I am often asked what is the difference between the top six food retailers and which of them is setting the trend or about to introduce the next big thing?

I had occasion last month to visit all of them in one day. I was with a client from a finance background who was keen to understand the distinction between the top retailers that enabled them to stand out and create a point of difference - whether it be layout, range, price or marketing/point of sale.

Each store has an identity that is a blend of the corporate one and the manager’s individual personality. On entering a store, you get an immediate feeling of whether or not it is well run. That first impression is definitely a lasting one. It could be the state of the car park, till receipts and rubbish on the ground or a badly hung PoS at the entrance - they all add to ‘that’ feeling.

This is one of the reasons some retailers are trying to give their stores a more welcoming feel, starting in the car park with the use of softer materials such as wood and greeting signs saying ‘Hello’ or ‘Welcome’.

Store layouts are similar across the big retailers as they are keen to get general merchandise (margin) up as close to the entrance as possible, followed by produce, dairy and fresh meat, with wines and spirits in the last aisle.

” My client felt Waitrose had the right balance of quality and price”

Interestingly, on visiting one of the remodelled Morrisons stores, it had retained the produce in the first aisle, all “cool-air” misting cabinets - very American. In the second aisle were wines and spirits, with natural wood featuring strongly. The store also boasted an extra gondola for general merchandise in the middle of the store and the market-fresh approach in repainted grey chillers along the back of the store, which I must confess I like.

Other retailers are making a big thing of British farms, with Union Jack PoS aplenty and only one retailer highlighting that it sells Irish beef. The approach to on-shelf merchandising trays is mixed, which gave the stores a very scruffy look. Asda favours a bright green and black striped version that, when on shelf in the dairy, put products in the shade.

My client’s favourite was Waitrose he felt it had the right balance between quality and price achieved through the Essential range. When Waitrose launched the range and a price match on KVIs, I thought it was a mistake - but clearly not.

So what did we learn? The next big things in British retailing are wood, grey chillers, Union Jacks, Tesco price matching, aggressive PoS - as everything is £1 or £2 - and look to Sobeys Canada for Morrisons’ next big idea.

See if you can tell from the minute you arrive whether the store is well run - your first impressions will not be far wrong.

Malcolm Hepworth is non-executive chairman of eXPD8