Pick n Pay and the Shoprite group, which includes Checkers, are locked in a fierce fight for consumer spend as the South African economy stumbles along.
Meanwhile the Botswana-based Choppies chain is infiltrating SA – in not-so-stealthy fashion these days – promising a whole new battle towards the bottom end of the grocery sector.
But at the top end of the grocery spectrum, and in pre-prepared food in particular, Woolworths has stood largely alone, expanding its own reach with premium delivery.
Here and there, though, people are starting to talk about Checkers as a real contender to Woolworths for their middle class and up spending. And despite the fact that Checkers still has nowhere near the brand halo that Woolworths commands, some are even saying as much in public.
I may be wrong but Checkers is fast becoming a Woolworths.— Smash'em (@SimNtoni) August 7, 2018
Has anyone else noticed how Checkers is kicking Woolworths ass at their own game?@— Richard Mulholland (@RichMulholland) July 7, 2018
Checkers is banging. So much stuff made in store, great bakeries, meats, cheese and fruit. And things like store made chicken mayo subs are literally half the price of exactly the same thing at Woolworths.— Nick Jackson (@nickjackson) July 8, 2018
In an effort to get to the bottom of such reports, we visited the Checkers Hyper at the Mall of Africa just north of Johannesburg. Though the store has been open for some two years, it is still considered a company flagship.
Here's what we found.
Look closely and you may notice the pools of yellow-tinted light, rather than the harsh and pervasive fluorescent glare that characterises lower-end retail.
The claim that this Checkers is a local legend is, for once, not completely overblown – in part because of the prices.
In a mall with five specialist hamburger sellers and two more chains famous for the burgers on their more mixed menus, the grocery store's burger bar has a constant queue – because of the value it offers, shoppers say.
The hot-food buffet runs all day, and is aggressively staffed to keep lines short.
Despite South Africa's recent experience with Listeriosis, the ready-to-eat meat range is extensive, and turnover is surprisingly high for a mid-range store lacking the brand image of, say, Woolworths, for food safety.
And of course there is biltong. Lots of biltong.
You can find smoked Scottish salmon – at R1,300 per kilogram...
... immediately across the aisle from individually quick-frozen (IQF) chicken packs that come to a little under R35.60 per kilogram, even if 15% of what you're buying is brine.
The same is true elsewhere in the store. Turn your back on the R372/kg "Banting Revolution" almond flour...
and you are facing R8/kg maize meal.
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