‘Big four no more’: where now for UK grocers as Aldi overtakes Morrisons?

Discounter gains market share as shoppers seek better value amid cost of living crisis

If you want to know how hard things are at the moment in the UK, look no further than the see-sawing fortunes of the big supermarkets.

With food prices racing and the country on the brink of recession, sales are flying at Aldi and Lidl while middle-class favourites Ocado and Waitrose are faltering as people try to save money on their food shop amid plummeting living standards.

This week Aldi became the UK’s fourth largest supermarket chain, ejecting Morrisons from a “big four” line-up that had remained roughly the same for nearly 20 years: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons.

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As Fraser McKevitt, the head of retail and consumer insight at the grocery analysts Kantar, put it, the “traditional big four is no more”.

This changing of the retail guard has been coming for a while. Aldi and Lidl exploded on to the scene during 2008 financial crisis, so in some respects there is a feeling of deja vu as the country experiences tough times.

Back then the little-known German grocers had an air of novelty: consumer trend-watchers talked of middle-class converts joining the “Aldi-rati”. That element of surprise is long gone. Aldi and Lidl have expanded rapidly and together have 1,900 stores and a market share of 16.4%. They rake in £1 in every £6 spent on groceries in UK.

Aldi and Lidl
Aldi and Lidl have expanded rapidly and together have 1,900 stores. Photograph: PA

The supermarket rankings are based on sales data from Kantar, with figures published this week showing Aldi’s sales up by nearly a fifth over the 12 weeks to 4 September. This boosted its market share to 9.3%, overtaking private equity-owned Morrisons on 9.1% – down from 9.8% a year ago.

Giles Hurley, the Aldi UK and Ireland chief executive, says shoppers are “prioritising value like never before” with the chain serving an extra 1.5 million customers over the past three months. It is winning custom, he says, due to “doing everything we can to make food shopping as affordable as possible”.

At Lidl sales were up a blockbuster 20.9%, with its success contrasting with Waitrose and Morrisons where sales are down by more than 4%. Another loser is the online grocer Ocado, which this week warned its annual sales will drop because customers are trading down to value products or simply buying less.

“After the financial crisis Aldi and Lidl became mainstream,” says Clive Black, a retail analyst at City broker Shore Capital. “The snob value of not being seen dead in an Aldi went as people who had mortgages, credit cards and Mercedes-Benz on hire purchase needed to save money. It wasn’t cheap and nasty; it was cheap and good value.”

Aldi store, Lancashire
Aldi’s sales were up by nearly a fifth over the 12 weeks to 4 September. Photograph: Paula Solloway/Alamy

He suggests the big swing to Aldi and Lidl is “unnatural” trade: “They are gaining footfall that in more normal times I don’t think they would get. The big four are more competitive against Aldi today than they were 10 years ago but we do have another sort of economic moment.”

It certainly is an “economic moment”. Household energy bills have nearly doubled and will remain at that level even with Liz Truss’s promised bills freeze, while rising food prices have added nearly £600 to the average annual grocery bill. Falling motoring costs helped ease the pace at which living costs rose in August but food price inflation is at a 14-year high of 13.1%, with big jumps in the price of staples such as milk, cheese and eggs.

Toby Clark, Mintel’s director of research, Europe, Middle East and Africa, says recent cost of living research revealed moribund consumer confidence. “Our data is showing us we are back at the kind of levels we saw back in 2012 when people were still really feeling the impact of the financial crisis,” he says.

Four in 10 people told Mintel they were keeping to a strict shopping list, while more than a third had bought more “reduced to clear” items over the past two months. Almost three in ten had substituted meals with cheaper ingredients.

“Before the financial crisis there was an almost a boom mentality, so when the crisis hit people could make easy savings,” he continues. “What’s different this time is a lot of those savvy shopping behaviours have never really gone away. So, for people finding things financially difficult, the challenge is they’ve made a lot of the savings you could make.”

Morrisons store in St Albans
Analysts say Morrisons has taken its eye off the ball, with prices rising. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Reuters

Morrisons’ take on its eviction from the “big four” was that customers “don’t really care about market share statistics … They care about value, quality, provenance and service and that is where our focus is going to remain.”

That’s true, but when your market share starts falling it usually is a sign that the sands are shifting in the cut-throat £206bn UK grocery market - and not in your favour.

Market share measures the total size of a business rather than the performance or profitability of its stores and, unlike Aldi, Morrisons is opening very little new space. However, analysts say Morrisons, which was bought by US private equity firm Clayton Dubilier & Rice last year, has taken its eye off the ball, with external surveys suggesting its prices have increased.

Industry watchers predict Aldi and Lidl will eventually control a quarter of the UK grocery market but Black suggests they are reaching the “peak of their disruption” as they come to the end of their breakneck expansion plans.

“We don’t expect them to expand at the pace they are forever and a day,” he says, adding: “At a time like this, when people are counting the pennies, shopping becomes more precise and if a brand or label isn’t on the money…they lose market share.”

Contributor

Zoe Wood

The GuardianTramp

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