A report from The Independent Retail Europe General Assembly

Tara Buckley, director general, RGDATA
Tara Buckley, director general, RGDATA

RGDATA director general Tara Buckley attended the recent Independent Retail Europe General Assembly hosted by the Association of Convenience Stores in London. Here is her diary of the event



12 June 2014

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From how bendy a banana or a cucumber can be to whether shops should be allowed to sell eggs by the dozen, many issues impacting on the retail sector come under the EU spotlight. This is why RGDATA, the voice of independent grocers in Ireland for 70 years, is a member of Independent Retail Europe – a group that represents the interests of independent shops throughout Europe.

"Innovations & Challenges in Proximity and Small Format Retailing" was the theme of the 2014 Independent Retail Europe (IRE) conference. But don’t let that put you off; as James Loman, chief executive of the UK Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), the London hosts of the event, said in his welcome: "Over here we call it convenience retailing."

James gave a brief overview on recent developments in the UK convenience sector – the threat of new stringent regulations on convenience retailing arising from concerns about proximity of fast food outlets to schools; the large multiple retailers increasingly looking to move into smaller format shops and changing customer trends. "Independent Retail Europe provides us with the perfect forum to share best practice and ideas so that groups of independent shops can rise to these challenges," he said.

Customers like local

The next speaker was Ralf Gerking of the German group EDEKA, president of Independent Retail Europe. "The growth in convenience stores is a trend happening all across Europe. Our customers throughout Europe like the benefits of having local shops, together with the great service that comes from being owned by people coming from their own neighbourhood," he said.

The conference began with expert analysis by Dr Jonathan Reynolds, Oxford Institute for Retail Management, author of several reports on innovation and change in small format and convenience retailing. Dr Reynolds said he had a tough job explaining innovation in the retail sector to the legislators in the EU because it was a different kind of innovation to that which they were used to in other sectors. "Small and medium-sized retailers are exemplary and active innovators in the marketplace," said Dr Reynolds. "99% of the retailers engaged in innovation are micro enterprises and the innovations are related to products, processes, technology and people."

Dr Reynolds cited some convenience groups that were innovating in their markets including Magnit, a Russian convenience store chain; Albert Heijn & Co which had opened a new concept store in Amsterdam and Billa Box Food to Go which was innovating in the food-to-go sector.

The grey dollar

Aging populations is one of the key opportunities for the convenience sector, he said. "Our aging population is more affluent – their need for convenience outweighs their concern about prices," he said. In the US pharmacy retailers are developing convenience food offers to get more spend from aging and affluent pharmacy customers. Duane Reade and Walgreens in the US were two examples of companies involved in this type of product and service innovation. Dr Reynolds also mentioned the new food offer from Delish in Manhattan to get more spend from pharmacy customers.

Locally grown and developed convenience foods is another key trend, according to Dr. Reynolds. He urged convenience retailers to seek out local products and "tell the story of the food" in-store. Dr Reynolds also highlighted technological trends including increasing use of smartphones for shopping, more click and collect services and eBay’s grocery offer.

Role of government in retailing

The conference also featured a discussion on the role of government in convenience retailing with prominent speakers from the European Commission and the UK Department of Business.

Shane Brennan of ACS highlighted the four challenges facing convenience retailers in the UK: Competition/regulation; property costs/taxes; planning/zoning rules and licences to trade. In the UK there are growing interventions from government on what shops can sell, how they can sell it and growing restrictions on when and where things could be sold. This was an area that was also being targeted by the EU so it was important that all groups of independent retailers worked together to influence policy.

Claire Bury, director at the Commission Directorate General for Internal Market and Services focused on the EU strategy on retail and gave an update on a recently established high-level group on retail competitiveness. Her message was clear – the EU has heard a lot from farmers, food producers and the big multiples over the years but not enough from independent retailers. Independent Retail Europe is now helping to get the independent’s message to the EU as it puts the spotlight on the retail sector.

Graham Russell, chief executive of the UK Better Regulation Delivery Office explained what his office is doing to cut down on red tape for shops. Mr Russell was a breath of fresh air with his practical approach – his office operates a system called "Trading Places" where inspectors work behind the counters in shops for a few days so that they really understand the issues a retailer faces.

Dealing with changing customer needs

Barry Wallis from Spar UK gave practical examples of how Spar retailers in the UK are driving sales and dealing with continuously changing consumer needs. He gave examples of retailers who have revamped and overhauled their offer to change customers from basket and incidental shoppers to full trolley shoppers; creating theatre in the store on special dates and the benefits one retailer saw from changing his opening hours to 24/7.

Participants also heard about new convenience formats in France and Sweden from Jacques Woci, directeur général of ITM Entreprises (Groupement des Mousquetaires) and Fredrik Söderberg, business manager at ICA To Go.

The day ended with Günter Althaus (ANWR Group e.G.) and Wolfgang Schnellbügel (SPORT 2000 International GmbH) reporting on the challenges and opportunities in proximity retailing in shoes and sports.

ACS chief executive James Lowman captured the positive mood of the day when he said: "We are proud to host this event. Our membership of Independent Retail Europe allows us to represent our members’ views to the EU institutions working with a respected and effective organisation. We also value the exchange of ideas and shared approach to regulatory challenges that we get from working with a European grouping. Today’s conference is the start of a new invigorated network to share and learn from our colleagues in other European markets."

Director general of Independent Retail Europe, Else Groen wrapped up the event saying: "Across Europe groups are providing a means for independent retailers to compete, innovate and create jobs. It is vital the voice of these groups is heard in Brussels and we have never been in a stronger position to do this."




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