There’s a bit of a glitch to be overcome by customers venturing into the UK’s first branch of a supermarket chain dubbed the ‘Russian Lidl’.
Two days after its launch in an uninspiring suburb of Preston, the sliding doors at the entrance of Mere appear to be sticking a little. So much so, that a few wannabe beneficiaries of its bargain-basement prices are convinced that it’s actually closed.
But after a few seconds’ delay, the murky panels open to reveal the whole shabby-cheap experience that is Mere: a drab, minimalist expanse of retail space that makes a branch of Aldi look almost glamorous.
Bargain hunt: Happy shoppers pose with goods purchased at the new Mere store in Preston
From breeze-block wall to breeze-block wall, the eye is drawn to long lines of wooden pallets laden with a seemingly random array of products. But the prices!
They may well bring on a few nervous twitches in the boardrooms of Aldi and Lidl. In need of loo rolls? A 24-pack of Luxe is yours for £2.70. At Lidl you would pay £5.79. Fancy a tipple? Cans of Isla Negra chardonnay are on offer for just £1.20 versus £1.79 at Lidl.
Other deals for either the genuinely hard-up, or those attracted by the promise of how-low-can-you-go pricing, include Pampers nappies at £1.90 for a pack of 22, 400g bags of Soprano pasta at 23p, 120 PG Tips teabags for £1.75 and a child’s backpack for £1.10.
Rivals of the Russian interlopers might want to invest in a few Keep Calm bins at a bargain basement £1.90. An early favourite, though, has to be an 800g tin of peeled and chopped tomatoes for 39p compared to 56p for two 400g cans at Lidl. And the brand name? ‘Tat’. Some in the trade might have seen the branding in so cheap a supermarket as something of a faux pas.
It’s very odd. Unless you’re wanting something specific that they stock, it’s all pretty basic. I went in out of curiosity. I don’t think I’ll be back
But not Mere’s head of buying, Pavels Antonovs, 36. He cites the name to illustrate the approach he hopes will propel it past Lidl, Aldi and the rest in Britain’s crowded supermarket sector. ‘Being at the bottom doesn’t mean tat,’ he says. ‘The gap in the market that we’ve moved into is at the bottom, but we are not tat. We are only at the bottom for price.’
It’s a philosophy that pervades all aspects of the operation. Mere’s suppliers deliver their own products and, if they don’t sell, they’re simply told to take them away.
‘We are a hard discounter. When we see that a manufacturer or a distributor has an offer that fits our business criteria, we will have it in store,’ Pavels says. With no need for shelf-stackers, thanks to the pallet-and-box strategy, the Preston operation is being run by only six staff, earning a few pence over the minimum wage of £8.91 for workers aged 23 and over.
Pallets of products at Mere in Preston. The brand is owned Valentina Schneider, whose family owns Russia’s Svetofor supermarket chain
Mere, with the slogan Low Cost Every Day, aims to be 30% cheaper than Aldi
That’s before bonuses, but for the basic rate they are expected to work a 12-hour day. Mere, whose slogan is Low Cost Every Day, aims to be 30 per cent cheaper than Aldi and Lidl. It compares itself to Costco, a socalled warehouse club that sells discounted products to members who pay an annual subscription.
And owner Valentina Schneider, whose family owns Russia’s Svetofor supermarket chain, certainly has an impressive track record. Svetofor, which started in her home town of Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, now has 3,200 stores around the world, including in Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine.
It was named fastest-growing grocery chain in Europe last year, with a revenue growth of 39 per cent. Schneider’s fortune has been estimated at $650million (£473million) and, perhaps understandably, there was no sign of her on the Preston shop floor on an overcast August day. But she has big plans for Mere.
MERE’S BARGAIN DEALS
24 toilet rolls: £2.70
A can of Chardonnay: £1.20
800g of Chopped Tomatoes: 39p
The company hopes to open 300 UK stores in the next eight to ten years, with three this year: two in Mold and Caldicot, Wales, and one in Castleford in West Yorkshire. Mere in Preston stands in the less-than-salubrious suburb of Ribbleton, a mile-and-ahalf from the nearest Lidl and just over two miles from Aldi.
Its launch was originally set for the start of 2021, then June, but the pandemic kept pushing it back until Mr Antonovs’s team finally got it over the line last weekend. Mere aims to attract up to 1,000 customers a day. There’s only one trolley size — large. And it anticipates that on average they will be more than half full. But not everyone is convinced by its wares.
‘It’s very odd,’ says Peter Thomas, 75, a retired photographer. ‘Unless you’re wanting something specific that they stock, it’s all pretty basic.
‘I went in out of curiosity, but there was nothing apart from a roll of kitchen foil that I wanted. I’d have bought dog food if they’d had any, but ended up feeling obliged to buy some biscuits. I don’t think I’ll be back.’
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