This was the general consensus of development chefs, new product development (NPD) managers and interim/freelance NPD specialists contacted by FoodManufacture.co.uk following Clarke’s admission that Asda had not been as focused on “food values and food quality” as it might have been.
While some observers believe Clarke’s admission was a PR gaffe, one consultant that has worked with all of the major multiples on premium own-label ranges said his honesty was "refreshing".
He added: “At long last we’ve got a chief executive that’s said publicly what most of the industry thinks privately. They call the range Extra Special, but it’s not. Not only does it lag the competition but there is not really much of a differential between the spec for their standard products and some Extra Special lines.
“I personally think that the quality has gone backwards in some areas – they are behind where they were five years ago. The aspiration is there but you can’t ask for M&S quality at Asda prices, which is what they are asking for. Something has to give.”
He added: “Asda has done some interesting things, it's launched ready-to-cook microwaveable bagged meals, which is conceptually a very good idea, for example. But in general, I think it has let itself down over the past two or three years and in many areas it is well behind the competition.”
Waitrose now retailer to beat in quality pecking order?
In quality terms, Waitrose was now the retailer to beat, although manufacturers still typically benchmarked products against Marks & Spencer in chilled food, claimed another industry source.
“Waitrose has recognised that what consumers are looking for at the premium end of the market are freshness cues, interaction, great recipe composition and great packaging. But Tesco has also raised its game recently, especially in Finest.”
One development chef that has worked with own-label suppliers to all of the leading supermarkets said: “The quality of Asda’s own-label range is under par in some areas, but its aim is to be the cheapest, and if you want to be the cheapest, you have to make compromises.”
He added: “When I last went to the head office, I was given a badge saying something like ‘I’m here to make goods and services more affordable', that’s the mentality of the company.”
Another development chef said: “The quality of Asda’s range is quite variable – it really depends on the product category – on Indian sauces, for example, they have tried to go down the authenticity route on Extra Special but I am not sure they have got it right for the UK palate. Some of the products are actually quite inedible in my view.
“But on chilled ready meals, they are not bad at all.”
One consultant that has worked with several leading branded and own-label manufacturers, added: “I think they have taken their eyes off the ball; they are just a bit off the pace compared with the competition.
“As for the pecking order, I’d say in convenience meals, it’s M&S, Waitrose, then Sainsbury, then Tesco. Then you’ve got Asda."
Asda: "exciting" new products in the pipeline
Asda, which has seen its market share dip slightly (0.3%) in the 12 weeks to July 11 according to Kantar Worldpanel, said its range would soon be refreshed with some “exciting” new products.
A spokesman added: “We love our food and are proud of the products we sell, but you don’t get anywhere standing still.
“That's why we're very excited by the work we've been doing behind the scenes this year, much of which is going to be available to see in our stores very soon. So it's a case of watch this space.”