Wong, superstar of supermarkets

May 13th, 2008

I previously confessed my love of the Wong supermarket chain, and explained its history here, but this article in a British newspaper goes further to explain just how wonderful the service can be compared to the simple supermarkets you find elsewhere in the world.

A visit to Wong should be recommended by all the guidebooks as a “must do” in Lima; you will certainly be fed, you will probably be entertained, says Alison Roberts.

I read recently that one pound in every eight of UK retail sales is spent at Tesco. Started by Jack Cohen, in London’s East End in 1919, this one-man business has become the “king of supermarkets” in Britain.

But since moving to Peru I haven’t missed this icon of Britishness too much as my customer loyalty has moved with me, to another retail legend (in Lima at least) – Mr Wong.

Wong’s slogan “Donde comprar es un placer” (where shopping is a pleasure) is something I couldn’t honestly say about my shopping experiences in Tesco. A visit to Wong should be recommended by all the guidebooks as a “must do” in Lima; you will certainly be fed, you will probably be entertained and each branch is a landmark; just ask the taxi drivers.

Feeling peckish? Whatever the hour, whatever the day, whatever the aisle at Wong you will find smiling senoritas holding plates of cheese on sticks, pate on toast and salami.

Then there are the lovely ladies with trays of thimble-sized plastic cups, filled with creamy yoghurt, exotic fruit juices and soda in a variety of toxic-looking colours.

Not forgetting the freshly brewed coffee, the sausages sizzling on the grill and the wine-tasting area. I am often so absorbed in my nibbling that I leave the store without whatever it was I went in for; it isn’t unknown for this taste-testing to turn into my tea.

And I nearly always leave with a bottle of wine. Once you enter into the Aladdin’s cave that is the liquor store the sweet-talking sommeliers, who are well-trained in the art of persuasion, take you captive. “Gracias. Solo estoy mirando” (“Thanks. I’m just browsing”), I used to tell them, but to no avail. When the girls launch into their spiel about the month’s promotion I haven’t a clue what they say but I smile and nod, hypnotised by their enthusiasm. I don’t have the heart to interrupt (perhaps they know this!) so I invariably leave with a bottle, invariably pricier than the one I would have chosen.

The stores are designed with distinct areas, so the customers feel as if they really are shopping in a delicatessen, patisserie or wine shop.

Each morning at nine, when the store opens, a representative from all these areas, plus the checkout and management team, stand in two parallel lines, facing each other a customer width apart, in readiness to meet and greet us. I wouldn’t have believed this if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.

One day I made a point of getting to the store just as the doors were opening and sure enough I was ushered down a receiving line of welcoming Wong workers.

I have given up trying to pack my own bags, as after a bit of a wrestle with one of the packers in red tunics I always lose. Just to rub it in he also takes the bags to the car and loads them into the boot.

I have also swapped my Tesco Clubcard for a Wong Bonus Card and here “points make prizes”. A newly arrived expat can quickly build his or her glass, crockery and kitchenware collection with Wong.

For the men forced to help out with the Saturday shop the gold lycra-clad “Brahma girls”, are surely a carrot. They can be relied on to hover seductively by the fridges tempting men to slip their hand in and reach for their reward – a cold beer. Large cartoon animals keep the kids entertained, although mum might find a new sugary cereal has found its way into the trolley.

The most curious thing I have seen in my visits is that Peruvians think nothing of eating and drinking while they shop, and I don’t just mean the free samples. Items they’d presumably intended for home consumption never make it past the checkout. The first time I witnessed this I was alarmed at how many shoplifters there were in the store – and how brazen they were. I was also aghast that the staff either didn’t notice or, worse, were turning a blind eye.

One of Wong’s fundamental values is “el cliente es nuestra razon de ser” (“the customer is our reason for being”) but did this mean they could just help themselves? I was relieved to see that all the empty cola bottles and crisp packets did indeed pass through the scanner.

We have a friend who suffers badly from Wong withdrawal when he goes back to the UK. “Tesco just isn’t the same”, he laments, and on return to Peru Wong is his first stop.

Like a faithful friend it soothes the settling in and I suspect Limeños feel the same; if there isn’t one in the neighbourhood it doesn’t feel right.

Last year two events shook the Wong empire and its legions of loyal customers. First Erasmo Wong himself died, at the grand old age of 93. Then a Chilean corporation bought the company. When news of the takeover broke, some Peruvians vowed to shop elsewhere, declaring this act to be an attack on Peruvian pride (particularly since Chile is an old enemy; wounds from the War of the Pacific are still sore despite the fact that it was fought well over a hundred years ago).

I am optimistic, however, that they won’t keep up their boycott for long. When Coca Cola bought shares in Inca Kola, in the 1990s, this lurid yellow, bubblegum-tasting soft drink (another national institution) wasn’t knocked off the number one spot; in fact, it didn’t even wobble.

Peruvians can’t get enough of it, and Wong holds a similar place in their hearts. I can see why. It’s the superstar of supermarkets and I’ve fallen under its spell too.

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