MERCADONA fancies itself the epitome of the successful family-friendly supermarket.
The largest chain in Spain is presented as a role model for entrepreneurs by Javier Alfonso in his book, Historia de un éxito: Mercadona, and his numbers definitely add up: Mercadona dominates nearly a quarter of the country’s retail food market, turning a profit of €593 million in 2018 alone.
Yet, along with this kind of large-scale prosperity, there are always one or two flies in the ointment …
Take our last issue as an example when The Olive Press reported a string of robberies experienced by expats at the Mercadona store in La Cala de Mijas, brushed off by a spokesman who insisted the current security measures were sufficient.
So what are the basics? Mercadona currently employs around 85,000 people at just over 1,600 stories in Spain and has made its owner Juan Roig a billionaire many times over and Spain’s second richest man.
His family’s story began in 1977 when they transformed eight butcher shops in Valencia into supermarkets which they named Mercadona.
In 1981 Juan Roig, along with his wife Hortensia Herrero and two of his siblings, bought out his parents’ shops. A few years later, he bought most of the shares from his brothers. Takeover complete.
Mercadona remains a family business with Roig’s wife is the company’s vice-president, while brother Fernando Roig owns nine percent of the company, in addition to owning the football club Villareal.
Much of the company’s success has been put down to a constant investment in innovation. It was the first Spanish supermarket to use scanners to read bar codes, and the first to offer gluten-free foods – a range that has expanded to over 850 gluten-free products, and a lactose-free range.
Over the past year alone, Mercadona has introduced so many changes and new services that it’s hard to keep up. As well as an expansion of its Ready to Eat takeaway section there is an online service called The Hive, being tested in Valencia, and new ‘ergonomic’ uniforms for staff costing a cool €29 million.
That’s not all. In 2018 Mercadona announced the opening of 10 new stores in Portugal, the first of which will open in Oporto on July 2. There’s now a distribution centre in the UK… and the company has hinted at plans to open more stores outside Spain.
Mercadona might claim that ‘el cliente es el jefe’ – the client is the boss to use its motto, but this doesn’t necessarily help the consumers’ pockets.
The supermarket is only the ninth cheapest in Spain, according to consumer body OCU (Organización de Consumidores y Usuarios), with only a few chains such as Carrefour, Supersol and Leclerc weighing in as more expensive.
And, in addition, they appear to spend more in store security.
It is the subject of employment that has garnered the chain the most controversy over the last two decades.
While it creates over 1,000 jobs a year and pays well for shop work (a minimum of €1,328 euros a month, not including performance bonuses) the company has been accused of exploitation, anti-union policy and harassment of its workers.
As its CEO Roig once said: “We need to work the Chinese way to live the Spanish way”.
Alarming in the extreme, he has also urged staff to think more about their duties and less about rights. He also once insisted: “First give, then ask, finally demand”.
While the company professes certain essential values for its staff to grow on a ‘personal and professional’ level, there are numerous reports suggesting otherwise.
Aside from a claimed 1,000-plus dismissals every year, ex-employees cite the pressure of the job, an unhealthy work atmosphere, long hours, very little holidays and too much to do.
And don’t think about getting ill…Mercadona has its own company doctors, who according to staff hardly ever grant employees sick leave.
It is frowned upon to go to a public doctor, claim ex-employees, and those who present a request for sick leave risk getting sacked, it has been claimed.
Instead, ill or injured employees will typically be moved to another section – for example at the till, where they can sit down.
Unfortunately you don’t get to hear about malpractice much as workers have to sign extremely limiting confidentiality agreements as part of their job contracts.
Under these employees cannot criticise the company to the media or on social media.
And if you want to join a union, be careful.
In 2013 Francisco Enriquez Martinez was laid off shortly after becoming a CGT union rep, despite working at his Malaga store for seven years.
So all in all, while Mercadona might be the most popular supermarket in Spain, with one on almost every high street, it is not all happy shopping! Think carefully about shopping there… and as we reported last issue, keep a close eye on your handbag and purse at all times. And in more ways than one.