Asda’s sale of surplus Netto stores: who gets what in the North East
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As I blogged earlier, Asda’s acquisition of Netto’s UK business moved a step closer yesterday, with the news that it has reached agreement to sell most of those Netto stores that overlap with existing Asda sites.
Back in May, when Dansk Supermarked A/S agreed to sell its 194 UK Netto stores to Asda for £778m, it was widely expected that the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) would require Asda to divest some of that portfolio, in order to avoid a lessening of local competition in areas where Asda and Netto are currently both represented.
This was confirmed in September, when the OFT announced that it had reached agreement with Asda to divest 47 stores where there were local competition concerns. Of these, the OFT was concerned that some stores may not be of interest to other eligible food retailers, so required Asda to find suitable upfront buyers for those shops before it would allow the remaining store purchases to proceed. At the time, however, “reasons of confidentiality” meant that the identity of the 47 stores to be divested was not revealed; similarly, the number or locations of stores requiring upfront purchasers were not made public either.
Now, yesterday’s various announcements from the parties concerned reveal that Asda has secured buyers for 39 of the 47 divestment stores – including all 25 of those on the upfront list – in the shape of Morrisons, Iceland and the independent grocer Haldanes.
Morrisons – 16 stores
Morrisons is snapping up 16 of the 39 stores – including 6 from the upfront list – for £28.1m, adding 120,000 sq ft of space to its expanding small-store estate. The handover of stores is expected to take place on a phased basis starting in March, with all the shops expected to be converted to the Morrisons format over the following three months.
Several of these stores – in Castletown (Sunderland), Bedlington and Shildon – are in the North East, while others are in Telford, Tamworth, Rugby, West Bromwich, Oldbury, Boston, Newton-le-Willows, Breightmet (Bolton), Accrington, Castleford, Ravensthorpe (Dewsbury), Armthorpe (Doncaster) and Bransholme (Hull).
Haldanes – 20 stores
The independent Grantham-based grocer Haldanes is taking a tranche of 20 stores – all but two from the OFT’s upfront list of 25 stores – including North East sites in Ashington, Eston, Hartlepool and Stanley. The other sites to be taken over by Haldanes include Athersley (Barnsley), Blackburn, Boothferry, Bradford, Carcroft (Doncaster), Hull (two stores), Kirkby, Liverpool, Lundwood (Barnsley), Monk Bretton (Barnsley), Nuneaton, Retford and Rotherham, all from the upfront list, plus one each in Bury and Burnley.
Only last week, I remarked that Haldanes’ expansion seemed to have stalled, after an initial period of rapid and spectacular growth. Only launched as a company [broken link removed] in October 2009, the business built up its present portfolio of 23 former Somerfield or Co-op stores over a dizzying two-month period, but there had been no new supermarket acquisitions since January last year [broken link removed]. Indeed, the swift closure of acquired stores in Pontefract and Dunbar, the failure to open the shop it bought in Pwllheli, and reported trading difficulties had all raised question marks over the business’s ability to compete in the UK’s cutthroat supermarket sector.
However, after a quiet few months, this latest acquisition suggests that Haldanes is back on track – good news given that the recent history of the UK grocery sector has tended to involve smaller retailers disappearing through acquisition or collapse, rather than new competitors entering the market and keeping the established players on their toes.
Interestingly, the OFT notes that Haldanes plans to convert the acquired stores to a new discount brand, UGO, which will reportedly “build on the discount retailing strengths of Netto but will also have stronger and broader core grocery range together with a much wider health and beauty offer.” Given that many of the stores on the OFT’s upfront list are, by definition, in less glamorous locations, Haldanes’ move seems like the right approach, and should avoid a repeat of when Somerfield scared away Kwik Save shoppers by converting stores to its eponymous – and more expensive – fascia.
Iceland – 3 stores
Iceland’s package of three stores includes just one from the upfront list, in Platt Bridge, Wigan. Iceland’s marketing department tells me that the two others are in Spennymoor, up here in County Durham, and at Lane Top in Sheffield.
What it all means
So, what does all this mean for the UK’s grocery sector, and for the consumers who shop at those stores?
What’s clear is that the Netto brand will have vanished from the UK by the end of this year, though it will remain elsewhere in Europe – Dansk Supermarked is only selling its British stores, not those in Denmark, Germany or Poland. The 147 Netto stores that Asda is keeping are set to be rebranded as ‘Asda Supermarket’, while Morrisons, Haldanes (UGO) and Iceland will all convert their acquired stores to their own fascias.
Shoppers will no doubt welcome the news that Asda’s converted Nettos will charge the same prices as all existing Asdas, and will feature an average range of 10,000 products – up from Netto’s 1,800. However, some of those who currently use Netto on a regular basis will surely feel some sadness at the loss of its distinctive shopping experience and eyecatching offers.
As noted above, Haldanes’ new UGO stores look likely to be the closest thing to a ‘son of Netto’, presumably combining the best facets of Netto with Haldanes’ own experience of running compact supermarkets over the past year or so.
Given the strong North East presence, it will be fascinating to see what the UGO stores look like, and how they fare. While operating multiple fascias can be a really successful way of targeting different market segments – not just in the grocery sector – it can be a disaster if the execution is poor or the differentiation unclear.
Indeed, Haldanes tells me that the company is about to launch a third fascia – Haldanes Xpress – which will be applied to a newly acquired petrol forecourt, a convenience store with a post office, and a further eight convenience stores that Haldanes is in “advanced discussions” to buy.
For Iceland, the three new stores represent a modest acquisition for a company that has snapped up well over 50 old Woolworths sites during the past two years, and perhaps suggests that, having reached nearly 800 shops, the number of suitable new sites for Iceland stores is starting to slow.
For Morrisons, however, its purchase signals a determination to make further inroads into the lucrative small supermarket and convenience space. It’s easy to forget that only six years ago, Morrisons had little interest in smaller stores, selling a package of 114 Safeway Compact stores to Somerfield for £260m. Ironically, Co-op’s takeover of Somerfield meant that many of those former Safeways were later resold where they overlapped with existing Co-op sites. In some locations – such as Birtley in Gateshead – Morrisons actually bought back sites that it had disposed of only a few years earlier.
Nevertheless, with Sainsbury’s and Tesco having already built up their successful small-store estates over many years, and Asda acquiring a strong presence in one fell swoop through its Netto acquisition, Morrisons has a fair bit of catching up to do.
Back in November, there were highly unlikely rumours – seemingly without foundation – about Morrisons planning a takeover bid for the upmarket online grocer Ocado. While Morrisons may be wary of any more major acquisitions after the problems it had digesting Safeway, I would have thought that snapping up a smaller competitor – as Asda has done with Netto – would be a more likely takeover scenario.
A few moments ago I mentioned the former Safeway and Somerfield store in Birtley, in Tyne and Wear, which Morrisons took over in 2009. Unfortunately, Morrisons then decided that it had no use for the site, which has remained vacant ever since and is now being marketed as part of a larger potential development site.
This development has left Netto as Birtley town centre’s only supermarket. However, this store, in turn, is one the eight remaining Netto stores that the OFT is requiring Asda to dispose of, presumably due to the proximity of the huge Asda store – the old Woolco – at Washington Galleries.
Just like in Wallsend – where another store acquired by Morrisons has never opened – Birtley has undoubtedly and understandably suffered from the unexpected closure of its main supermarket. Hopefully a purchaser for the Netto store will be announced soon – after the disappointment and uncertainty of the last couple of years, Birtley surely deserves a food retailer that will invest in the town, and give the locals reassurance that they’ll still have somewhere to shop.