Birtley’s ex-Netto Co-operative Food – shiny, but still a Co-op
Travelling back from Chester-le-Street yesterday, I was finally able to visit – and do a shop in – The Co-operative Food store in Birtley, which opened back in October.
Regular readers will recall that the store was formerly a Netto, but fell within the 47 stores that Asda had to divest, for competition reasons, following its purchase of the Danish discounter. While an initial 39 ex-Nettos were divided up between Morrisons, Iceland and the now-defunct UGO back in January last year, the Birtley store’s fate was only determined in June, when it was announced as one of three shops being acquired by the Co-op. So, what is it like?
Externally, the store makes a positive first impression. Window vinyls of the type seen at other Co-op stores feature mouthwatering foodie images, but are used sparingly so as to still allow views into (and out of) the store. The shop also features bold signage in the Co-op’s now-familiar green colour scheme, alongside a pale-blue sign alerting shoppers to the presence of an instore Co-operative Pharmacy. Indeed, viewed from the road, the store announces its presence much more confidently than it used to as Netto.
Given that this was an ‘unofficial’ visit – unlike my trips to the ex-Netto Asda in Gateshead, or the various UGOs in Barnsley and Hull – I wasn’t able to get any interior photos. However, there’s no disputing that it’s a good-looking store: the modern grey floor and white-on-black hanging signs combine to create a nicely monochromatic backdrop, which draws out the colour and appeal of the products. For the most part, the store also appeared clean and tidy, with a refreshing absence of Morrisons-style aisle clutter.
There are also some really nice touches in terms of presentation, evidently designed to make the most of the fairly limited space. Chilled ranges are displayed in upright, freezer-type cabinets, while I particularly liked the pizza section: here, pizzas are displayed front-facing in a ‘magazine-rack’ formation, catching the eye and making it easy to browse the range of available toppings.
On the downside, the Birtley Co-op lacks some of the instore theatre that Asda and Morrisons have managed to work into their ex-Netto sites (below): there’s no butchery counter, and no instore bakery either. The pharmacy, however, makes a bright and appealing impression along a stretch of the back wall.
There were also some noticable gaps on the shelves, such as the on-offer smoked salmon fillets that I might otherwise have partaken of. However, replenishment seems to be an issue common to the ex-Netto estate, given the stores’ generally limited stockroom facilities – remember, most of these stores were purpose-built as Nettos, so it was always the intention that much of the stock would be stored on the shopfloor rather than behind the scenes. In contrast, the new occupants’ extended ranges and higher standards of presentation create challenges in making sure that the right stock is in the right place at the right time.
Rightly or wrongly, Co-operative Food stores are not always renowned for their customer service, and my experience yesterday left me predictably underwhelmed. When I was there, at about 5.30 pm, the store was modestly busy rather than thronged, yet there was a queue at the only open till (in addition to the open and staffed cigarette kiosk).
In contrast to the chatty staff typically found in Asda or Morrisons, the woman at the till looked like she would only crack open a smile under coercion. She was taken off before I reached the front of the queue, and the man who replaced her was friendlier, responding warmly to my greeting. In such a compact store, I was slightly bemused, however, by the need for him to wear a headset – this is, after all, Birtley Co-op, not River Island.
My final minor niggle related to the store’s omnipresent security guard, who stood watchfully at the end of the checkout while shoppers packed up their goods. Perhaps the store has a particular problem with theft, but it’s a fine line between, on the one hand, protecting the store and its staff, and, on the other, making customers feel uncomfortable to be there.
As I’ve noted before, the Co-op is currently in the position of having Birtley’s grocery market to itself following the closure of the old Somerfield store back in 2009. I do wonder, though, how many ex-Netto shoppers have simply shipped themselves off to Chester-le-Street’s Morrisons (ironically an ex-Co-op) or Tesco. After all, the change from a Netto to a Co-op is likely to be quite a leap as far as customers’ price perceptions are concerned, yet nor is Birtley awash with the middle-class shoppers who would typically buy into the Co-op’s ethical and Fairtrade strengths.
The other issue for Birtley Co-op is Morrisons’ announcement – at just about the time of the Co-op’s arrival – that it would be opening a 25,000 sq ft supermarket on the site of the former Somerfield. Having acquired the Somerfield store in 2009 – again, ironically, as part of a voluntary disposal of stores by the Co-op – Morrisons decided that it was too small, but the inclusion of the adjacent council depot has made it viable to redevelop the site and open a much larger store. No work has started on site yet, however.
For now, at least, the Co-op is to be commended for bringing a full supermarket offer to a town that was previously reliant on Netto’s cheap yet restricted offer. However, once it’s having to compete against a Morrisons store three times its size, the Co-op might come to regret letting go of the Somerfield site in the first place.