Pricing, range and location all play a role when we choose a supermarket, but what can they do to make us change our minds? Our Retail Reboot concludes with a week of shopping at a "new look" Coles store.
Coles and Woolworths are the twin titans of the Australian supermarket scene. Despite the rise of Aldi, the prominence of IGA in smaller centres and the emergence of discount online providers such as GroceryRun and SupermarketDeals, Woolworths and Coles remain the biggest players.
The impact of that dominance is fiercely debated; in some cases it results in cheaper goods for everyone, but many shoppers object to supermarkets promoting their own house brands. What it undoubtedly results in is fierce competition between the two rivals, each seeking to redesign their stores to attract more customers.
The most recent incarnation of this is in Coles' store in East Burwood in Melbourne, which has newly-designed fittings, a broader range of fresh food, and a larger than expected range of non-grocery items. To assess how much difference this actually makes to shopping habits, I used it as my main supermarket during a recent trip to Melbourne. As I don't shop with a car, I typically visit the supermarket a few times a week, meaning I could see how quickly I adjusted to the slightly different layout.
On entering the store, the most obvious difference is that the first items you encounter aren't foodstuffs. Instead, there's electronics, flowers, clothing, kitchenware and even a specialist stand for selling mobile phones. (Unlike the main supermarket, this doesn't operate 24 hours a day, but it does have pretty lengthy hours compared to most phone retailers.)
The general layout has lower shelves and more space between them than you'll find in a typical supermarket. The butchery lets you specify cuts of meat you want; there's a curry kitchen producing ready to reheat meals; you can watch the chickens being roasted before they go on sale.
Fruit and vegetables are said to be delivered daily. What's very notable is that they're laid out on ice to keep them fresher.
While the look is distinct enough the first time I visit, the reality is that there's only so much you can really do to redesign a supermarket space. By the third trip, I'm moving through quickly and largely indifferent to the changes. That doesn't mean it's a terrible place to shop, or that I wouldn't use it regularly; it just suggests that there's only so far you can go in changing a supermarket. In the end, you take a list, grab what you need, and get out.
What I don't like
As regular readers will know, I'm a big buyer of cheaper house brands for standard items. Coles still sells these under its Smart Buy branding, but (in common with Woolworths) it doesn't make them particularly prominent. They're usually on the bottom shelf, making them harder to locate than the pricier premium brands (whether those are store-owned or from another supplier).
The extension from standard food lines into phones, clothes and the rest is reasonable enough, but in this particular location it seems a bit odd. Right next door is a Kmart which is also open 24 hours (indeed, it was the first Kmart to open in Australia). So it's not like I've suddenly got a new range of options in an area where there was previously nothing, and for the most part Kmart's equivalent products seem cheaper. I suspect this aspect of the new layout will make more sense (and sell more goods) in locations where there isn't a department store nearby.
Could you save money shopping here?
Yes, you could save money here, simply by following the rules we've discussed before: working from a list, buying when specials are on, and planning carefully. You'd also need to resist the urge to splurge on the specials that are being promoted at the front of the store.
I can't imagine that I'd actually go out of my way to shop at this new-look store — if it was my nearest option (as it was that week), it certainly got the job done, but my supermarket habits are so ingrained I suspect that would work in any large store. If you've tested out a new-look Coles, tell us what you liked and disliked in the comments.