Heron Foods launches new website and plots further expansion

New Heron Foods website (18 May 2012)

New Heron Foods website (18 May 2012)

Heron Foods, the Hull-based discount supermarket chain, has launched a new website as it takes its first steps into cyberspace.

Described by Retail Week in 2009 as one of “retail’s best kept secrets”, Heron Foods has traditionally kept a low profile, eschewing a web presence – other than a simple holding page (below) – and focusing instead on keeping its head down and cracking on with growing the business. While perhaps slightly unorthodox, that approach has delivered consistently healthy profits and rising sales for the family-owned business, though the £7.1m pre-tax profit recorded in the year to 25 December 2010 was slightly down on the year before.

Previous Heron Foods holding page (17 Nov 2011)

Previous Heron Foods holding page (17 Nov 2011)

The belated launch of a website is, however, a very welcome step, providing both customers and the retail industry with a little more insight into how Heron works as a business. Customers will certainly value the new online store locator – an essential, in my view, for any major retailer – though it would be useful to show stores within a wider than 5-mile radius, and to also feature a straightforward list of all store locations.

Other sections of the site feature a brief history of the business, job opportunities, property requirements, information for suppliers, and details of current offers, while the ‘Contact’ page ensures that, unlike in 2009, Retail Week or anyone else should have no trouble locating Heron’s head office telephone number.

Heron Foods, Felling (10 Nov 2011). Photograph by Graham Soult

Heron Foods, Felling (10 Nov 2011)

As a retailer, Heron Foods certainly has much that’s worth shouting about. Apart from its healthy financial performance, the chain has steadily grown its estate from 136 outlets in 2008 to 170 now, and has an especially strong presence here in the North East. In many cases, its stores play an important role in sustaining local high streets, particularly where it has shops in secondary or suburban locations (e.g. Walker, Longbenton, Felling) that the better-known supermarkets might not target.

Heron Foods (former Woolworths), Ashington (21 Mar 2012). Photograph by Graham Soult

Heron Foods (former Woolworths), Ashington (21 Mar 2012)

Heron has also acquired more of our region’s ex-Woolworths sites than any other grocer, taking over the premises in Ashington (above), Barnard Castle, and most recently Wallsend (below), as well as others elsewhere in locations such as Richmond and Hillsborough.

Heron Foods (former Woolworths), Wallsend (19 Mar 2012). Photograph by Graham Soult

Heron Foods (former Woolworths), Wallsend (19 Mar 2012)

Former Woolworths (now Heron Foods), Barnard Castle (6 March 2010). Photograph by Graham Soult

Former Woolworths (now Heron Foods), Barnard Castle (6 March 2010)

The Woolies sites are a fairly small part of what Heron is up to in the North East, however. Alongside store refits – such as the prominent Gateshead shop that I’ve mentioned before – the chain has recently relocated its stores in North Shields, Chester-le-Street and Newton Aycliffe, and has opened several new ones.

Heron’s first store in Darlington opened just before Christmas at Cockerton Green, having acquired the premises from another independently-owned discount food retailer. Others opened in Grangetown, in Middlesbrough, at the beginning of March, and in Leam Lane, Gateshead – next to the old swimming pool – three weeks ago, while a new store will be opening in Sacriston in the next couple of weeks. Clearly, Heron has identified a strong appetite for its value offer among canny North East shoppers, particularly in communities like these that are relatively underserved by the big-four supermarkets.

This three-track approach – of opening new stores, actively refitting the old estate, and relocating to larger premises if possible – is set to continue as Heron looks to maximise the return on its new 270,000 sq ft head office and distribution centre at Melton, opened in 2009. A spokesman from the company told me that “having relocated, we now have to make it pay, and the only way we can do that is to open more stores and increase sales in the existing estate.”

To that end, Heron tells me that there are three or four more North East sites going through legals at the moment, while the website reports that the chain is “looking to open twenty to thirty new stores, either freehold or leasehold, in the next twelve months”, targeting “high-street locations, district centres and busy secondary locations in all towns in the North of England and the Midlands”. With relatively few stores in the Midlands compared to the North, it seems that there’s still plenty of opportunities for Heron Foods to grow further.

Heron Foods (former Woolworths), Hillsborough (18 Aug 2011). Photograph by Graham Soult

Heron Foods (former Woolworths), Hillsborough (18 Aug 2011)

Notably, Heron also has a bit of work to do in unifying all the existing estate under its recently tweaked fascia. Many of the stores, such as Ashington and Hillsborough (above), still feature the words ‘HERON FOODS’ in upper case, alongside a heron symbol; on newer stores like Wallsend, however, the heron has been jettisoned and the text restyled as ‘Heron Foods’. Older stores still, such as Stanley (below), feature a blue-and-white-striped fascia rather than a yellow one, and still include the word ‘Frozen’ in the name – a legacy from before the business moved into dry and chilled products, as well as frozen goods.

Heron Foods, Stanley (2 Dec 2011). Photograph by Graham Soult

Heron Foods, Stanley (2 Dec 2011)

Indeed, Heron’s evolution into more of a one-stop supermarket – while still maintaining particular strength in frozen – is probably part of the reason behind its continued growth. As the quietest grocer on the high street, Heron Foods has built up a fanbase largely below the radar. Now, however, with ramped-up investment in stores and its first tentative steps online, it’s likely that Heron’s raised profile will win over further converts.

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