A Lidl shop of horrors? Hardly – it could be the future of food retail


It’s been a big few weeks for me – first of all I popped my yoga cherry and last weekend another first, losing my value supermarket virginity. Now I’ve been to an Asda before, I’ve ventured into my fair share of Morrisons, hell, I’ve even worked in Safeway (for two, hellish weeks). But never had I crossed the barriered threshold of a cheap-and-cheerful emporium until the weekend, when I embarked upon Mission Hungover Roast Dinner in Lidl’s Hackney branch. I don’t really know what I was expecting exactly and wasn’t anticipating much but what I found definitely caught me by surprise.

After having negotiated the lady in the carpark who had simultaneously blocked the walkway and bashed into a shiny new Land Rover with her trolley, me and my Lidl friend walked through an entrance that reminded me of an Iceland circa 1989. Hardly an auspicious start but I remained open-minded. And boy was my mind opened. Previously imagining a scene in a Co-op mid-London riots, I was pleasantly surprised to find the air free from frozen turkeys hurled like cryogenic edible grenades, devoid of a slick of own-brand washing up liquid oozing over the lino and a distinct absence of shoppers braining each other with family-sized cans of Spam. In fact, it was an oddly familiar supermarket experience.

Sure, some fittings are basic and presentation is a bit “pop the palette there, that’ll do”, but it was a relative haven of fresh produce that provided such good value it’s obvious what makes stores like this so compelling. Borough Market it is not, but then that’s the point – when some of the fruit and veg is approaching half the price of those on display in the big boys, it makes stores such as the German Aldi and Lidl more and more irresistible.

And resist them we are not according to Joanna Blythman, whose recent piece in the Guardian eloquently argues that “Britain’s longstanding exclusive relationship with the supermarkets is in terminal decline”. In it she explains that the large supermarket sector is “in meltdown” and cites the authoritative voice of the Grocer as claiming shoppers are “abandoning supermarkets in their droves.” Which is bold. Blythman goes on to attribute some of the big four’s downturn in fortunes to the relative value offered by the German duo who have “done the UK a service by shaking up our shopping habits” despite being “drab, limited and functional”.

I’m no food retail expert, but even though Tesco has had a rocky couple of months, I’m still not sure we’ll see its aisles and car parks deserted any time soon. Shopping once a day for food in local stores still seems desperately impractical to me, not to mention more expensive due to inefficient planning by customers and inflated prices at local convenience stores. It’s a romantic, rose-tinted, Last of the Summer Wine vision of a bygone era that predates supermarkets. As a nation we’re generally both time-poor and, well, just poor (at least in relation to the cost of living in this country) so supermarkets’ convenience and value, perceived or actual, is, to put on my management bullshit hat for a minute, a much bigger lever for getting shoppers to part with their cash than artisan, organic, hand-reared, carbon neutral, seasonal produce with a more detailed provenance than the Crown Jewels ever will be.

Furthermore, it’s all too easy to assume the vast majority of the population is as obsessed with farmers markets, TV chefs and restaurant pop-ups as those of us in London. The reality is communities away from the capital are much more likely to be found queuing at the checkout than checking out their quinoa. No busy mum or dad willingly offers up bad food for their family but a mixture of lack of education and, more tellingly, little time and budget makes processed products and pre-prepared meals much more attractive than “slaving over a hot stove”. Cooking for many if not most has been relegated to little more than a chore, even for those of us who are ‘into’ our food; the path of least resistance, paved with oven-ready chicken kievs, frozen pizzas, Findus crispy pancakes (whatever they are), pasta sauce jars and microwave risottos, is too convenient a path to not take.

And we’ve all been there, going wild in the aisles in search of dinner. Before I went on to do something far more important like play rugby, the early Saturday afternoons of my childhood were often punctuated by a supermarket trip with my mum. Mister Men branded yoghurts with were hankered for (and subsequently bought, only to be opened and left unfinished going mouldy in the fridge). Boredom set in as the debate about which type of bin liner to buy raged on. Panic consumed me when I got stuck in the chair of the trolley I was really too big for in the first place.

Despite being a good cook and an excellent baker, it was all my mum could do to get out of there as quickly and with as few tantrums as possible – convenience trumped cuisine every time. And what does she do now that I’m all grown up? Shop for her groceries online, further removing herself from the purchaser-produce interaction, presumably freeing up more time to watch Homes Under the Hammer, read the paper and try to remember her Ocado delivery man’s name.

Considering the growth of online grocery shopping is set to over double in the next five years, buying food in this country is only going to become more handy and less hands on. Online we’re embracing one-click checkouts and scenes in our Little Local Express stores are starting to resemble Dale Winton’s vision of supermarket shopping, only minus the inflatable bananas.


But the likes of Lidl and Aldi can take advantage of this trend, as I found on Sunday. Lidl was a busy shop. Not Hamley’s at Christmas busy, but busy nonetheless. Everything is sensibly if only functionally presented. It makes sense, the fruit and vegetables looking fresh, juicy, firm. And there is something in how the produce is offered up in the original boxes that, strangely, gives a greater feeling of connection with where it has come from despite its budget surroundings. It’s hands on without spending farmers market money.

Away from the fruit and veg it is a slightly different story. There’s a whiff of TK Maxx to things – lots of different categories are stocked but they lack any real depth. No surfeit or paralysis of choice here. However, fewer choices make for a swifter shopping trip so in that respect Lidl is again on the money – trust in good produce, cheap prices-cum-good value and ease of choice make it a simpler place to shop in every sense of the word. That a shopper can still pick up fireworks and roasting trays alongside the fennel and radishes available at the mini-markets of the big boys presents Lidl et al as genuine one stop shops.

If decent, affordable, everyday food is more important than being able to choose from twelve different paprikas, as I suspect is the case for most of the population, then the Lidl formula looks to be the a winning one for those who still enjoy the feeling of a trolley handle in their hand and clubcard in their wallet. At the very least it’s a suitable and attractive halfway house between the trawling of a sprawling Tesco of my childhood and the sanitised, functional and uninspiring mouse clicking of today. The old ad line used to chime “mum’s gone to Iceland” but today she’s either buying her onions online or found down the road in Lidl.

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