Will UGO back? Checking out Britain’s newest supermarket chain
Since first meeting them at the UGO launch press conference back in January, it’s been a pleasure to develop a really good relationship with the key people at both the Haldane Retail Group and at Charles Hollywood, the Darlington-based agency responsible for the chain’s graphic design and instore promo work.
In the last couple of weeks, the first of the 20 conversions of Netto stores to UGO have taken place, following on from the trial stores – both former Haldanes-branded shops – at Biddulph and Broxburn. In due course, I hope to be able to visit (officially) one or more of the local UGO stores and to get some interior pics for the blog.
However, with the first two North East branches – at Eston, near Middlesbrough, and Hartlepool – having already opened, I was curious to check them out as soon as possible.
So, unannounced – but without a Mary Portas-style dark wig – I went along on Wednesday (4 May) to experience and review the two shops, paying particular attention to certain key factors:
- First impressions
- Instore signage
- Product range and availability
- Customer service.
So, how did the two Teesside UGO stores fare?
My first stop was the Eston store, which serves the town’s Whale Hill housing estate and is part of a modern retail block that also includes a Numark pharmacy and a Post Office branch. Though there is some parking close to the store, most people I saw seemed to be travelling to and from the store on foot.
Initial impressions were good – bold UGO banners and signage ensure that the shop is hard to miss, even from the top of the road, and the overall treatment of the store exterior makes a smart and vibrant first impression.
I was a little surprised, however, to see shoppers leaving the store with plain white carrier bags. Given the obvious investment in building the UGO brand, it seems a missed opportunity to not use UGO-branded bags. Just by walking down the street, those shoppers on foot could be doing their bit to raise awareness of the local UGO store.
My first challenge at Eston was finding the way in. A lack of signage meant that it wasn’t obvious which of the two doors was the entrance, so I tentatively tried one in the hope that it was the right choice (it was).
Inside, the store is relatively compact – which is fine – though the interior did feel quite gloomy and cluttered, partly as a result of having rather fewer windows than if it were a detached, standalone store. This is a constraint of the property that obviously has to be worked with, but there are almost certainly ways – through lighting and surface treatment – to brighten things up a bit.
Hartlepool’s UGO, in contrast, feels rather more typical of a discount supermarket. Located in the Dyke House area close to the town’s main hospital, the store is housed in a functional but modern standalone building with its own car park, and is probably about twice the size of the Eston store. Though there is some housing nearby, my perception was that shoppers would be more likely to travel to this store by car than on foot.
Again, the initial impression is really good, with bold signage and banners ensuring that the store makes its presence felt strongly. After the relative disappointment of the Eston shop’s interior, I was also pleased to find that the Hartlepool store felt much brighter and more spacious, coming across very much like a typical Aldi, Lidl or, indeed, a Netto. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Haldanes used the Hartlepool store in its initial mockup artwork, as it, rather than Eston, was much closer to my expectations of what a UGO store is supposed to look and feel like.
It was almost noon when I visited Eston and gone 4 when I arrived at Hartlepool, but both stores seemed to be doing a steady – rather than a bustling – trade. Despite this, I was oddly struck by the silence in the Eston store, and – despite not usually being an advocate of instore muzak – felt that it could really use some background music to help lift the mood.
Happily, the excellent implementation of the UGO brand – which is highly professional, yet warm and fun – carries through to the store interiors. Again, I felt it was more effective in the Hartlepool store, where the greater brightness and sense of space allows the posters and navigational signage to work really well and be better appreciated.
On the downside, both stores featured some rather scrappy handwritten signage to indicate where items had been marked down in price, and I thought this looked a little incongruous and unprofessional amid the otherwise slick implementation of the brand.
Also, I was puzzled by the prominent use of the abbreviation ‘PMP’ on some of the instore offers posters. As a supposed retail expert, perhaps I should have known already that this stands for ‘price-marked pack’ – basically, a branded product where the offer price is highlighted and preprinted on the item’s packaging. To me it seems a little odd, however, to use retail jargon on customer-facing material.
Product range and availability
At its press launch, Haldanes made great play of UGO being “the icing on the Netto cake”, and talked of the UGO brand and product mix being designed to provide “reassurance” and a “seamless transfer” for Netto’s loyal customers. One key Netto feature – the non-food offers – have, sure enough, been carried through to UGO, and the eclectic mix of suitcases, microfibre cloths and Gino D’Acampo cookware seemed to be attracting plenty of attention in both Eston and Hartlepool.
On the grocery side, Netto’s own-brand products have obviously had to go, replaced by items from Nisa’s Heritage label. As a very infrequent Netto shopper it’s hard for me to judge the impact of this change, but there are bound to be people who will dislike the disappearance of items that they’ve got used to buying. On the plus side, Netto stores have always included a higher proportion of well-known brands than its hard discounter rivals, Aldi and Lidl, which helps to ease the transition.
A key part of the UGO strategy is to make it easier for customers to carry out a full weekly shop, by doubling Netto’s core range of branded traditional grocery lines to around 3,000 SKUs. There was certainly evidence of this instore, with plenty of different items squeezed into the space, and the presence of certain types of product – such as puff pastry (an item I buy often!) – that haven’t traditionally been available from discount supermarkets. Moreover, where items were in stock, there seemed to plenty of them on the shelf.
Overall, however, it was clear that there were some problems with availability and stock replenishment. Both stores had some notable gaps, with the fruit and vegetable aisles especially depleted. Hartlepool, for example, had no avocados or cauliflowers, so if you’d gone along with a shopping list you may well have left the store disappointed.
