Supermarkets: Roboshops show the `convenient' way forward

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The Independent Online
A generation ago they were just grocers. Now the giant supermarkets dominate our lives. As they move into health care, fashion and banking, Ian Burrell tries to envisage the superstores of the future.

In Japan, they call them "roboshops". They are 24-hour stores with such sophisticated computer technology that human staff are superfluous.

Shoppers are invited to choose from single display items placed in long glass cabinets and marked with a number. They make their selection, punch the number into a computer and pay with plastic. The goods are promptly delivered down a chute.

Clive Beddall, editor of The Grocer magazine, visited one of the stores recently and believes that they could inspire British supermarkets. "Automation will be the thing of the future. I could imagine one of these stores on the Edgware Road. I don't know what the supermarket unions would say because apart from the owner, there were no staff."

According to David Hughes, professor of agriculture at Wye College, University of London, people are becoming tired of standing in check-out queues to pay for everyday items.

"We now have leisure shopping for things we like and drudge shopping for things like toilet rolls and nappies," he said. "Drudge shopping is just not sustainable. People hate it."

The stores are having to respond. Iceland and Tesco have already enjoyed success with a new home delivery services. Tesco Direct, has so far been taken up by some 15,000 customers who can order via phone, fax or the Internet. The head of Tesco Direct, Gary Sargeant, recently unveiled plans whereby customers can shop in banks via Internet kiosks.

However,, other industry commentators believe that in the near future British supermarkets will have an increasing requirement for specialist staff. They believe that the supermarkets are intent on recreating the traditional British high street under a single roof, and to do so they need staff who can provide quality customer service with specialist knowledge, such as butchers, bakers, drycleaners and so on.

To create an United States-style mall, the supermarkets will need to expand to even greater floor-space.

Allan Breese, client service director at the market researchers AGB, which monitors the tastes of a panel of 10,000 consumers, said that the superstores were inevitably going to get bigger and bigger.

"The simple reason is that what consumers are looking for is more convenience and more one-stop shopping," he said.

Asda and Tesco already have sites of 40,000 square feet and Asda would like to build stores that are 50 per cent larger.

Increasing the space to such an extent has allowed Asda to branch out into fashion retailing (with its George clothing line) and it recently announced that it was setting up doctors' surgeries in two of its stores.

Safeway has set up pharmacies and dry cleaners. Sainsbury has established a growing banking service while Tesco has begun selling designer clothing from labels such as Calvin Klein and Levi. Supermarkets are also experimenting with estate agencies, dental care, optician services, and travel agents.

As one analyst said: "It makes you wonder if there are any areas the supermarkets will not go into."

At the same time, the supermarkets are looking to stay open longer. Tesco Metro stores, which are sited in town centres, have already pioneered 24-hour supermarket opening. As Mr Breese pointed out: "All the advantages of convenience which the local shops have had are being eroded."

The consequences, and the outlook, for the minor supermarkets (such as Somerfields, Waitrose, Co-op, Kwiksave, Iceland) are not good. Richard Hyman, chairman of the supermarket analysts Verdict Research, predicted that the "second division" would be increasingly outgunned. "It's going to be harder and harder for them to do business in the future," he said.

According to Philip Dorgan, retail analyst at Panmure Gordon, a merger between Asda and Safeway - widely predicted but denied by both parties - could precipitate carnage in the industry. "It would force a huge price war which might mean that some of the smaller players went to the wall," he said.

The big four (Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda, Safeway) will continue to expand, however, and not just in the United Kingdom. Sainsbury already has interests in the US, while Tesco is eyeing the opportunities in Hungary and the Czech Republic.

But the single European market may mean that the big four do not get things all their own way. New competition, at home as well as abroad, could come from the expansion of the great German supermarket chains such as Tengelmann and Aldi and from French rivals like Carrefour and Auchan.