The different needs of core and non-urban shoppers was a hot debate at the SRCG forum. Liz Hamson reports

Bill O’Neill, acting CEO at One Stop, strongly disagreed, arguing that service was important wherever the store was located. “It is important in core and non-urban to have staff who can serve properly. I don’t think you can differentiate.”

However, Jeremy Bartlett, customer insights controller at PepsiCo, believed that there was a major opportunity for the symbol groups to create a sense of localness - and a point of difference from the big multiples that are now in convenience.

Either way, said Thorpe: “The urban is very important, but outside this area, we either drive things like food to go differently and smarter or we think about new things to drive, new ways of doing it.”

Andrew Thornton, SRCG’s MD, added: “It’s about understanding behaviour and delivering solutions.”

Some retailers have strong views about who should be in the driving seat. Peter Miller, Spar group trading director, said. “I’m not against collaboration, but it’s difficult to do. From Spar’s perspective, we have to take the initiative for ourselves. We know our customers better than anyone else does.”

But generally, the group agreed that collaboration is key and that at the moment, there’s not enough of it. Wain said: “Collaboration is better but it’s inconsistent. There’s a lot more that can be done. I’m still waiting for a customer to come to me and say: ‘I’m having a category day and I invite you and your competitors to come and talk to me about the beer category’.”

Clear goals certainly help. Peter Faulds, Diageo business unit director for off-trade, convenience and specialists, said: “Collaboration works when there is an agreed end point between the customer and the retailer.”

And there also needs to be a starting point if the non-urban convenience opportunity is really to be realised, added Suzy Ford, Unilever UK Foods’ category strategy manager. Why not shopping missions?

“Shopping missions are the basis of how we can collaborate. Ultimately, collaboration is not just about the category manager and the buyers; it is about the store manager, the regional manager. When you put the theory into practice, that is where it really starts to live.”

Shoppers using convenience stores outside towns and cities have different needs to those in urban areas. So why aren’t they being met? This was the key question posed at last week’s SRCG convenience retailing forum, which brought together some of the biggest names in the sector to thrash out the issue of whether the convenience sector was holding itself back.
While Tesco and Sainsbury had done much to raise the game, retailers had still not fully grasped the convenience retail opportunity, said Scott Annan, director of convenience retailing consultants SRCG, who chaired the debate.
One of the main problems is that they do not understand the differences between non-urban and urban shopping patterns, suggested Dr Mark Thorpe, head of qualitative research at research agency SPA, unveiling new research into different “shopper missions”.
The research showed that non-urban shoppers were more likely to buy household goods, dairy products, fresh fruit and vegetables, bakery, newspapers, magazines, alcohol, canned food, fresh meat, fish and poultry. Indeed, they were more than twice as likely to buy dairy as core urban shoppers. Core urban shoppers, however, were more likely to buy savoury snacks and less likely than non-urban shoppers to buy dairy products, fresh meat, poultry, alcohol or canned food, for instance.
Thorpe said: “There’s a very strong mindset in non-urban areas that the c-store is about basic top-up shopping. It’s actually quite narrow in terms of how those people see and experience the store. It doesn’t mean there is a fundamental barrier to those stores doing something else or doing other things better.”
In non-urban areas, up to 53% of shoppers drive to stores, for instance. “The implications are numerous,” said
Thorpe. “If someone is travelling 15 minutes by car to the c-store, what is to prevent them from travelling an extra five or 10 minutes to the supermarket? So there is challenge one. Another is the type of products people buy if they are driving. It also has implications in terms of food to go. If you are driving, you are less likely to buy it.”
Suppliers need to think more carefully about packaging formats, said Doug Hall, head of formats, Somerfield. “It’s much more dangerous to hold a hot cup of coffee in your car than a mobile phone. We need to think about that aspect. If we don’t, somebody else will.”
Thorpe argued that non-urban c-stores were not doing enough to create a point of difference. He pointed to the 60% of non-urban shoppers who had never bought a sandwich from their local c-store. “Why haven’t they? There do not seem to be sandwiches that say ‘buy me’, ‘consume me’.
“One of the things that is missing in non-urban areas is a strong proposition. There may be a lot of products currently sold that are not necessary. If you want to be seen as a smaller supermarket that just sells basic stuff then fine, but do not expect the mindset of people who shop in these stores to change.”
Why not provide a seating area where ‘food to stay’ could be eaten, he suggested. “Incorporate local knowledge to add value to the offer. Transforming ‘food to go’ into ‘food to stay’ could be very different and very motivating,” he said.
Non-urban shoppers were also keen on locally sourced food and saw their stores as playing an important role in the community, he said. So they tended to expect a friendlier service than core urban shoppers, who preferred a more clinical and impersonal service.
That is not always easy. Jill Bruce, Marks & Spencer Simply Food’s general manager, admitted that in the early days M&S tried to put a strong food-to-go offer in non-urban sites. “It never succeeded in the same way. They are not there to grab a sandwich.”
Having reviewed the mix, however, Simply Food stores now carry anything from 7% to 35% food to go, depending on their location.
Somerfield has also begun to respond to the different shopper missions in non-urban areas, said Hall. He highlighted the example of its Somerfield Essentials store in Kintore in Aberdeenshire. When it tried breakfast sandwiches, they sold, but not particularly well, he said.
However, when it introduced hot chicken portions, they did a roaring trade. “We’re talking about chicken portions for old people who have retired and do not go into Aberdeen and want something hot that they take home and eat. Hot food and food to go is very relevant.” Of course there are challenges. David Wain, Coors Brewers national account director, pointed out that adapting the offer to local needs creates complexity. “One of the frustrations we have is lack of compliance. We are encouraging people to create their own templates and that creates problems for everybody.”