If being able to use UGO “for all your weekly shopping” is one of the chain’s key messages, the other is surely that of value. After all, the tagline “where the prices is low” is embedded in the UGO logo and fascia.
So, are UGO’s prices low? Again, having not been a regular Netto shopper, it’s difficult for me to be sure how they compare with the store of old. Overall, my impression was that the everyday prices seemed ‘reasonable’, rather than necessarily ‘cheap’.
The prices of the fresh fruit and veg that I looked at – such as cucumbers and tomatoes – seemed to compare favourably enough with what I pay in Aldi or Lidl, while the Heritage-branded items from Nisa looked to be similarly priced to the big supermarkets’ standard own-brand items, rather than any of the ‘Value’ or ‘Basics’-type lines. Presumably when groceries are being sourced from Nisa, rather than Haldanes’ own supply chain, there’s a limit to how far the prices can differ from Haldanes’ eponymous stores or, indeed, any other Nisa-supplied outlet.
In the alcohol aisle, however, I was pleased to see UGO still offering a decent selection of sub-£4 bottles of wine, at both regular and offer prices – this is one of the areas in which Netto was always particularly useful! As might be expected, the different in size between the two stores is apparent here, with Hartlepool seeming to have a far superior wines and spirits range.
Interestingly, where hard discounters (and Asda) have tended to adopt an ‘everyday low prices’ (EDLP) strategy, one of the most notable features of UGO, for me, is its eyecatching offers, which appear to change ever three weeks or so.
Prior to my visits, I’d checked out the online PDF of the latest offers leaflet from the UGO website, and was struck by some of the great deals on offer. Ones that stood out included two-packs of Frü and Gü puddings for half price (£1.50, compared to RRP of £3.19); 750 ml Innocent smoothies for £1.34 (RRP £2.96 to £3.05); and New Covent Garden soups (£2.19) on buy one get one free.
These are genuinely impressive offers; on my way home, I popped into Tesco in Gateshead where I noted that the same Innocent smoothies were being sold at £2.85; today, the same price was being charged in Morrisons in Morpeth. If I lived close enough to a UGO store, these deals would definitely prompt me to make a special trip, and I can imagine other people using UGO in a similar way to ‘top-up’ their regular grocery shop. On the other hand, you might question how far UGO’s target shoppers in areas such as Eston will care about posh soup and smoothies as opposed to keenly priced everyday basics.
Given the strength and appeal of the offers, I did feel that much more could be made of them instore. I found it hard to locate the soup, smoothies and puddings offers, even though I’d looked at the leaflet beforehand and was keeping a special eye out for them. The shelf-edge signage promoting the offers was relatively low-key, and in Hartlepool there was actually no reference at all to the soup being on BOGOF. UGO’s special offers seem to be one of its real strengths, and I think more can be done instore to really shout about these deals.
Commenting on my blog last week, George Wilson remarked that the staff in the Eston store appeared “not very happy” when he’d recently visited, so I was particularly curious to assess the quality of both stores’ customer service.
I was pleased at how smart the staff looked in their new UGO uniforms, but, like George, I was a little underwhelmed by the customer experience. To test the checkouts I bought an item in both stores, armed with a smile and a readiness to engage in conversation.
In Eston, the first staff member I approached seemed to be having trouble with her till, resulting in the person in front having to move his purchases to another checkout. She seemed a little flustered as she told me – perhaps rather abruptly – that “there’s no point in you putting your stuff on this till”. I duly moved over to the next till and paid for my purchase, where the member of staff was pleasant rather than friendly. Based on my experience, I probably wouldn’t go back to the Eston store unless it was my local shop.
In Hartlepool, my experience at the checkout was similar; the service I received was adequate rather than exceptional – polite and perfunctory, rather than warm. I noted that the customer in front of me seemed to be complaining about certain items they wanted not being in stock, and there’s always a danger that this frustration from shoppers rubs off on the staff. If the availability issues can be quickly sorted, happier customers will hopefully lead to cheerier staff. Whatever the reasons, however, it does seems that there’s still a bit of work needed if UGO is to deliver on its promise – stated in the press pack that I received in January – to concentrate “huge effort on delivering the very best in customer service.”
To be a success, UGO needs to keep happy as many as possible of Netto’s customers while simultanously attracting new ones – no mean feat for any business taking over another retailer’s stores.
Having tried out the UGO experience, two particularly positive features stand out for me. The first is the implementation of the UGO brand, which is excellent throughout. Carrier bags and handwritten signs excepted, UGO has managed to develop a bold, distinctive and highly professional look and feel for the brand, carried through from the welcoming store exterior to the instore signage and offers leaflets.
The other real positive is UGO’s special offers. Some of the deals on the products that I regularly buy are among the best I’ve seen in any supermarket, and the chain’s marketing – externally and instore – really needs to celebrate these, perhaps through explicit price comparisons with other retailers, rather than less easily understood references to RRP.
As far as negatives are concerned, issues such as brightening up the Eston store interior or making sure the tills work are easily fixable. However, the crucial area for improvement is ensuring that the stores have in stock the products that people are expecting to find.
Haldanes, rightly, sees an opportunity to drive footfall and sales at UGO by offering a wider product range than Netto ever did, making it a place “for all your weekly shopping.” As the business finds its feet, delivering on this promise will be key. The danger, otherwise, is that shoppers will get out of the UGO habit as they head off to Morrisons in search of their cauliflowers and avocados.