The German value grocer Aldi has entered the fiercely competitive convenience sector with a shop on Kilburn High Road.

A couple of weeks ago an event took place that stirred the interest of grocery retailers and observers.

German discounter Aldi opened a convenience store. At least, that’s what it was billed as and on the face of it there was little to dispute about the choice of words.

After all, this is a store on London’s busy Kilburn High Road - a place with high footfall and good transport links to other parts of the capital. Which means a lot of people are on their way to or from somewhere - perfect convenience territory - and can drop in, get something, get out and do the same thing again the next day.

And dropping in to pick up life’s grocery and homewares essentials, or to buy something to consume now, is for the most part what convenience retailing should be about, alongside more convenient opening hours. On the latter point, this is a handy place to shop, trading from 7am to 10pm six days a week and 10am to 4pm on Sunday. As such it operates to a fairly standard convenience template.

Compact convenience

The point, however, is what does a convenience store look like and does the new Aldi shop fit the bill? In a previous life, this was a branch of troubled fashioned retailer Peacocks, whose low pricing would probably have chimed with one of north London’s less affluent thoroughfares. Now the new occupier, the pint-sized Aldi at a little over 7,000 sq ft, is roughly half the size of a normal branch.

But does being smaller make it a new format or is this just a diminutive version of the retailer’s familiar fascia?

At first glance, there is small mention of the ‘c’ word on the fascia. What is most evident is ‘welcome to your Kilburn store’, with an accompanying plaudit from Which? magazine.

And alongside this is a graphic with a series of ticked boxes next to the words ‘newspapers and magazines’, ‘sandwiches’, ‘fresh meats’, and so on.

This is the c-store heavy hint, or at least that’s what the window tells you to expect. And in the other windows there are large pictures of fresh products and a strapline that enjoins the passing shopper to ‘do your fresh shop here’. It’s the kind of thing shoppers would expect of a better-end convenience store from the likes of Sainsbury’s or Tesco.

Now step across the threshold and to the right there is an aisle with a long, tall chiller unit that follows the perimeter wall from the front almost to the back of the shop. Shelf-edge “wobblers” protrude from this bearing the legend ‘fresh food to go’.

The chillers contain packaged sandwiches, soft drinks, fruit juices and waters and the prices are such that they do live up to the secondary message on the wobblers that states “lunch for less”.

The normal modus operandi in c-store land is to offer a lunch deal on sandwiches, drinks, fruit or crisps, but not so at Aldi. On the front of the chiller unit is another message reading ‘Aldi simplicity…no gimmicks, no deals, just a great lunch at a great price’.

The view has clearly been taken that the prices are low enough to work without further enticement or margin erosion for Aldi.

On the basis of all this, there is some justification for calling the Aldi branch a convenience store. And at this point, the gaze finally turns to the left. The vista is of an Aldi that does not look dissimilar from many others.

On the floor of the fresh food chiller there may be a decal that reads ‘lunch for less’, but the view is otherwise that of a standard, albeit smaller, branch of the discounter.

There are the famous ‘when it’s gone it’s gone’ specials that are brought into the store on a weekly basis and may be anything from bedding plants to bikinis.

On opening day, there were ‘ergonomic running socks’ at £2.99 and ‘slug killer’ at £2.49, among other things.

This is no different from any other Aldi store, and as usual this element of the formula was being given a thorough raking over by shoppers.

Looking around from this vantage point, much of the rest of the store seemed to follow German hard discounter lines - ambient goods from brands many shoppers have never heard of, displayed in the cardboard boxes in which they were delivered. Beers, wines and spirits were stacked high, with the overriding message being volume purchases.

Just a small store?

There’s nothing wrong with any of this, of course, but is this a convenience store or is it a small supermarket where homewares have been added to the mix? It would be easy to think the latter and the only thing that really sets it apart from bigger branches is the opening hours.

What perhaps is required is a closer examination of what is meant by the term convenience as increasingly, it would appear, it just means a smaller version of a large-space format. The arrival a couple of years ago of Little Waitrose, which turned out to be very similar to a (bigger) Waitrose, stands as a case in point.

There is a certain expectation that a c-store will in some way be different from a workaday supermarket, but recent experience seems to point in another direction.

Today, convenience can be interpreted as a carefully edited version of what shoppers would find in a standard supermarket of 25,000 sq ft or more and you might feel slightly disappointed if this proved not to be the case.

In the instance of this branch of Aldi, it is also worth noting that self-scan checkouts, the bastion of both the Sainsbury’s and Tesco convenience formats, are nowhere to be seen. Instead, there is a queuing system with shoppers waiting in line to head for one of the multiple manned tills.

It’s a model that will be familiar to many who have visited the smaller hard-discount retailers in countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium, where Ahold, Delhaize and Netto all work along these lines.

Perhaps therefore, rather than using the convenience store label, Aldi on Kilburn High Road should be viewed as a small-format supermarket.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of its nomenclature, it is worth noting that the store was completely mobbed
on opening day and has been since. The big c-store operations of the larger UK grocers would do well to look to their laurels.

Aldi, Kilburn High Street

Opened April 4

Difference from a standard Aldi Smaller

In-store campaign ‘Lunch for less’

Ambience Low-cost

Click here to read our convenience store analysis