Posted: 01/12/2020

Supermarket deli counter closures show how COVID changed shopping habits

Supermarket deli counter closures show how COVID changed shopping habits
Independent counters need to maintain their high standards

Sainsbury’s deli counter closure should be seen as a warning to independent food retailers as well as an opportunity, commentators have cautioned.

The supermarket giant announced in November that it would not reopen the cheese, cooked meat and nibble counters it closed at the start of the pandemic.

Both Tesco and Asda have previously announced plans to close certain fresh food counters, and Sainsbury’s said COVID-19 had accelerated changing customer habits.

While independent food retailers said the move could create extra footfall for their stores, they also called for a focus on what differentiates specialists from the chains.

Stefano Cuomo, managing director of Kent-based food destination Macknade, said small businesses could still suffer the same fate as many supermarket counters.

“If you feel the supermarkets are too much competition, there’s a problem with your business model,” he warned.

“I see plenty of lazy specialist shops who don’t offer anything more than a supermarket does – if that’s what your business is then you could struggle.”

Cuomo said many supermarkets had failed to create authentic delicatessen experiences.

“If someone not trained in the product is handing you pre-cut cheese it’s a sleight of hand,” he said. 

“People come to us thinking they want a specific cheese but actually they want a nice experience with friends on a Friday night. We can give them the stories of the fields where the cows are kept.”

Read more: Waitrose remains committed to food counters

Jen Grimstone-Jones, co-owner of Cheese Etc. The Pangbourne Cheese Shop in Berkshire, agreed that delis had to be at their best to survive in the current climate.

“Each and every customer is important and people are always much quicker to shout about bad service than good,” she said. 

“People come to a shop like ours as much for the shopping experience as the products that we sell. We spend time caring for our cheese and we know the history of each one.”

Gemma Aykroyd, owner of The Cheeseboard of Harrogate, said the coronavirus could be changing the face of British food shopping.

“Perhaps Sainsbury’s closed their deli counters because people were taking their business to the local food shops instead,” she said.

“I don’t think people will go back to old habits now they have experienced the ease, joy, friendliness and quality of buying from smaller shops.”

Counter perspective

Love them or loathe them, supermarket deli counters have a place in history – and a role to play in the independent food retail. market

“I used to love them as a kid,” said Cuomo. “Tasting food put on top, and it got me into what a deli was about.

“Part of our strategy has been creating a deli counter that doesn’t look dissimilar to what customers see in supermarkets so they feel comfortable approaching.”

Grimstone-Jones added: “We have a few customers a week comment that they used to be able to buy a particular cheese in their local supermarket but now they can’t. It does push more customers our way.”

And Aykroyd said: “We have a Marks & Spencer just round the corner from our shop which helps footfall as people shop there, then come to us.”

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