dive noted a few days ago, isn’t all that different from other food retailers’ innovative efforts to attract new customers, or, at the least, new income from existing ones. (Banking, parcel shipping, Coinstar machines and even the occasional Department of Motor Vehicles branch as well as restaurants and bars being among them.)

In all such instances, retailers are fighting as best they can to overcome competitive threats. Even more extreme, though, are the approaches of such disrupters as Lidl and Aldi, in particular, whose strategies revolve around limiting selections (reducing the need for backroom space) and cutting costs – internally and to consumers – to the bone.

The latter’s strategy is disrupting the food retailing industry more dramatically than anything before it came close to doing. The club stores – Costo, Sam’s Club – caused a lot of shoppers to rethink shopping patterns a couple decades ago, but the careful among them quickly realized that the key to successfully shopping those stores – to save money – is to ‘pre-shop’ prices of things you want at other outlets. The clubs aren’t giving anything away, so some of their prices are far from the best out there.

And that concept was further complicated as Amazon introduced an ever-broader range of products online. Now, the click-and-collect concept that Walmart, among others, are greatly promoting are presenting further challenges to walk-in-and-buy oriented retailers.

It’s only a matter of time before Walmart and others figure out how to profitably do click-and-collect on food items. Fresh and frozen food items, that is: Offering click-and-collect on dry groceries is as simple as doing it.

Meanwhile, dollar stores also are becoming more competitive against grocers. Dollar Tree, for example, has been featuring – via a big store-front banner – a several-ounce ‘pre-conditioned’ steak for around $4.00. But this is a real ‘buyer beware’ item: The product looks good, but the ‘pre-conditioning’ has involved a form of pounding that’s beat the … flavor out of the product.

Still, to some shoppers, something called a ‘steak’ is still outside the range of what they usually consume for protein. And that’s the key issue on all the retail changes the industry is undergoing: The value is in the eyes of the beholders, and consumers, having an amazing assortment of tastes and concepts of what’s good, and good for them, will respond to grocers’ changes with their own ideas of what makes sense and what doesn’t.

Watch this space!

Delivery Services, Smaller Stores, Point to Future of Food Retailing in America

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Grocery retailers who’d like to get into the home delivery game, a business so far dominated by such big players as Amazon, Instacart, Jet, Peapod and the like, are being offered an opportunity to “play” – in a very serious way – by Deliv, a crowd sourced startup that earlier this year got a $28 million cash infusion from UPS, undoubtedly the most experienced last-mile (from wherever to the customer’s door) delivery service in the US. Just-launched Deliv Fresh claims it can “offer same-day delivery from {retailers’] own branded sites,” according to an article in DC Velocity, which describes itself as “the market leading multi-media magazine brand serving the specific informational needs of logistics and supply chain managers and executives.”

Deliv says that while Amazon Prime “takes ownership of the customer transaction,” moving products from its own or partners’ warehouses direct to customers, the Deliv service “provides same-day service to grocers, meal services, and other perishable e-commerce providers such as FoodKick by FreshDirect, GetFedNYC, GreenBlender, Plated, BloomThat, The Cheese Store of Silverlake, Plum Market, and Eataly Chicago.” The company currently operates its core service in 18 markets and more than 100 cities, providing same-day, last mile delivery services for retailers and businesses including Macy’s, Best Buy, Kohl’s, and PetSmart.

Smart: They’re starting with a broad range of retailers, in a limited number or markets, testing the market, as it were, and preparing to roll out its service as and when appropriate.

The grocery retailing business is undergoing seismic changes these days, and will continue to do so as the likes of Aldi and upstart Lytl – like Aldi, a huge success as low-price-leader food stores in Europe – gain ground in the US. (Aldi’s been here for a long time, but has, for the most part, flown under the radar, since stores are, in a sense, struggling to get their low-price message out into their various communities.)

A surprisingly long article in the May 16 New York Times went well beyond reviewing a new book on the state of supermarket retailing (“Grocery – The Buying and Selling of Food in America”). The paper’s reporter went with book author Michael Ruhlman on a tour of a ShopRite store in New Jersey, getting an up-close-and-personal education on some of what’s happening in supermarkets today and, as or more important, what’s likely to happen in coming years.

One interesting point was that grocery deliveries will help influence an emerging trend – of stores getting smaller, and going back to being more customer-centric and less packed out with packaged goods of the type people are increasingly buying less of.

This is a topic you will see discussed more and more often on this blog. We also will talk more about what Aldi and Lydl are all about, and how they are likely to be big players – in way smaller stores than today’s typical ones – in the reshaping of American food retailing.

Watch this space.