Big box tour in France and Luxembourg
It seemed wiser not to provoke a security guard with a broken nose and cauliflower ears and to beat a meek retreat from the Drive-Thru of the Auchan store in Mont Saint-Martin. Thankfully, the rest of the little excursion from over the German border was under a more auspicious star.
In the event Schmidt succeeded in showing our newspaper five other Auchan, Cora and Cactus hypermarkets within the triangle Saarbrücken-Metz-Luxembourg in a mere twelve hours.
The aim of the quick storecheck was to view hypermarkets in eastern France and Luxembourg from a German retailer's viewpoint.
Teuton visits Gaul
The most striking difference to Germany is the sheer size of the hypermarkets. Auchan, for instance, never seems happier than when it has a good 150,000 ft² (15,000 m²) of sales surface to cover.
In fact, as young shop assistants whizzed pass on roller-skates, one felt the need for a telescope in order to see from one end of these vast stores to another. Even XXL-sized department signs failed to give any more than partial orientation.
Such dimensions come as a culture shock to anyone from Germany where retailers have been increasingly flirting with the idea of the "compact" hypermarket and where punchy Kaufland has been going from strength to strength.
Also, electronic price shelf labelling is far more prevalent than in Germany. It certainly makes for neater shelves compared with the torn-sticky-label-gunge so often found in Germany.
Who are the real Prussians?
In general, the shelves make a far more ordered impression than east of the Rhine. This is because French-speaking hypermarket operators have a staff position virtually unknown to their German counterparts, the chef de rayon. These staff members always carry a ruler with them in order to ensure that every product on the shelf stays in a straight line.
Descartes would have loved them. In, for instance, the dairy department neat rows of yoghurts stand like soldiers on parade. Hardly has a customer taken a product from the shelf and the chef de rayon is there to close the gap and keep things neat, clean and tidy.
This makes for a constant hustle and bustle in the fresh produce departments as staff replace and straighten every cabbage, carrot and melon displaced by an appreciative or inquisitive clientele.
There is nothing like this in Germany. For the German retailer, whose mind is obsessed with cost reduction, any such staff effort is seen as a costly and unnecessary luxury.
When this was put to Manu Kiefer, head of fresh produce at Cactus, Luxemburg's leading retailer, in Bertrange, he replied with astonishment: "But neat and ordered shelves are one of the most basic services that retailers must offer customers!"
Different store layouts
Differences in philosophy are also evident in the store layout. In German hypermarkets fresh produce is typically placed at the store entrance. The argument here is that fruit and vegetables (F&V) are attractive and emotional products which serve to attract customers and to draw them into the store.
French hypermarket operators regard any such idea with horror. They contend, with some justice, that placing the fresh produce department at the store entrance obliges customers to put their fruit & veg into the shopping trolley first, so that, as customers continue to shop, it will be crushed by their subsequent purchases.
Both the French and the Germans have some logic on their side.
In terms of assortment there are obvious differences reflecting national culinary preferences. From a German point of view rabbits heads and sausages, Bresse chicken complete with beak, claws and feathers, as well as horse meat, frogs legs and snails take some getting used to.
On the other hand, there were tremendous ranges of baguettes, and the patisserie departments generally looked exquisite.
The fish, sea food, poultry and cheese offers are considerably broader than in Germany, but there is less choice in sausages and deep frozen food.
In vino retailer veritas
The wine departments were generally first-rate. We found prices which could never be obtained east of the Rhine.
Josef Schmidt, a hobby oenophile, was truly astonished at magnum bottles of Roederer Cristal or Dom Pérignon; Château Pétrus 2006 at €1,199 ($1,522; £984) a bottle; burgundy 2006 for €13,999 ($17,768; £11,495) a case, or vintage 1939 armagnac.
He was also impressed by staff knowledge. "At the very least, all the members of our wine department have been trained as sommeliers," one manager told us proudly at Cactus.
The wine is also impressively presented. For instance, at one store the bottles were displayed on shelving at least twelve feet (four metres) high. At first, we thought that this was to facilitate shelf stacking, but according to Sophie Morlé, manager's assistant at Auchan in Kirchberg/Luxemburg: "We mainly do it for optical reasons in order to enhance the overall aesthetics of the department."
Another clever idea is to place cases and boxes of wine on the lowest shelves. "They sell like hot cakes," one departmental manager told us mixing his similes with considerable smugness.
Better quality F&V
French-speaking countries are generally triumphant when it comes to displaying fresh produce. The quality is generally higher than in German stores "because the French are prepared to pay more for better quality," says Schmidt.
Certainly, the Gallic nations reveal all their creative flair when it comes to the presentation of fruit & veg. In one fish department we found a shark with a lemon in its mouth; in the fruit department sliced pineapple and melon etc. were placed on slanting shelves covered with crushed ice.
Although, admittedly, you see them occasionally in Germany at the better hypermarket operations, Josef Schmidt was impressed by the cutting stations in the fruit departments. Here customers could choose their fruit and have it cut to any shape -- all ready to take away in convenient packaging with a plastic fork.
