As Dalton Philips proudly invited a bunch of hungry hacks to help themselves to the sourdough and samphire on display at Morrisons’ ‘Store of the Future’ in Tunbridge Wells yesterday, it struck a chord with those who remembered the flak the retailer copped following its acquisition of Safeway in 2004.
On that occasion, it was widely reported that the northern supermarket chain simply didn’t ‘get’ the supposedly more sophisticated southern shopper, committing the seemingly cardinal sin of not stocking any lemongrass.
So Tunbridge Wells was an apt location for Morrisons to announce a renewed assault of the south, as it looks to grow the proportion of its new space in the region from its current 15% to 60% in the next two years. Incidentally, Morrisons was forced to close the former Safeway store six years ago having failed to win over shoppers in the Royal town.
It’s tempting to link Morrisons’ renewed confidence with recent improvements in its fresh range - currently stretching to more than 500 lines, much of which is laid out on beds of ice with cooling water vapours helping improve freshness. But the reality has more to do with a strengthening in its property team and a willingness to be more flexible in its formats. After all, the fresh offer was trialled in Leeds and has so far mostly been rolled out successfully in the north of England.
Significantly, Morrisons has had a 10-strong team of property experts based near Heathrow reporting directly to group property director Terry Hartwell and focused exclusively on finding new locations down south.
There has also been a step change in the kind of location Morrisons is willing to develop. Previously it stuck rigidly to a simple large-store format with ample room for car-parking. With space at more of a premium in the south, the supermarket must look at stores with car-parks above or underneath.
That Morrisons’ range has come on leaps and bounds in the last two years is without question, but its enhanced offer is for shoppers right across the country, not just posh southerners.
What has changed is that the chain is now seriously looking to address an imbalance its portfolio that currently leaves 6.5m southern households more than a 15-minute drive from their local Morrisons.