ASDA Bedminster celebrates 25 years
David Clensy talks to the long serving members of staff at Bedminster’s Asda superstore, as it marks its 25th anniversary
WHEN the former site of one of the Wills’ Tobacco Factories was transformed into a modern – then seemingly huge – superstore back in 1988, it seemed like a new chapter was opening in the story of retail in Bedminster.
Move forward a quarter of a century, and the south Bristol store has evolved – gone is the in-house cafe, replaced a few years ago by a McDonald’s franchise, gone too are the staff’s plaid pinafore uniforms, with a sporty green fleece having taken its place, and the number of check-outs has increased from 27 to 31 – plus 12 self-service tills (a concept that might have seemed unthinkable back in 1988).
But some things haven’t changed. I find Jane Derman serving at the cheese counter – a fixture beneath her immaculate white hat, Jane has been serving cheese here for the past 25 years.
“It’s a nice place to work,” the 56-year-old tells me, as she rearranges the Wensleydale. “I took the job here because it was flexible – I had two young children back then, so it was useful to be able to take a part- time job where I could work evenings, after the kids had gone to bed.
“But as my life has changed, the job has evolved with me. When the kids went to school, I shifted to afternoons, and now they are grown up, I work full time. It’s been good for me in that sense.”
After 25 years, the counter must feel like a second home for Jane.
“You do get to know some of the regular customers. You get the same old faces all the time, so it’s nice to have a little chat.
“You tend to be doing the same thing each day, but you occasionally get something more memorable happening.
“I remember when the England footballer Ian Wright came here to film a television advert eight years ago – in which he was serving fresh fish from behind the counter in the full Asda uniform. It was all a bit of fun. He seemed like a nice chap.”
Fellow fresh counters colleague Mandy Wileman, 45, has also been working here for most her adult life.
“I joined in 1988,” she says. “I was working part-time in a fruit and veg shop before, and when they built this place it seemed like there might be more security in working here – which has proved to be the case.
“You certainly make good friends with your colleagues, working in a place like this. I’ve known some of them for the full 25 years, and I often spend more time with them in a day than I do with my family, so you have to get along.
“We have staff events, parties and day trips – there is a sense of community in here.”
That’s certainly something that has been noted by Brenda Wright in her time with the company.
Brenda joined the team 24 years ago, and after a stint on the check-outs, she went on to specialise in events and special promotions, before spending 16 years working as a “greeter” – a role the company no longer has.
“It was a lovely job,” says Brenda, who is now the store’s community life co-ordinator – visiting schools to talk about supermarket life, and managing a community room that the store allows charities and other good causes to hire free of charge for their meetings.
“The idea of the greeter, was literally to stand at the front door and welcome people into the store. You would stand there with a microphone, and get up to all sorts of things. But more often than not, your job was just to chat to customers.
“I got to know them so well over that time – there were regulars that became good friends. I went to customers’ weddings and funerals, and on more than one occasion they unburdened themselves to me about their love life. You wouldn’t believe the sort of intimate details they would go into with me.
“We used to have singles nights every St Valentine’s Day – they were always fun, and we would have an evening each December when we would send coaches out to pick up elderly people from local homes, bring them to the store for a party, and put on live entertainment. We had some wonderful times.”
Over the 25 years the store has had 12 general managers. The latest incumbent in the big swivel chair is Steve Fletcher, who has been in the role for two years.
He is particularly proud of the role the store plays in the community – last year the staff raised £28,000 for various charities through a range of different fundraising events.
“The supermarket is the hub of the community these days,” he says, “and we have to find ways to repay the loyalty of the local community, beyond just keeping prices down low.
“It’s not just about fundraising for charities. Opening up our community room for organisations to use free of charge, is one of the greatest things I think. By day it’s our staff training room, but in the evening we don’t need the room, so why not let other organisations come in and use it?”
For more than a decade the store has also played host to a regular police surgeries, where the local beat bobby can meet members of the community.
PC Nigel Ingram, the current beat bobby for Bedminster, says the idea of the police going to the people has paid dividends over the years.
“We used to have a desk in the store, and now we have a special pod outside the main entrance. We find that people are much more likely to come here and talk to us, whether to report a crime or just to tell us about something that’s concerning them.
“For minor things, where perhaps people don’t want to go to the trouble of visiting a police station or phoning the police, it makes sense for them to just come and see me here and mention something to me. It’s just about being at the heart of the community, I suppose.”
This is certainly where the community seems to congregate. Even on a gloomy weekday morning, the aisles are crowded with customers.
“We’ve been coming here for at least 10 years,” says Eric Sidenham, 65, from Bedminster, as he shuffled through the milk to find the “latest date”.
“It’s a friendly enough store, but more than anything we come here because it still seems to be the cheapest.”
Mum-of-two Claire Stephenson, 38, says it’s the nearest thing she gets to a day out during the course of her busy week.
“I like shopping here because if you live in Bedminster, as I’ve done all my life, it’s almost like a village atmosphere – I can’t come in here without seeing a few people I went to school with, people I’ve worked with over the years, or neighbours, even the occasional relative. People used to go to the pub to socialise, these days they just chat in the aisles of Asda.”
Diane Bream, 54, has been working in the store’s admin department, manning the phones for the full 25 years.
“You wouldn’t believe some of the calls you get,” she laughs. “There is one lady who phones me up most days to ask me the time. I think she’s got me confused with the speaking clock. But I always think I may be the only person she speaks to that day, so I don’t mind. I keep her up to date with the time.
“The store has changed over the years. It’s had a few refits, and of course we were taken over by American firm Walmart back in 1999 – not that we really noticed any change to our day to day lives as a result of those changes.”
For Jane Derman, the only real way of noticing that times have changed here at the store is when she sees regular customers aging on the other side of the counter.
“Sometimes you’ve seen them coming in as kids, then teenagers, and then the same people are coming in with families of their own. Or those who had young families in the early days, pushing their prams, are now elderly, being pushed in their wheelchairs by their children.
“Times change, but the feel of the store never really changes.”