It’s a steal: sales stack up at Asda

In the bitterly cold delivery bay attached to the Asda supermarket in Wembley, a loud round of applause breaks out. There is laughter and whooping.

store staff, or colleagues as they have to call each other, are giving
it up for Naz, one of the security guards, who has just been named
“colleague of the day” by the store manager, Rob Johnson. On Wednesday,
Johnson told his audience, Naz had singlehandedly tackled two men who
were piloting trolleys towards the car park, at some lick and without
paying. In supermarket parlance this is a “double push out”, and in
this case the trolleys had been laden with bottles of Jack Daniels. Had
Naz not swung into action, Asda would have lost stock worth £800.

is the “morning huddle”, which takes place in every Asda store every
day. Every staff member who is not on counter or checkout duty has to
show up for an update on sales and performance and a ra-ra talk. Today,
as Britain’s grocers head into their biggest days of the year, will be
a “busy, busy, busy day”, says Johnson. “Keep it clutter-free. Remember
our motto: happy to help … Lets go!”

It is also a day for best
behaviour: Asda’s chief executive, Andy Bond, resplendent in a festive
red company fleece, has arrived to help out on the shopfloor – though
his attempts at bag-packing are greeted with acute embarrassment from
customers and colleagues alike: “He’s a very poor packer”, says Tracy,
the store events manager who is dressed in a Santa suit and is
constantly chortling “ho, ho, ho.” “Look!” she says in horror. “He’s
put all that heavy stuff on top of the eggs.”

The Wembley store,
in the shadow of the stadium, is not exactly your average Asda: 75% of
the 70,000 customers who visit every week are from ethnic minorities,
so the store sells far less alcohol than other shops and very little
pork. Scanning the shelves of Spam and tinned ham, Johnson says they
rarely need refilling: “We just dust them.” About £1 out of every £10
that goes into the tills is for specialist ethnic foods. There’s a
halal meat counter, but few heat ‘n’ eat curries: “There’s no call for
them, customers make their own.”

This single store – like all big supermarkets
– is a substantial business in its own right. It takes about £1.3m a
week, or some £70m a year – more than some globally recognised luxury
brands and many stock market-listed companies. With 540 staff, of whom
70% are from ethnic minorities, it is the biggest employer in Wembley.

just four days next week, it will rake in about £1.85m. The store
expects most customers to make two trips – early in the week for goods
with a shelf life, and a last-minute shop for fresh food. Wednesday
will be the busiest day, says Johnson, when he expects to take nearly

Christmas specials are flying off the shelves – 4,600 bags of satsumas a week, and 4,700 tins of Quality Street at £5 a time.

the grip of recession, the high street has had a tough year. But the
supermarkets have proved exceptionally resilient, and Bond reckons
sales will be huge next week, possibly 20% higher than last year
“because the whole nation is off for four days”. Asda has been raking
back through its archives to 1998 – the last time Christmas was on a
Friday – in an attempt to predict shopping patterns and get the right
goods on to the shelves.

In a briefing with staff, Bond gets tips
from his frontline troops: they want more back-up from the Leeds head
office and the checkout women are fed up with having to stick to a
prepared script when they talk to customers: “Why can’t we just let
people be themselves with customers?” says one long-serving staff
member. “Why do we force the girls to say the same thing for eight
hours?” As for the Asian clothes range – it is dire, and “way

There are many signs of recession – from lower staff
turnover to queues for marked-down goods and a big rise in “put-backs”
– where shoppers pick a product and then ditch it in another part of
the store or at the till when they realise they cannot afford it.

this store, put-backs have hit 70-80 trolleyloads a day. If the goods
are frozen or chilled, they often have to be thrown away. Wednesdays,
which was previously one of the quietest days of the week, is now far
busier – Wednesday is also benefits day.

Theft is also on the
rise, from petty pilfering to the sort of “push out” that Naz has just
foiled – a reflection, reckon his colleagues, of the dire financial
straits of many shoppers. “Some people you just know are going to
steal,” Bond is told. “They come in and buy something small but ask for
a big bag,” intending to fill it with lifted booty. The self-scan
checkouts, they reckon, are a particular problem.

Bond admits
theft is a serious issue – especially robberies aimed at the
cash-collection companies. “They have a very threatening job,” he says.
Asda is seeing one or two such robberies every month and across the
retail sector Bond reckons there will be more than 100 this month.