Kwik Save store managers have reacted with astonishment to the company's purchase of 45 Somerfield stores at a time when it is still struggling with availability.
Managers willing to speak to The Grocer claimed they had been warned off talking to the press. However, one said: "We can't service the stores we've got and we're getting more loss-making stores. Our board is living on another planet."
Another told us: "It makes no sense to me. It's almost eight weeks until Christmas and rather than getting our house in order, we're taking on more shops."
A survey conducted exclusively for The Grocer last month by Storecheck Marketing showed the business had made some headway in terms of filling gaps on shelves. But figures showed availability in some core categories was still running at less than 80%.
Some managers claimed their stores were haemorrhaging sales dramatically, with takings down as much as 80% year-on-year.
They said often their stores looked good on the surface, but shoppers trying to do a full shop for basic items would be hard-pressed. One said stores were "full of all the wrong things". All managers willing to talk said one of the problems was the highly restricted order sheet they were forced to use.
One said: "Frozen foods - we can't get a basic line like chips. Tea - stores have run out or can't get it as it is not on our sheets. Cigarettes - three weeks now without a proper delivery."
Managers complained of a lack of communication with head office. Referring to the departure of Andrew Villars this week after just three months, one said: "I found out our MD was leaving by reading the paper."
Other store managers defended the company. One said: "We are all doing our best. We know there are problems, but we don't need negative publicity as well."
Another said: "I have no availability problems. All our shelves are full."
Kwik Save maintains that the store acquisitions will give it the increased scale it needs to secure more supplier listings and increase its stocks. In a statement, it said the £30m it had raised from private investors, announced this week, would also help it shore up the supply chain and improve availability. "Following investment in the business the supply chain will be a key focus, strengthening existing routes and developing new ones. This investment provides us with the funding to build upon the past seven months for the future."
A consortium of investors dubbed Back To The Future and headed by Richard Kirk, chief executive of Peacock Group, bought 171 Kwik Save stores from Somerfield in February, forming Kwik Save Ltd. More stores were bought shortly afterwards, taking the tally to 184.
Until now, all were located in the Midlands, Wales and the north of England, but the new outlets expand its presence to Scotland and the south. The new acquisitions boost KS's estate to 229 stores, stretching from London to Glasgow.
See pages 16, 30