France is the home of the hypermarket but does the format still work for the country’s major players?

Other than at the luxury end of the scale, French mass-market retail operates from a relatively low-profile platform as far as being known beyond the home country is concerned.

There is one big exception however and that is the hypermarket. France is the spiritual home of the (very) large footprint food and general merchandise store, and it seems that every town has a retail park on its outskirts where one or more hypermarkets waits to welcome shoppers in search of low prices and massive selection.

Yet, like hypermarkets in the UK, these retail leviathans have come under pressure from excess space and a decline in general merchandise sales.

Lately, Tesco has come up with numerous ways to try to negate the sense that the customer is in a huge shed. In Watford Extra it has installed a shop-in-shop artisan-style cafe and a full-service family restaurant that create the sense that the shopper is no longer in the store.

In need of an update

Visit Carrefour at the O’Parinor shopping centre on the northern outskirts of Paris however and nothing of the kind is evident. Instead, what is on view is elements of Carrefour Planet - the format first shown off in Lyon in 2010 but that has gradually been sidelined.

With 55 checkouts in a row and a single floor that stretches way into the distance, it’s hard not to get the sense of an enormous and, at times, largely undifferentiated space. That is compounded by a central aisle that runs the width of the store and at one end of which the word ‘viennoiserie’ (aka posh pastries) is just about discernible, thanks to the use of a very large font.

Carrefour, like its sector rivals Auchan and E Leclerc, does employ visual merchandising to some effect, particularly in the store’s fresh food and wine and spirits areas. There are a few bunches of outsize grapes strung up above the wine section along with a couple of barrels, while in the fresh fish area the produce is on ice and it is evident that great care has been taken over the presentation.

The fresh food and deli areas of the store also benefit from a black, suspended lighting gantry that does help to remove the feeling of being in a massive warehouse. That said, this store has something of the feel of a pre-2012 Tesco Extra when one of the complaints frequently made was that shoppers felt they were being processed rather than enjoying any kind of experience.

It is obvious that Carrefour has tried to create a modicum of theatre at various strategic points in the store, but the whole is little better for the parts that have been worked on. There are a number of digital screens but it seemed, on the day of visiting at least, that the retailer had overlooked the matter of content and a number of them were not working at all.

This year is Carrefour’s 50th anniversary and there are banners everywhere across the store informing shoppers of this and the additional fact that there are bargains to be had. This interior looked like a piece of French hypermarket activity of yesteryear however.

Visual touches

Closer towards the centre of Paris, but still to the north, lies suburban Clichy. Value-led hypermarket group E Leclerc has a large store here, around which a few small retailers are clustered.

The retailer’s offer is in two parts, with a separate DVD and video shop just across the street from the main store. The latter is relatively small but on entering the food and general merchandise store it is almost immediately apparent that great care has been taken to ensure that the shopper does not experience the wide open plains that seemed to characterise Carrefour.

The first thing that the visitor will encounter is a wine cellar, or the semblance of one at least. This ‘cave’ is formed of sheets of cloth that have been printed with a rustic brick pattern and then draped overhead and allowed to fall to form walls.

This is an ultra low-cost solution to the matter of lowering the ceiling and creating a space that takes the shopper away from the immediate surrounds of a hypermarket. It is also unusual because putting wine close to the entrance of a store is counter to hypermarket and supermarket norms.

The wine cellar also has a fountain in the middle and plastic marble classical female nude are used to add to the feeling of the Bacchanalian. This may seem twee but it has the merit at least of providing pause points as the shopper strolls through the area en route to the rest of the store. And as a feature, the fountain provides a clue about the visual merchandising modus operandi in this store - it’s all about eye-catching details.

The fresh fish counter, for instance, is very similar to what has been done in Carrefour, but the backdrop in this instance is a tropical aquarium with live fish fronted by palm fronds.

The butcher’s counter has been given faux red-brick walls to promote the idea, Morrisons-style, of a shop-in-shop.

The value message is everywhere but, although this is an in-your-face approach, it is the visual merchandising that carries the day, and it goes some way towards explaining why E Leclerc remains a thriving business.

For those in search of general merchandise, this is a two-floor store and upstairs is entirely devoted to non-food. Significantly, it was largely devoid of shoppers on the day of visiting.

Back to basics

And so to Auchan. This branch is the anchor store of the Quatre Temps shopping centre, one of Paris’ largest, in the space-age surroundings of La Défense on the French capital’s western fringes.

Auchan is also a successful proposition at present and its appeal is simple - large hypermarkets and that’s about it.

Like E Leclerc, it operates in this location from more than one level. To compare like with like however, a stroll around the food floor, on the lowest level, reveals that this is a store with more than a touch of the back-to-basics and it has a market-like ambience. With its green plastic crates piled on top of each other and used as display vehicles for the fresh produce, the vista is similar to that found in any market anywhere.

Auchan pushes its value credentials with space set aside for fruit and vegetables for less than w1. This is an efficient use of space and once more the notion that you are walking around a big retail area has been cunningly

A visual highlight in this store is probably the happy-looking pig figure that sits atop the charcuterie display.

It appears therefore than in two out of three of the big hypermarket players in France, the format is alive and well. At the end of August, Auchan posted a 33.7% jump in first-half profits to e317m (£269m), while E Leclerc has also experienced good growth in its domestic operations, but it has suffered weaknesses overseas.

However, much depends on the use of space and that, to a large degree, is dependent on the visual merchandising.

Yet on balance, Tesco’s remodelled hypermarkets in Coventry, Watford and Purley look better than anything on offer in these three Paris stores, albeit the price of being so is probably somewhat higher than what has been done in either Auchan or E Leclerc.

That said, in the spiritual home of the supermarket, it seems probable that the hypermarket is not about to disappear any time soon. Tesco boss Philip Clarke’s prediction that 2014 will be “the year of the hypermarket” seems a fairly sound bet, in France at least.

Store facts

Major French hypermarket operators Auchan, Carrefour, E Leclerc

Major features The fresh food and wines and spirits areas

Ambience Highly variable dependent on the operator