Big Four UK supermarkets lose favor overall, but still compete with seafood

Published on
March 2, 2015

Smaller U.K. supermarket chains such as Waitrose, Aldi and Lidl continue to show the “Big Four” that they have what it takes to be popular among consumers, but it’s still an even game when it comes to how the chains source and present their seafood.

This year the upmarket chain Waitrose has been voted the U.K.’s favorite supermarket, reclaiming the No. 1 spot it lost to the German-owned discount chain Aldi in 2014. Consumer organization Which? asked more than 7,000 shoppers what they liked and disliked about British supermarkets at the end of last year. Waitrose came out top in every category except price where it was beaten by Aldi, the second favorite supermarket, Iceland and Lidl.

Marks & Spencer, another upmarket store, was voted equal third with Iceland and Lidl, while Morrisons and Sainsbury’s headed the Big Four supermarket chains at joint No. 6. Asda (owned by the giant U.S. retail company Walmart) came next with Tesco, the worst rated of the Big Four, at No. 9.

It appears that product pricing is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to customer satisfaction, with Waitrose rated higher than any other supermarket for the helpfulness and availability of its staff in the Which? survey. Waitrose’s stores are another reason why it excels. “They have wider aisles than other supermarkets and everything is more spaced out,” said one shopper.

However, price does play a part in the Waitrose shopping experience. “Some items aren’t good value unless there is an offer,” said a customer.

Not surprisingly both Aldi and Lidl scored highly in the pricing category. Their prices were the cheapest of all the top ten supermarkets, coming even above Asda, which markets itself purely on price and nothing else. However, Asda’s customer service rating was better that the two discounters, which came bottom of the table in this category.

There is obviously a trade-off between low prices and customer satisfaction; between aisles cluttered with stocking-up trolleys and cardboard boxes as one shopper said of Lidl, with the wider aisles and helpful staff at Waitrose.  

Unfortunately this helpfulness at Waitrose doesn’t extend to practical ability at the fresh fish counters. Staff at one store just outside London didn’t know how to fillet a whole mackerel, losing a sale as a result. Sainsbury’s, on the other hand, claims: “Our fishmongers can skin, de-bone and fillet your fish at the counter. They can even pop your chosen fish into a vacuum sealed, oven-ready bag and offer you a free flavored butter or marinade to make cooking easier.”

However, Morrisons has the best fishmongers of all the supermarket chains, according to one customer.

As has been reported may times, all the U.K.-owned supermarket chains claim to source their seafood responsibly. It is Waitrose policy “to only source fish and shellfish from sustainable and well managed fisheries, or from responsibly farmed aquaculture operations.”

“We’re proud to be the U.K.’s largest retailer of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified sustainable seafood,” said Sainsbury’s. “You’ll find a wide range of responsibly sourced fish at our counters, like fresh cod, haddock, sardines and mussels.”

Sainsbury’s has been top of the table in terms of numbers of MSC-certified products stocked since 2010. The retailer’s MSC-labeled products are almost twice those of its closest competitor, Waitrose, and more than three times the number stocked by Marks & Spencer.

According to the MSC, Tesco has stalled with the number of MSC eco-labeled products on its shelves going from 17 in 2010 to 18 in 2014. Morrison’s commitment to certified sustainable seafood has dropped from 12 to 8 products and Asda has similarly fallen from 27 to 21 certified sustainable products during the same period.

According to the MSC, 71 percent of U.K. respondents in an independent survey believed it is important that supermarkets sell sustainably-caught seafood. Respondents also said they trusted eco-labels on products more than recommendations from family/friend, information from supermarkets and brands’ own promises on products.

While they may trust so-called “eco-labels,” do they know what they mean? In this context it is refreshing to note that Quentin Clark, Waitrose’s head of sustainability and ethical sourcing, admitted that while “consumers are comforted by, they do not understand logos and do not understand issues.”

Despite what the Which? survey says about them, the Big Four supermarket chains – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons – still dominate the U.K. grocery market with a 73 percent share. However, Waitrose’s share at 5.1 percent is growing as is the combined share of Aldi and Lidl at 8.3 percent.

Although they have an awfully long way to go before they start challenging the Big Four, these three chains must be doing something right.

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