As new store formats go, Big W and Woolworths General Store created plenty of interest when they were unveiled by Kingfisher two years ago. But progress on the roll out of the formats has been slow, prompting some to dismiss them as an experiment that will have little impact on more traditional grocery operators. Kingfisher's on­off­on plan to demerge its general merchandise division has only added to the uncertainties surrounding the future of the new formats. The doomsayers may yet regret their words, however, as the achitects of Big W and General Store are getting ready to rumble. Already the formats are causing a sea change in Woolworths' and Superdrug's traditionally 70% female and family orientated customer base. General Store ­ with its mix of groceries, Woolworths and Superdrug merchandise crammed into a 7,000 sq ft footprint ­ is catering for the single professional male convenience shopper and his distress purchases. A typical basket of about £6 to £10 might include a packet of Anadin, a copy of Men's Health magazine, a ready made curry and a couple of cans of beer. Big W, on the other hand, is a destination shop attracting more family orientated excursions with 75,000 sq ft of space used to sell anything from clothing, gardening products and futon beds ­ plus food and drink. It is here that Kingfisher is marking out territory on clothing, taking on the Matalan chain as well as Asda and Tesco with a mixture of branded specials and everyday items supplied by clothing specialist Primark. "It makes sense strategically to blend the Superdrug and Woolworths formats, especially in the suburbs where neither were a particular success," said one analyst. "With Big W and General Store, Kingfisher reconfigured its business to tap into the polarisation of the market between out of town emphasis on low prices and town centre primacy of convenience." The question is: are the new formats working? You bet, say those involved in their development. Gill Barr, head of proposition development for General Store, says: "Customer patterns are quite different from Woolworths. We are seeing even trading across the day and the week. It offers a bit of everything and is attracting a new type of customer to Woolworths and it is particularly popular with men. "Our competitors vary, and include Tesco Metro and Sainsbury Local, but our format is fairly distinctive in the market ­ no other retailer offers the combination of grocery, CTN, off licence and pharmacy. Opening hours of 7am to 11pm also reflect the modern lifestyle." She says customers typically drop in for necessities and impulse buys. Wines and Champagne are particularly strong performers and pharmacy is "very important". There are 11 General Stores currently trading and 23 will be up and running in high population areas nationwide by the end of the year. The five-year strategy is to convert 300 Woolworths and Superdrug stores to the new format and add an additional 100 new sites in a bid to refresh and update the mature Woolworths brand. The roll out has so far been centred on areas of high footfall in central London and the suburbs, although there is one General Store in Derby. Big W, on the other hand, trades from big sheds in retail parks or close to main roads and motorways. There are currently eight, with plans to add a further five this financial year ­ all with a bigger food offer. While alcohol continues to feature heavily in Big W stores, and is heavily promoted too, it has so far proved impractical to offer a full range of food, and grocery accounts for only 2% of overall volume. Big W md Bob Heatherington says: "Trials of a full food offer at Coventry were not successful. Customers like to separate the non food shop from the food shopping trip. We are now going to experiment with a few thousand sq ft pantry' concept ­ concentrating mainly on packaged goods ­ at a couple of our sites." Heatherington believes that as Tesco and Asda build on their non food offer, Big W can cash in on the trend by using Woolworths' general merchandise heritage to attract shoppers. The Big W in Bristol, which trades near Asda Wal-Mart's first UK supercentre, is a good example of this. Store manager Eric Sanders says it is a direct competitor to Asda on non food ranges, particularly as Big W builds its clothing offer and takes advantage of grey market opportunities. Big W's clothing is positioned as a "racetrack" at the entrance, with plinth locations in a square. The area is filled with grey market "treasure hunt" opportunity buys such as Ralph Lauren shirts reduced from £60 to £19.99. Asda's top brass admit, privately at least, they are keeping a close eye on the Big W development. However, they clearly believe its positioning in the market confuses consumers and, as a result, feel the fledgling chain poses little in the way of a real threat to them. The possible exception is at Christmas when Woolworths traditionally trades very well, a fact Heatherington cites in Big W's favour. "We saw sales of £1m in a week at the Coventry and Edinburgh stores last Christmas," he says. Tesco also insists it has yet to feel the heat from the developments. "We are obviously aware of the General Store and Big W formats. It does not divert us from our core strategy. All competition is good for customers. And we are in the lead on non food and health and beauty products," said one executive. One thing everybody highlights is the lack of real progress to date in developing Big W store numbers. Analysts are quick to point out the difficulties all retailers have getting hold of suitable out of town sites and say this could stymie growth at Big W. However, Heatherington insists there is room for up to 60 such stores in the long term. Nevertheless, a smaller 55,000 sq ft version of Big W is to be trialled at a site in Newark, Nottinghamshire. The concept carries the entire Big W range and is situated closer to the high street. The future development of Big W and General Store may well prove critical for Kingfisher's general merchandise business, which demerges next month. The formats were hailed as an "outstanding success" that "promise major new growth" by Kingfisher when announcing full year results in March. The results also demonstrated how tough life has become for general merchandise retailers ­ with profit down more than 25% at Woolies to £91m and down 16% to £35m at Superdrug. How far the two store formats can help the newly demerged business deal with the competitive environment in which it operates remains to be seen. Investors will take some convincing. As one analyst says: "The outlook for general merchandise is not bright. City expectations are low. Superdrug is having to slash prices to keep customers and Woolworths has little growth prospects." At least the uncertainties caused by the demerger saga are over, and from next month management will be free to focus on what needs to be done to restore profit growth. Clearly, the development of General Store and Big W will remain a priority for the newly standalone business as it looks to reinvigorate the Woolworths brand. That means the formats could yet prove to be a thorn in the side of more established grocery retailers. {{FEAT. GENERAL }}