In soccer parlance the past 12 months represent a year of two halves for The Grocer 33 shopping basket, with the perennial problem of availability still a major issue.
Our figures reveal that as the spectre of consolidation in grocery loomed in the last six months, retailers might well have taken their eyes off some aspects of their business in pursuit of other goals while the Competition Commission completes its inquiries.
Safeway, at the centre of most of the bid speculation, has been worst affected, with the number of full baskets achieved plunging by 37%, compared with the first half of 2002, while the other bid target, Somerfield, has seen its number of full baskets drop by 17%.
Protagonists in the fray for any takeover or break-up of the two chains have had mixed fortunes. Sainsbury's full basket strike rate improved by 20% ov er the past six months, while Asda's rose by 17%. But at Morrisons ­ striving to compete on price with Asda ­ the number of full baskets slipped 4.6%.
Tesco, the UK's leading grocer by market share, dropped back 6.6% over the previous six months, as the chain battled with out of stocks ­ which totalled 68 over the year ­ seven more than Safeway over the same number of visits.
Stacking trolleys and shelf packers too often seemed to crowd the aisle for our mystery shoppers as they tried to navigate the stores in search of The Grocer 33.
The year produced 456 out of stock items, the equivalent of one product in 29 missing from the shelf each trip.
Morrisons has ramped up its challenge on price to Asda over the last half of the year, and now shares the top spot with its rival for the lowest priced Grocer 33 full basket at £35.58.
Over the year consumers have benefited from increased competition as the industry average for a full basket fell by 2.8% from £40.39 in June 2002 to £39.26 by the end of May 2003.
Morrisons full basket price fell the most ­ by £2.59 ­ while those of The Co-op, Safeway and Somerfield increased 98p, 30p and 21p respectively. Sainsbury shaved £2.36 off its average full basket, Waitrose £2.13, Asda £2.12 and Tesco £2.03.
Meanwhile, the Asda juggernaut rumbled on to become the UK's best value supermarket for the sixth time in our survey.
The Wal-Mart subsidiary reduced its average full basket price from £38.57 last year to £36.45 by May 2003.
Competition was fierce as Asda and Morrisons entered a tit-for-tat battle on pricing, especially over Hardys wine ­ now £3.58 in both chains ­ and on Stella Artois which at one stage was down to £3.79 in Asda and then cut to £3.59 by Morrisons. The Yorkshire-based chains ended the year honours even on the cheapest basket. Asda also proved a favourite with our shoppers when it came to customer service, with 12 (21%) Storewatch titles from the 57 visits made. Waitrose came second with six Storewatch titles from 34 visits (18%) and was the only chain to clock a checking out time of fewer than five minutes.
Morrisons had the best strike rate for full basket availability at 56.8% over the year ­ 4.2% ahead of Asda in third place. Waitrose was in second place, while Tesco with just 20%, was saved from the bottom slot by The Co-op.
And the overall picture was also disappointing. From a total of 400 visits to the multiples, our mystery shoppers were only able to buy all 33 items on our list for 36% of the of those occasions.
Availability was also a major problem when our shoppers tried to buy organic, Fairtrade and vegetarian produce for our Grocer 33+ themed shop.
Staff product knowledge was also a stumbling block for our shoppers who complained at their inability to provide category information.