With the Christmas rush gathering momentum, our mystery shoppers reported scenes of frantic restocking at the retailers this week, but only Asda in Radcliffe, Lancashire, provided a full basket earning it our Top Store award. In addition to having the best overall availability, the 52,000 sq ft 24-hour store impressed our shopper by having all 24 checkouts open to reduce queue times, and an excellent standard of customer service. For instance, when our shopper asked if the baguettes contained French flour, a cheerful floor assistant didn't hesitate to ask the bakery manager. Store manager Carole Wilkinson puts the strong customer service down to the fact that many of the staff have family members who also work at the store. "There are quite a few cases where the wife is on the checkouts, her husband does the nightshift and their son stacks the shelves," said Wilkinson. "We also have members of staff who have been at the store for 34 years and are a fantastic resource for training new colleagues. The mix of families and experienced colleagues makes for a wonderful working environment that the customers appreciate." CACI data shows that Asda is best-suited to the sorts of shoppers living in the Radcliffe area, but the varied catchment can also be challenging as 14% of residents fall into the wealthy achievers category and 25% of residents are classed as hard-pressed.

Q&A with Carole Wilkinson Store manager of the week


What is your average shopper like? We have a multicultural demographic with varying degrees of affluence. We are quite a high-spend store, with the average weekly basket costing about £22. Our store offers a larger range of kosher products than the typical Asda because 1% of our shoppers are Jewish. We have a large Jewish population nearby in Whitefield and have the Hanukkah range in at the moment. At this time of year, the challenge is to maintain 100% availability. Which products are selling well at the moment? Christmas offers on products such as wine and chocolates are doing well and we have just launched the chilled party food lines. We expect to be completely sold out of the Christmas gift range, which has been a fantastic success and is directly lined up against Boots and Debenhams. We are opening at one minute past midnight on Christmas Eve in preparation for the last minute rush. What is your competition like? There is a 48,000 sq ft Tesco up the road, right inside the Jewish area. The store has a bigger kosher offering than us. There is also a Morrisons opening nearby in March, but I'm not concerned. The friendliness and knowledge of our staff give us an edge that you would be hard-pushed to find elsewhere. When was your store last in the newspapers? We made the headlines for the Super Colleague Day, which involved members of the management team swapping roles with the rest of the staff. I was on the checkouts, served colleagues at the canteen and spent an hour in the wind and rain gathering trolleys. My replacement also arranged for me to be Reggie the Reindeer and greet shoppers in a reindeer suit. He let everybody know it was me but he did a great job as store manager and even made a conference call to our regional manager. The experience gave us valuable insight into each other's jobs.


Water shortage causes tomato worries

Final tonnage figures for the 2007 Italian tomato crop confirm they fell below the original forecast of 4.8 million in spite of a longer season that processors hoped would enable them to reach the five million tonne mark. Lack of water has resulted in a poor yield, particularly in southern areas. The south has always been a large producer of good quality tomatoes so the water problem is giving serious cause for concern. Packers had difficulties in achieving premium quality standards due to the crop problems. "2007 was one of the most challenging seasons for many years due to inconsistency of the raw material coming from farmers," said a source in Naples. "PH was an issue on some of the lower grades and needed very careful controls." The 2008 tomato pack could be further reduced if changes to the subsidy system this year cut the acreage for tomatoes. A proposal that farmers will get paid by acreage rather than tonnage could possibly mean a switch to more lucrative crops such as wheat.


Sustainability fears for tuna

Tuna importers face a bleak future as raw material prices continue to rise due to poor fishing. The Indian Ocean, which should have just finished three months of good skipjack catches, has not produced the volumes anticipated. This trend coincided with retail prices on promotion going down - Asda is offering 12 cans for £5. "The position is unsustainable with fish prices now more than $1,600 a tonne in Bangkok and higher elsewhere," said an importer. Prices to the trade were increased last September when costs went to $1,300 a tonne, so the $1,600 figure makes another increase inevitable. World demand for tuna in various forms is rising year-on-year although catches are well down. The likelihood of China becoming a major market raises serious questions over sustainability and closer scrutiny of overfishing.


European hot dog and ham prices rising

The rise of the euro against sterling is causing concern to UK traders dependent on European producers of hot dogs and hams. Large increases in chicken costs due to feed inflation will mean a rise in hot dog prices. Apart from feed, demand now exceeds supply so long-term predictions are for the trend to continue. Although pork prices have remained steady, a reduction in total herd numbers recently forecast will mean a rise in prices later in the year. As with all products, the cost of oil will be a factor in higher prices due to freight and fuel charges continuing their upward trend in coming months.