Across an extensive grocery career, with spells in wholesale and convenience, as well as commercial and marketing roles, it was 2019 when Louise Hoste set her sights on Spar

But just 18 months into her new role as MD, she had to steer the business through “unknown territory” and juggle a whole new batch of issues posed by Covid-19.

The surge in retail crime, managing supply, tapping into the on-demand convenience boom – to name a few – but all the while paying heed to the “weekly shop” convenience had become.

So as we mark the anniversary of the first month the nation entered lockdown, how has Hoste helped Spar evolve to where it is now?

Well with no “playbook” to guide the business through the pandemic, Hoste said it was a matter of “rewriting things as the business moved forward”. 

The first priority was the safety of staff and making sure they could work effectively out of the office. And also ensuring the five Spar wholesalers were kept informed of everything going on with weekly Teams calls.

But in the first weeks of lockdown, it became quickly apparent that the role of convenience operators and the services they deliver had changed.

Basket sizes increased and the frequency of shopping trips lessened as customers stayed home. Sunday trading dropped off the scale, with Thursday and Fridays becoming the busier days as consumers looked to “actively spread their shopping habit”.

But when the nation fell into a panic-buying state in March, key lines were in scarce supply. Hoste stepped forward with the Federation of Wholesale Distributors for a fresh call on suppliers to allocate stock, to ensure the voices of convenience retailers could be heard. 

Suppliers were distributing products based on forecasting algorithms that were created by previous purchasing history, which Hoste says just wasn’t true anymore. 

This meant Spar was having to strip off any kind of “normal parameters”, such as supplementing convenience pack sizes for the same packs as supermarkets. Because it wasn’t about tradition anymore. It was about need.

“At the end of the day, what the country needed at that point was a secure supply of food,” Hoste says. ”So working closely with suppliers and using reduced SKU variants, we could provide a service for the country.”

The Food Resilience Industry Forum (FRIF) had a big hand in resolving the matter too.

“I think the FRIF call has been paramount,” she says. “That connectivity from manufacturer, right the way through to retailer distributor has really helped the industry, and making sure that with ACS, BRC, Defra, and with Scottish counterparts, convenience was getting its fair share.”

But problems with availability only showed off what the independent arm of the business could do. Independent Spar retailers “threw their innovation” at bringing products through and began sourcing their stock elsewhere to alleviate knots in the supply chain.

Some worked with local restaurants to get pasta, while others worked with local gardens centres to get flowers.

“Our independents know their local market, they know what their customers want, and they can tune and adapt their offer far more locally than a big retailer,” says Hoste.

“And I think it’s that localness that we’ve seen through lockdown that people have wanted to shop locally and they’ve enjoyed it too. I think that supports Spar and our proposition and the way we’re structured, it plays into that.”

By June 2020, Spar’s availability had shot back up to 97% after dropping to 85% levels.

But availability wasn’t the only stumbling block that taunted stores. The location of shops was bringing in “the tale of two halves”, as Hoste refers to.

While community, neighbourhood stores saw spikes in traffic, the coronavirus pandemic left town centres deserted, meaning convenience stores that are reliant on that trade were suffering from huge losses, with some having to close.

“We have stores that are city centre-based, in universities, and motorway services that have struggled, and with some still shut. And it’s tough because they sit in among their peers who are trading really well, and it is purely their location that has driven that,” explains Hoste.

“At the beginning, we supported them with stock and tried to move stock for them. And then, just staying close to them and supporting them from a social point of view and working with them from a governmental point of view.”

But there were other social aspects that emerged from lockdown. According to Usdaw, nearly 9 in 10 shopworkers were abused last year, with 88% out of 2,729 experiencing verbal abuse. The introduction of mask regulations didn’t help the problem either, creating yet another flashpoint for staff.

“Now, we are in tough times. And in tough times, crime does rise,” says Hoste. “And we’re seeing that.”

Alongside ACS and BRC, Spar UK has campaigned to bring the agenda to the forefront and accentuate the challenge that people are managing on a day-to-day basis.

Together, they worked on training and best practices that could teach retailers how to protect themselves and colleagues.

“For us, our role is the more we can educate, the more we can train colleagues as how to react and manage situations and not put themselves in danger.”

But it’s not all cons. The pandemic has proven to have some silver lining on the rare occasion. For example, Spar joined forces with The UK Plastics Pact during the course of last year, to bring expertise and knowledge into the business to help boost its mission in reducing plastic.

It changed to clear bottle tops so they could be fully recycled, and reduced the neck size too which, on its own, has seen 32 tonnes of virgin plastic removed.

The pandemic has also seen convenience retailers embrace the demand for online delivery. xy% of Spar retailers are now using their own in-house service or the Snappy Shopper app, as convenience retailers continue to tap into a different offer that the big multiples can’t, like with rapid delivery.

“I think that has definitely accelerated our thoughts into that arena, and we will continue to work on it in terms of what does it looks like for Spar as a whole for the future.”

So where does Spar stand now? And what position does Hoste see the business when the nation eventually exits lockdown?

“I think we’re in a strong place,” says Hoste. “I think we’ve really understood more than any other time the strength of having independents in the business and making sure that we enable them to grow and support their growth.

“And in the same way, because we’ve got the international element, the mix of international and independents position us different in the market. It’s a distinct advantage to us.”

The summer of 2021 is also set to bring lots of new levels of NPD for Spar, and a big push for own-brand development. Hoste highlighted BBQ ranges, salads, pies, flavoured milks, new chicken ranges, that are all being brought into the Spar range.

“Once what we got past the first one or two months of that first lockdown, we said we’ve got to get back to normal,” she says. “Convenience historically has not had the same penetration as own label as multiples so we definitely need to be more in that space and offer the choice for the customer.”

So as disruptive as Covid-19 has been on the industry, Spar has only proven the relevance and competitiveness it can offer. “It has brought the wholesalers together because we were all learning from each other, and with international, we have shared the best practices between ourselves.

“I think it has consolidated us as a business and brought us closer together.”