Albert Heijn Finally Expands Internationally
When I look back on my time studying in the Netherlands, one thing really stands out above all else. It wasn’t the incredible cycling infrastructure, nor the clouds of marijuana smoke wafting out of run-down coffeeshops. It was shopping. To be precise, grocery shopping.
For the Netherlands is the home of the world’s very best supermarket – Albert Heijn. If you visit an Aldi in Germany, you can’t help but feel depressed. More often than not, you’ll end up in a dank and gritty basement, full of people tripping over misplaced and unstocked products before queuing for 45 minutes. It feels like a supermarket from the darkest corner of the world – if there really are supermarkets in the darkest corner of the world.
Albert Heijn by contrast feels like the Ritz-Carlton of the supermarket world. Granted, Aldi is far cheaper, but the grocery-shopping experience involves so much more. When you arrive in an Albert Heijn, you quickly feel the positivity. The store is well laid out, with plenty of space between the shelves and stands. Trolleys pass each other effortlessly in the aisles, which makes for a quick and efficient visit. There are countless helpful staff members around the store (compared to two or three in Aldi) and the queues move swiftly.
Even if your visit to Albert Heijn is fast and flawless, you might find yourself staying a little bit longer to sample the decor. You won’t find bright indirect light in this supermarket. It’s ambient and warm. It feels pleasant. But don’t fear – even if the interior of Albert Heijn isn’t too bright, it’s nowhere near the standards of Abercrombie & Fitch. The goods are well arranged and illuminated, especially the bread, which is stacked in wicker baskets. Price tags are large and legible, while a bonus system enables members to avail of special offers.
Perhaps most importantly, there is a broad selection of goods. The fruit and vegetable range is fresh and extensive. You can find a larger selection of meat in Albert Heijn than any equivalent supermarket in Belgium and Germany, as well as an excellent range of fresh juices, fish and beer. Chips and coffee are far cheaper than in both Belgium and Germany, leading to extensive cross-border shopping traffic on Saturdays and Sundays.
I remember visiting Albert Heijn on Monday mornings for breakfast during my studies. Friendly staff members were always on standby, offering free samples of bread, cheese and orange juice. After five minutes wandering around the store, I was fully gorged. A complimentary breakfast at Albert Heijn is the best possible way to start the week. Unfortunately, the store has its critics – just take a look at the ‘I Hate Albert Heijn Blog’.
The author consistently complains about unstocked shelves, a lack of fresh produce, and Albert Heijn’s dominance, especially in Amsterdam. He even compares the supermarket to a zoo after seeing a pigeon inside once%u2026an unavoidable consequence of having windows and doors in your store. With regard to the issue of market dominance, Albert Heijn is successful for valid reasons. A store as dreadful as the hate blogger describes would surely never succeed in the Netherlands, gaining 30% of the market, let alone internationally. How do we know his photographs and observations about empty shelves are legitimate? Supermarkets need to restock from time to time and any Albert Heijn I’ve ever visited was well-equipped for shoppers.
Today, there are 823 regular Albert Heijn stores, 47 AH to go convenience stores and 30 Albert Heijn XL Hypermarkets spread out across the Netherlands, Belgium, Curacao and now Germany. The move into the German market may well prove difficult for Albert Heijn, due to a mindset orientated towards a cheaper shopping experience at stores like Aldi and Lidl. Statistics from Germany indicate that both Aldi and Lidl have been consistently present in the upper ranks of the world’s most valuable global brands for the past decade.
There are also competitors in the Dutch retailer’s price class including Rewe, Toom, Real and Kaufland. Nevertheless, Albert Heijn has ploughed ahead with its international expansion, opening its very first German store in September 2012. A plan was unveiled towards the end of 2011, whereby 150 new Albert Heijn stores would be opened across Europe over an ambitious five-year period. The idea is to fit within the ‘convenience niche’, something sorely lacking in German cities. The first German convenience store can be found in the western city of Aachen, not far from the Dutch border. It will stock both German and Dutch products, catering to the needs of all customers.
A second convenience store will be opened before the end of 2012 in Essen, the heart of Germany’s Ruhr region. Albert Heijn has probably learned from fellow Dutch retailer HEMA, who have successfully opened new outlets in several Germany cities. The success of HEMA’s branch in Essen will probably illustrate the potential of the Albert Heijn business idea in Germany. At the beginning at least, most stores will be concentrated within reach of Albert Heijn’s distribution centre in Tilburg before the next steps are decided.
Following my study period in the Netherlands, I’ve spent considerable time in Germany, so news of Albert Heijn’s expansion plans is proving very welcome. Together with some members of my university course, we missed the supermarket so much that we often travelled to Venlo, located a stone’s throw from the German border. On the train ride back from the Netherlands with our cheap coffee, chips and beer, the police were usually surprised to find Albert Heijn fans amongst the usual hash smugglers.
However, Albert Heijn needs to approach the price-conscious German grocery market with a sense of caution and trepidation. History speaks for itself – American retailer Walmart failed miserably in Germany and most recently, Belgian retailer Delhaize experienced six consecutive years of losses before declaring defeat. Albert Heijn has opened six stores in Belgium, and considering the crowds I’ve seen in one of these supermarkets in Antwerp, it looks to have been a success. Albert Heijn has the quality to succeed in Germany – time will tell if this Dutch supermarket unhinges the likes of Aldi, Lidl, Rewe and Real.
Imagenote: Seamus Murphy