French hypermarkets offer lessons to British retailers with large stores. How do they do it? Retail Week reports from Calais.
The booze cruise used to be a well-established feature of British life. For many it meant a pleasant day out including a spot of déjeuner and a stroll along the beach near a Channel port before heading back with the car axles groaning under the weight of the cut-price beer and wine that had been purchased at one of the French hypermarkets.
Sliding exchange rates, cheaper alcohol at home and perhaps an inclination to save money meant that this form of retail leisure virtually disappeared for a while, and the Sainsbury’s beer and wine shop that once occupied a corner of the car park fronting Auchan has long since closed.
Visit today and the chances are good that you will hear plenty of English voices, but in nothing like the numbers who once trawled the aisles of the big hypermarkets.
Indeed, drive around the Pas-de-Calais region and evidence that the booze cruise is a thing of the past is not hard to find in the shape of disused warehouses, usually with flaking and fading paint and some reference to alcohol clinging to their sides.
This does not mean that the large hypermarkets have gone for good. A tour of the Auchan or Carrefour stores in Calais shows that while there may not be quite the level of reliance on beers, wines and spirits revenues that there once was, these are stores that still pack a punch when it comes to understanding how to make product interesting.
Both of these retail giants have also come to terms with the fact that trading from very large spaces requires areas to be made manageable and that large savannah-like floors are off-putting.
Here is a snapshot of two of the giant stores just across the Channel.
The principal point of the Auchan store in Calais is its food offer. There is a vast non-food offer, with everything from consumer electronics to clothing, but this remains secondary to thegrocery part of this single-floor store.
Rather than endless long aisles of food – although there are plenty of them – the choice has been made to group categories together to create more interesting displays and to stimulate purchasing behaviour.
Practically, this means a lot of cardboard, the staple material of all point-of-purchase practitioners. But it is used to good effect and while it may be low-tech, it makes shoppers stop and look.
Perhaps the biggest example in this store is in the area that has been designated for La Foire aux Vins (the wine fair), which was in full swing on the day of our visit last week.
While this might sound like a bog-standard way of selling a few extra bottles of price-conscious French wine, it is in fact rather more. Fronting the area was a Breton-capped and matelot-striped-jersey-wearing woman intent on selling crustaceans and fish fillets from a small chilled unit.
Beyond her was La Pizza du Chef – a cardboard pizza delivery van from which the eponymous foodstuff could be dispensed. And because it’s Italian, the space immediately beyond featured a large, round circle of faux Parmesan topped by a Tower of Pisa.
There is a very real danger that all of this strays the wrong side of naff, but it was hard not to smile at what had been done, in a good way.
Surrounding these installations was the wine, lots of it, for the shopper with an eye on price. The fact that La Foire aux Vins had been separated from the rest of the alcohol in the store gave Auchan the chance to incorporate a good number of other products that might not normally have been put alongside this category. There was even a space that had been set aside for red and white grapes, with potted vines mixed in among them. This was an imaginative promotion.
Elsewhere, the point of purchase fest continued with a cardboard fishing boat emerging from a gondola end and being used as a display for Petit Navire tinned fish, while at the back of the shop there was the Chevaline meat counter. Printed to look like a stable door, it came complete with horseshoes, indicating the source of the meat beneath it.
The only real concession made to technology in this store is the digital shelf-edge prices, which are used across both Auchan and Carrefour.
For the most part, however, this is an old-school store that shows there is still strength in good display and engaging point of sale material.
Worth noting too is the Auchan Drive.fr, the ‘clickez’ and collect warehouse, across the car park, which had a steady stream of digital shoppers.
Carrefour, Cité D’Europe
This outpost of the world’s second largest retailer was once booze shuttle central, insofar as those choosing to put their cars on the train that goes under the Channel and in search of booze emerged a generous stone’s throw away from the store.
Inside is another very large space, but in this instance it is the anchor fora shopping centre, rather than a standalone enterprise.
Like Auchan, there is plenty of space to be used and there is a generosity about the aisles and central cross-store promotional aisle that would not be found in a standard superstore.
La Foire aux Vins 2014 is also taking place at Carrefour and this one finished last Monday, having started a day earlier. There is considerably less pizazz about the promotion with a few overhead banners, wine coolers and some “artisanal” dried meat (and a lot of wine), the extent of what has been done.
There are no demonstrators/field marketing types, meaning that the sense of theatre that was in evidence at its rival is absent in this store. This might account for the apparently lower number of shoppers across the store as a whole.
In fairness, Carrefour makes a big deal out of its bread, something dear to French hearts, with point-of-sale material in the bakery area at the back of the shop claiming that “Carrefour réinvente le goût du pain” (Carrefour reinvents the taste of bread), which might qualify as an overclaim.
Next to this, the baguettes area on the perimeter has a close-shaven man, the baker presumably, on a poster with a strapline that reads, “Chez Carrefour Coquelles, le pain est une passion!” (At Carrefour Coquelles, bread is a passion).
Maybe so, and this does have the merit of locating the offer in the town the shop is located in, overall, the standard of presentation and display is not as strong as in Auchan.
Carrefour does pull off a trick at the checkouts, however. This may be a very large, almost impersonal store, but each checkout has a different picture and the name of a small town, beach or place of interest in the locality next to it. Whether shoppers actually notice this must be a moot point, but it is a nice touch.
Hypermarkets can still work
At the time of visiting, the non-food areas in both the Auchan and Carrefour stores were not being heavily shopped, although Auchan did seem to be faring better. Yet these are huge single-floor stores that are made to work and which shoppers seem happy to accept, in spite of Calais’ several Carrefour convenience stores.
The trick that has been pulled off, in Auchan in particular, is that of making a very large space feel smaller by compartmentalising the offer and lifestyling the promotions.
France is a country filled with stores on this scale, much more so than the UK, and its retailers do seem to have a clearer idea, albeit very low-tech, of how to deal with big space, than some of its equivalents across the Channel.