Bigger non-food areas
The non-food areas were considerably larger than in German hypermarkets. We found book departments larger than German specialist bookstore chains such as Thalia or entertainment electronics sections nearly as large as small Media Markt outlets.
This is easily explained when one remembers that, with the virtual exception of Fnac and Magasin Saturn, French-speaking hypermarkets are generally faced with less competition from specialist store operators than their German counterparts.
French-speaking hypermarket operators also tend to use more shop-in-shop areas. For instance, one finds whole sections with dozens of metres of shelf space devoted to international food, including Maghreb, Asian, halal, kosher, Portugese, Italian, Chinese, Greek, Spanish etc.
These departments do not only cater for the tastes of immigrant workers, they also bring a lot of exotic flair into the store. Josef Schmidt and I pondered, however, why we have never seen whole sections of German stores devoted to the large Turkish minorities found in some urban conurbations?
Admittedly, one does see the odd shelf devoted to foreign tastes, but such store areas are usually poorly and almost apologetically executed with little conviction. At any rate, we had never seen international departments on anything like this scale in Germany.
Organic is king
Another big difference is the existence of completely separate departments for organic food and discount items. Of course, there is a fair amount of organic food on offer in big German food stores, but the products usually become submerged within their respective product category.
On the journey it was surprising to find 120m² (1,200 ft²) to 150m² (1,500ft²) of hypermarket sales space devoted exclusively to organic own label organic, discount organic, deep frozen organic and premium organic food.
The stature of the suppliers listed on the shelves was also impressive. For instance, we found "Rapunzel" and "demeter" brands which you would normally only find in specialist delicatessen and health food stores in Germany. "Why not save the German hypermarket customer the journey?" asks Josef Schmidt rhetorically.
The creation of shop-in-shop departments for organic food does, however, puts French-speaking hypermarket operators in a dilemma. If they offer organic food elsewhere within the store, they are, in effect, sponsoring the suppliers concerned with second facings. If, however, the retailer only offers organic food in the organic food area, he runs the risk of irritating his customers.
One shopper asked at an Auchan store, a certain Marie France, had a good grumble: "When I buy yoghurts, I want to be able to choose between the discount, brand, own label and organic varieties on the spot. But, if I want to buy an organic yoghurt here, I have to walk several hundred yards from the dairy department to the organic shop."
Separate discount areas
The creation of separate discount areas of around 1,200ft² (120m²) within hypermarkets represents a fundamentally different way of approaching budget-minded customers than is practised in Germany.
German supermarket and hypermarket operators either have their own separate discount subsidiaries (cf. Rewe with Penny and Edeka with Netto-Marken-Discount), or they offer price-fighter own label assortments on their bottom shelves.
One thing German hypermarket operators most certainly do not do is create separate so-called "self-discount" areas within their stores. Overall, it was a pretty unconvincing show. For a start, the budget department at Auchan had given up offering F&V -- probably because it was too painful for them to neglect presentation.
The French also integrate a pick & mix offer into their discount departments, where customers can mix their own cereals and müslis etc., which smacks more of convenience than discount.
The dry assortment segments of these discount areas were the only chaotically ordered shelves found on the whole of trip. As the shelves in the rest of the hypermarkets are so well-ordered, a stark contrast is created, but not one which would strongly motivate the consumer to buy the products concerned.
Perhaps, one asks, this is intentional? These discount sections leave one with the impression that French-speaking retailers feel obliged to offer them, but are unhappy doing so.
More readiness to experiment
If there was one salient point to be gained from the little border-hop visit, it was the greater readiness of French and Luxemburg retailers to experiment.
At Cora in Bertrange/Luxemburg, Sandra Cannizzaro, a very knowledgeable director of marketing, did the honours. "We don't know what works at the entrance, so we are always trying out new things." Inconceivable that a German marketing manager would admit to anything less than infallibility when talking to the press.
The Cora store in Bertrange exemplified the Gallic love affair with the principles of trial & error. In an endeavour to attract more female customers, a vast entrance area has been devoted to the fair sex. This includes jewellery, dresses, lingerie, health, beauty and slimming products etc. The whole space is coloured pink and curved shelves are used wherever possible.
Devoting a whole entrance area entirely to the ladies would be unthinkable in Germany.
"Often the problem in Germany," says Josef Schmidt, "is that once hypermarket retailers have found something that works, they just go on doing more of the same because they want to play safe. The downside to this is a lack of innovative spirit."
Schmidt therefore praises the capacity of hypermarket operators west of the Rhine to create islands of interest within their vast shop spaces. "These individual departments are like lighthouses on a shop floor ocean, and lighthouses are there to be seen."
* Stores visited: Auchan Mont St. Martin: Boulevard de l'Europe 1, 54350 Mont Saint-Martin, France; Auchan Semécourt: Voie Romaine, 57280 Semécourt, France; Auchan Kirchberg: 5, rue Alphonse Weicker, 2721 Luxemburg; Cora Foetz: Rue du Brill, 11, 898 Foetz, Luxembourg; Belle Etoile (Cactus): Route D'Arlon, 8050 Bertrange, Luxembourg; Cora Concorde: 80 Route de Longwy, 8060 Bertrange, Luxembourg