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Supermarkets

Rants Whenever I go overseas and return to HK I find it unbelievable that we do not make more of a fuss about our appalling supermarkets. In fact, super, is hardly an appropriate adjective.

UK has a range of excellent supermarkets, e.g. Sainsburys, Waitrose, Tesco, ASDA, Lidl. New Zealand has New World, Countdown, Woolworths, and there will be a similar lists of supermarket chains in other countries. We have Wellcome, where you are often not, and Park n Shop where you can't park and shopping can be a challenge. There are some smaller players but generally, the HK supermarket scene is restricted to these two. Of course, Park n Shop and Wellcome provide their premium outlets, such as International, Market Place and Fusion, but they are essentially the same shops and suffer from the same problems, they just have less blood and sawdust on the floor.

So what’s wrong with our supermarkets? Compared to overseas chains our supermarkets are too small. They may be designed so that the aisles may be wide enough for two trolleys to pass but shops pile up boxes in the aisles with products that may be on offer.

boxes

boxes

So instead of being wide enough for two trolleys the aisles become wide enough for just one trolley. I have no doubt that legislation in other countries would consider such practices as dangerous, if not illegal.

Add to that, the staff stocking the shelves seem to be of the opinion that the shop is there to give them employment rather than to serve customers and do little to make way for shoppers. Trolleys containing the goods being stacked may be left around the shop, usually in a haphazard manner so that they block the aisles. It is so tempting to shunt them to another part of the shop.

Most of our supermarkets have small stock rooms and no access other than through the front door whereas those overseas may have stock rooms half the size of the shop. Delivery trucks block the roads. Trolleys laden with new stock have to be pushed from the truck into the shop through the same door that customers are trying to enter and leave, usually by men who just want to get the job done and really aren't too interested in the customers. And what happens to the stock once inside the shop? Trolleys and boxes are piled up and customers find themselves removing boxes to get at the products hidden on the shelves behind them. Combined with the display boxes and the shelf stackers there isn't a lot of space left and the aisles that started off wide enough for two trolleys can be reduced to being wide enough for no trolleys.

deliveries

Having fought your way past the display boxes, the delivered stock and the shelf-stackers you head for the checkout. Some shops may be generously provided with six checkouts, of which three may even be open, while queues of 15-20 people tail back past the shelves providing additional obstructions for shoppers to negotiate. The staff on the tills, not surprisingly, do not give the impression that they enjoy their work. Quite often they will be holding conversations with their colleague at the neighbouring checkout or shouting to another across the far side of the shop. Eye contact and smiles are noticeably absent, and who can blame them, not a job I would want, but a bit of interaction with customers would probably improve the experience for both staff and customers. 

checkout

But do we need all these staff on the checkouts? Here, as in other areas, Hong Kong has failed to make use of technology which is widely used elsewhere. Modern supermarkets have self-checkouts with maybe 10 or more checkout stations supervised by one or two members of staff to deal with problems. With so many checkouts it is rare to have the long waits that we suffer from here.

self checkout

But people will say this is all well and good but other countries have more space to build bigger supermarkets and rents are not as high as they are here. This is undeniably true but, as with many situations in Hong Kong, problems could be solved if there was a willingness to deal with issues. But let's be realistic, our supermarkets will continue to be second-rate as they have a relative monopoly and little incentive to change.

So, let's provide that incentive to change. On our supermarket shelves, we see products from Waitrose, Carrefour and other European chains. Instead of just having their products on the shelves, how about inviting some of these major players to set up in Hong Kong? The government seems able to find sites to give away to expensive international schools so how about they offer a plot of land to Sainsburys or another overseas supermarket chain? A plot of land big enough to allow them to build a large supermarket with plenty of parking, perhaps somewhere central such as Sha Tin. Hong Kong people could then experience a proper supermarket without having to go to China or overseas.

Even those without cars might find it worthwhile to make the trip. All new towns should have similar facilities. The government could provide some incentives to encourage overseas chains to come here. What they must NOT do is to allow one of our existing supermarkets to take advantage of such an offer as we need the competition and Park n Shop and Wellcome need to see how it should be done. With serious competition, we might actually see some improvement in our local supermarkets.

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