As consolidation and competition in the c-store sector intensifies, differentiation will be key if independent operators are to prosper. This was one of the key messages for delegates at the annual conference of the Association of Convenience Stores in Blackpool this week.

Experts such as Professor Leigh Sparks from the Institute of Retail Studies at the University of Stirling made it clear that the sector has had a relatively easy time of it to date. And he said one reason the multiples were moving into the convenience sector was that they felt the existing operators offered only soft competition.

James Walton of IGD warned
the pace of consolidation would accelerate as the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury strengthened their market positions.

The best way for c-store chains to respond to the new threat, according to Martin Beaumont, chief executive of the Co-operative Group, was to exploit their existing strengths, develop a demonstrably different offer and maintain a competitive stance on pricing.

Beaumont’s theme was taken up by speakers from Jacksons, Spar wholesaler James Hall and Musgrave, who all outlined their ideas for building brands that could truly compete with the multiples. “There was a strong message from many speakers that if you are a good retailer there are many things you can do to make sure your business is successful,” said ACS chief executive David Rae.

David Sands, who runs The Grocer Top 50 chain of the same name in Scotland, is one retailer investing in the growing c-store market, with plenty more expansion in the pipeline. But he identified a problem: “Our sector does seem to lack confidence.” The reason? Sands felt the speed at which the convenience market was consolidating should concern everybody. And unless the government or competition watchdogs acted, he warned of a future where “the only shopping choice will be a major Tesco supermarket or a couple of Tesco convenience stores”.

This was the other key theme of the conference, as retailer after retailer warned that consumer choice would inevitably suffer unless action was taken in what the Co-op’s Beaumont said was a market that would soon be oligopolistic.

n The big four grocers, or any subsidiary, are banned from ACS membership as a result of changes to its constitution made at the conference.
Julian Hunt