Does size really matter?

Nic Jooste
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Ask‭ ‬this question of the owner of the SPAR City Store in Utrecht‭ (‬a beautiful old city in The Netherlands‭), ‬and he laughs heartily‭.‬‭ ‬Serving more than 10,000‭ ‬customers weekly from a store area of just over 1,200‭ ‬square feet‭, ‬the SPAR City store is an example of a new generation of exciting small stores from this‭ ‬‘grand old lady’‭ ‬of Dutch retail‭.  ‬

When I arrived in The Netherlands from South Africa in 1993‭, ‬I came from a shopping culture that had evolved into the American model of hypermarkets and superstores‭. ‬From cabbage to car batteries‭, ‬fennel to fridges‭, ‬tomatoes to televisions‭ ‬‮—‬‭ ‬you could buy‭ ‬it all in the same store‭, ‬and bigger was definitely better‭! ‬At the same time‭, ‬in our suburban neighborhood‭, ‬we also had a number‭ ‬of small convenience stores‭, ‬mostly owned by Greek immigrants‭. ‬They sold just about everything‭; ‬take-away food‭, ‬lots of fresh produce‭, ‬milk and bread‭, ‬as well as a range of dry groceries‭. ‬They were open from 6‭ ‬in the morning‭, ‬sometimes only closing way past midnight‭. ‬

Growing up‭, ‬the trend in our neighborhood was to do our‭ ‬‘big shopping’‭ ‬once a month‭, ‬normally on day that my parents’‭ ‬salaries were paid‭. ‬Thereafter‭, ‬we made daily trips to the neighborhood cafe for milk‭, ‬bread‭, ‬the sugar that had run out‭, ‬or cheese for school sandwiches‭. ‬The Greek owner of the store closest to our house called me‭ ‬‘Neekee‭.‬’‭ ‬But he did know my name‭ …‬

Upon arriving in The Netherlands‭, ‬I was so happy to once again experience a proper neighborhood convenience store in our village‭! ‬The owner‭, ‬Mr‭. ‬De Bruijn‭, ‬knew everybody by name‭. ‬And then in the period 2000-2010‭, ‬it all changed‭. ‬Big and modern supermarkets became the new standard‭. ‬My village became home to three large supermarkets‭, ‬where new managers came and went faster than you‭ ‬could say‭ ‬‘bring back the good old times where the owner knew me by name‭.‬’‭ ‬Mr De Bruijn had no option‭; ‬he closed his shop and retired‭.  ‬

It was with great excitement that I recently stopped at a neighborhood gas station‭, ‬and on entering the shop area‭, ‬I was blown away by a mini-sized SPAR supermarket with a complete selection of‭ ‬‘proper’‭ ‬supermarket items‭. ‬This on an area of 860‭ ‬square feet‭, ‬which includes a fresh orange juice machine‭, ‬a bakery with croissants and fresh sandwiches‭, ‬even a fridge containing fresh pizza’s just ready for a fast bake-off‭.  ‬

This prompted me to immerse myself in the world of SPAR International‭, ‬and the trend of‭ ‬‘going smaller‭.‬’‭ ‬The original name‭ (‬DESPAR‭) ‬is an acronym for the Dutch‭ ‬‘Door Eendrachtig Samenwerken Profiteren Allen Regelmatig‭,‬’‭ ‬which translates into English as‭: ‬All benefit from joint co-operation‭. ‬SPAR says of itself‭: ‬‘SPAR is the world’s leading voluntary food retail chain‭. ‬The business started with one Dutch store in 1932‭ ‬and now comprises more than 12,700‭ ‬stores in 48‭ ‬countries on four continents‭. ‬At the heart of the company’s core values is the commitment of SPAR stores worldwide to freshness‭, ‬choice‭, ‬quality and service‭.‬’

My subsequent research shows that SPAR was really the first retailer in The Netherlands to understand that while the big stores‭ ‬were going about business as usual‭, ‬new types of consumer were developing‭. ‬Continuously on the move and being really immersed in‭ ‬their busy and fast lifestyles‭, ‬these consumers have developed‭  ‬erratic eating rhythms‭. ‬That being said‭, ‬they are in need of convenience‭, ‬as well‭. ‬

SPAR has taken note‭: ‬On a daily basis more and more‭  ‬people are deciding later on in the day what to eat‭, ‬when and where they were going to eat and how much they were going to eat‭.  ‬Most importantly‭, ‬current research also shows that as consumers are ordering more and more‭ ‬‘standard groceries’‭ ‬online‭, ‬they are also often finding themselves running out of specific items‭. ‬With SPAR being present in most neighborhoods and‭ ‬having a really good assortment‭, ‬the company has been concentrating on developing stores that instead of going bigger are addressing the needs of the new‭ ‬‘erratic’‭ ‬consumer from a limited sales area‭. ‬As an extension of this‭, ‬SPAR is rolling out 150‭ ‬of these small stores at gas stations all‭ ‬around the country‭. ‬It is being described as one of the boldest moves in the history of Dutch retailing‭, ‬and as I am writing this‭, ‬a number of other retailers are following suit‭. ‬But the story does not stop here‭ …‬

Recently‭, ‬I was privileged to host the retail tour at the Amsterdam Produce Summit‭, ‬during which we visited a number of SPAR stores‭. ‬We went from surprise to open-mouthed amazement‭, ‬with especially SPAR University blowing our minds‭! ‬This niche retail concept is located at eight Dutch universities‭. ‬We visited the store at the University of Utrecht‭. ‬Servicing around 30,000‭ ‬students from a store area of a mere 4,300‭ ‬square feet‭ (‬one third the size of an average Dutch supermarket‭) , ‬the store’s‭ ‬‘grab-and-go range’‭ ‬is built around seven‭ ‬‘student-specific’‭ ‬eating moments‭.  ‬A student can pick up anything for‭ ‬‘now or later‭.‬’‭ ‬SPAR University was the first in the world to install a 100‭ ‬percent self-checkout system‭. ‬This cashless environment increases security and speed‭, ‬and fits in better with a student’s need to pick up quickly and pay easily via his/her mobile phone‭. ‬With its own custom-built app‭, ‬SPAR University adds real value to its clients‭, ‬such as making sure students can score free coffee and get the best deals with super discounts‭. ‬Most importantly‭, ‬via the app‭,  ‬SPAR stimulates students to make conscious and healthier choices‭. ‬

SPAR University also puts huge efforts into‭ ‬‘no waste‭.‬’‭ ‬Instead of selling bottled water‭ (‬creating more plastic waste‭), ‬SPAR became the first retailer to offer its clients free tap water in-store‭. ‬Students simply bring their own‭ (‬water‭) ‬bottles and fill up while shopping‭. ‬This‭ ‬‘Join the Pipe’‭ ‬project focuses on bringing the cleanest possible tap water to consumers‭. ‬Last but not least‭, ‬by working with a number of‭  ‬‘Green Offices‭ ‬&‭ ‬Sustainability Hubs’‭ ‬at university locations‭, ‬SPAR is involved in many projects in the field of‭ (‬food‭) ‬waste‭. ‬I just love the way that they are rewriting the history book of retailing‭! ‬

My opinion‭?? ‬It’s not all about the size‭, ‬it’s all about the service‭! ‬‭ ‬

Nic Jooste is the director of marketing and CSR at Cool Fresh International‭, ‬a Rotterdam-based global marketing organization for‭ ‬fresh produce‭.  ‬

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