Aldi is in the midst of implementing ‘Project Fresh’ across its store portfolio. John Ryan visits its South Ruislip branch to look at what’s involved.

In September, Aldi’s profits fell for the third year in a row – gross profit was down 7% to £324.5m in the year to December 31, 2016.

At the time this decline was put down to infrastructure and refurbishment costs related to the discounter’s Project Fresh.

Now in place here, Project Fresh is a store revamp that puts ‘fresh’ top of the agenda, largely in line with what the big four grocers have focused on recently.

But what does it look like? South Ruislip, one of west London’s outer suburbs, is home to a branch that has been given the Project Fresh treatment.

Simple to navigate

Tucked behind the retailer’s logo, there’s a canopy that protects shopping trolleys from the elements. A Union flag graphic is on display to perhaps reassure those interested in the origin of produce, and this week’s Special Buys are displayed on a noticeboard.

“This store is about operational efficiency rather than aesthetics”

Apart from a “Welcome to Aldi South Ruislip” legend and the flag, this could be almost anywhere. The branch is on a retail park with B&M Bargains and Asda nearby – which is all rather standard.

The same is true of the vista that greets customers when they walk into the store, with a long row of gondolas and fresh fruit and vegetables seen first.

The gondola end is home to the Super 6, which is where the six best-value fruit and vegetables are offered. Aldi group buying director David Hills said that Aldi “will agree the Super 6 with our suppliers 12 months out,” which starts to explain the way in which this store is about operational efficiency rather than aesthetics.

This is not to say that it is devoid either of personality or design input, it’s just that the experience is more about delivering value and making this clear, rather than tasting stations, staffed in-store counters and any kind of move away from aisle-led layouts.

This means that beyond the Super 6 gondola there are two clear aspects of the store. Provenance, which works well with Project Fresh, and displays that are uncluttered but densely merchandised.

There are fewer graphics overhead and those in place are higher, which gives better sightlines across the store. Immediately beyond the fresh fruit and vegetables is the chilled area, which has been expanded.

While Aldi’s communications director Mary Dunn said the amount of space devoted to chilled produce has increased by around 30%, there is actually the same offer as in every other Aldi UK store. It’s really all about perception. “There was actually insufficient space devoted to chilled in the previous design,” she said.

The Union flag is also in place above the chiller of sausages, implying that much of what is on offer is sourced in this country.

Health-conscious

The health and beauty category has also had a makeover. Aldi’s beauty brand is Lacura, and there has been a strong push on making this more prominent over the last 18 months, according to Dunn.

Practically, this means underlit shelves, a graphic strip running along the top and product descriptors. It’s a far cry from the handwritten price signs of before, and as Hills remarked: “If you can get people to switch from branded to unbranded nappies, then it is possible with health and beauty.”

The only real letdown to this store is the baked products area. In discount rival Lidl, in-store bakeries are becoming the norm, and they do feature in a number of Aldi stores as well – but not this one.

“The only real letdown to this store is the baked products area”

While the baked products may actually be the same, in a store that is part of the Project Fresh initiative, leaving this out seems like an oversight, even it if is just a matter of how the store looks.

On the evidence of this store, own-brand is the way forward for Aldi. Branded merchandise accounts for about 8% of the grocer’s range according to Hills, who noted that the figure is closer to 20% in Lidl.

He added that the sales uplift in stores that have been “Project Freshed” is “significant”, and even though he declines to put a number against this, it seems clear that this is not an idle comment.

Next year 100 to 150 stores will receive the treatment, with 20 stores already used as trials, out of a current tally of 770 branches across the UK.

What makes Aldi, South Ruislip different from a conventional Aldi?

  • A push on provenance
  • Fresh is key
  • Less overhead signage
  • Expanded chilled presence
  • Health and beauty is foregrounded