Jim Armitage: Supermarkets better places to shop thanks to Asda old school

  • @ArmitageJim

Outlook Remember that arcade game in the 1980s – Whac-a-Mole? You get a mallet and clobber the brown, furry creatures that pop out of holes in the machine. Each time you whack one, another jumps up in its place.

The same thing happens with former Asda managers. One gets whacked, only for another to appear. And so it was with Sainsbury’s, where former Asda manager Justin King is disappearing (not whacked, I hasten to add) to be replaced by fellow Asda graduate Mike Coupe. Mr King was at the Asda mothership under Archie Norman and Allan Leighton, who were like cult leaders in the 1990s. Others have included Richard Baker, Dalton Philips, Kate Bostock, Anthony Thompson, Tony Campbell, Phil Dutton, not to mention Andy Hornby, a better retailer than banker...

The Leighton/Norman Asda was like an MBA school for retail execs. It knocked on the head the old idea of the potentate chief executive handing down orders from the top. Power was granted to team managers, making everyone “feel like an entrepreneur”, as one alumnus puts it. The head office, with its easy chairs and deep carpets, was scaled back to a minimum, putting managers where they should be – in the stores. Staff on the shopfloor – those dealing daily with customers – were encouraged to advise managers on what the punters really wanted. And what did they want? Cheap stuff. Asda delivered that by the juggernaut-load, through a ruthlessly efficient supply chain.

But customer service was good too. Staff share incentive schemes – still not as common as they should be – were introduced, as was a “Tell Archie” suggestion box, reputed to have received 45,000 suggestions in five years. Brilliantly, Mr Norman claimed to have read them all.

It seems old hat these days – clichéd even – calling workers “colleagues” and such. But it made supermarkets better places to shop.

Apart from Mars in the 1980s, where Messrs Leighton, Norman and King worked through their L-plates, it’s hard to think of another corporate school with such long tendrils. Except, perhaps, Goldman Sachs, which seems to spawn every central banker, US treasury secretary or other archwarden of global capital. Those connections, highlighted so starkly during the financial crisis, seem far more sinister than Asda and a few big grocery shops, of course.

You can still find that game with the mallet and moles, by the way. On Southwold Pier in Suffolk, they customised it while we were bailing out RBS, Lloyds and the rest of them. Now it’s called Whack-a-Banker.