As the debate rages over the Competition Commission’s division of grocery into two distinct markets, it is clear this view has no resonance with consumers going about their regular food and drink shopping.
Exclusive research for The Grocer, conducted by HI Europe, shows that nearly a quarter of shoppers use a Tesco superstore or Extra to top up, while 22% use Sainsbury and 16% Asda. This compares to nearly a third who use any convenience store to top up, with 14% saying they top up in a local independent store.
And when asked which store they use for their main top-up shop, 17% say any c-store (local independent, symbol or forecourt) compared to 14% who use a Tesco/Tesco Extra.
The results throw into question the argument that the main grocery and top-up markets are different - a decision that has enabled Tesco and Sainsbury to steamroller into the convenience sector.
Clearly shoppers do not differentiate between the two types of stores, choosing to top up wherever is convenient at a given time. Half say proximity to home is the reason for using a particular store, with 41% saying they choose a store with easy parking and 17% because it is on the way home from work.
So, to many shoppers their local superstore is just as much a top-up store as one used for a main trip. Indeed, when asked what they perceive as a convenience store, 14% say a Tesco supermarket or Extra, while one in 10 identifies Sainsbury or Asda as such.
Laura Haynes, MD of brand agency Appetite which works with Spar, says the notion of convenience needs to be reconfigured. “Shoppers define convenience shopping by their needs, not by size of store. So there is a distinction between convenience shopping (what I want to do) and convenience store (one alternative place I can do my convenience shopping),” she says.
“One of the greatest threats is that shoppers will increasingly choose to fulfil all their needs through the big brand retailer because they know they will get guaranteed quality delivered, whatever the format.”
HI Europe questioned 1,721 principal shoppers: 60% who say Tesco/Tesco Extra is in their usual shopping repertoire, 49% who say Asda and 46% Sainsbury. Half use some type of convenience store for food and drink shopping while 23% say they shop in a local independent store sometimes.
When it comes to doing a main shop, the number one supermarket chain is Tesco/Tesco Extra, with 29% of consumers saying this is their primary store. At the other end of the scale, 4% of consumers say they use a c-store for a main shop.
The main reason for not doing a big shop in c-stores is price, with nearly two-thirds of consumers (63%) citing this.
Close behind this is limited range and choice, especially in fresh and meal solutions. Shoppers also have little confidence that c- stores can provide all the items they desire.
Nearly three-quarters of shoppers do a main shop at least once a week, with half spending £50 or more. Eighty-three per cent do a top-up shop at least once a week but 50% spend less than £15.
Waitrose secures the largest average spend on a top-up shop, with its customers spending £21.80 when topping up compared to £75.40 when doing a main shop.
Shoppers choosing to use M& S for a major shop spend an average of £121.30, according to the survey. This falls to an average of £17.70 on a top-up shop in M& S.
Just under half (48%) of shoppers use a c-store at least once a week and 50% of shoppers spend around £5 in these stores.
Unsurprisingly, the key products pulling shoppers into c-stores are provisions such as milk and bread. Nearly half buy these regularly in c-stores while another 43% buy them occasionally. Magazines, cards and wrapping paper are also essential items to stock, with 32% of shoppers buying these regularly and 51% more purchasing them occasionally.
Major impulse categories crisps and confectionery attract die-hard purchasers, with 23% saying they buy these products regularly but only another 5% occasionally. Cigarettes is another important category, with one-fifth of shoppers regularly using a c-store to purchase these and another 12% popping in occasionally.
Food to eat that day/evening is also important, with 21% buying this regularly and another 47% buying this occasionally.
But if c-store operators are to win more shoppers, they must address some concerns, especially in fresh. Nearly 30% buy fruit and vegetables regularly from a c-store but nearly one in 10 say these categories are missing from ranges. Healthy and organic options are also desired.
Much more work also needs to be done to engender trust. Over a quarter of shoppers do not trust the main convenience fascias for fresh food. The Co-operative Group does best, with 47% trusting it, followed by Somerfield with 42%. Interestingly even Iceland does fairly well, with 37% saying they would trust it for fresh food. This shows how important a well-established and trusted brand is when it comes to this issue. Spar, Budgens, Londis and Premier clearly need to work harder.
Andy Thornton, managing director of convenience specialist SRCG, is not surprised by the findings. “Shoppers love stores that meet their needs and they love the new generation stores. Independents that respond and meet those shoppers’ needs that are not being filled by others will thrive.”
And if they do not do this? “If small independents carry on as they always have and spend all their time and energies moaning that ‘it’s not fair’ they will go out of business,” he says.
>>Next week: more analysis