It’s the first anniversary of the convenience sector’s big box invasion. Siân Harrington charts its progress and rates the offers

A year ago this week two events shocked the convenience sector and caused a shake-up of unprecedented scale in the market. On October 28, 2002, the Co-operative Group announced it had bought Alldays for £131m. Just as the industry was digesting that news, Tesco stunned everyone by saying it was to buy T&S Stores for more than £377m.

From operators’ initial reactions, it seemed they were not taking the threat from the big box invasion terribly seriously. In the pages of The Grocer, established players warned Tesco it would not find running c-stores as easy as it thought, while some doubted the Co-operative Group could keep to a programme that required at least one Alldays to be refurbished every two days.

But a year on, there has been a galvanising effect on the market, says Andy Thornton, MD of convenience specialist SRCG. “It has been good for the sector. We have seen encouraging signs from those who have risen to the challenge but those who continue to whinge and say it is not fair will be pushed over,” he says. He cites Somerfield’s tie-up with TM Retail, Budgens’ new formats, BP Connect and Marks and Spencer’s Simply Food as good examples of advances in the sector.

The challenge now is how to roll out from a concept store. “Tesco is setting the pace. Its format is good, the quality of offer is good and it can roll out large numbers of stores quickly,” says Thornton. “The others need to find a model that means they roll out from concept cost-effectively and at pace.”

To see whether convenience players are succeeding in this mission, Thornton joined The Grocer on a mystery shop at stores in Essex/east London that had opened or been refurbished this year. These stores were marked out of 10 on a number of criteria: the fresh offer, scored for range, availability and merchandising; food to go offer, scored likewise; the ability to provide a dinner for that night; ambience; staff attitudes; whether a full top-up shop could be accomplished, and the overall experience.

Some scores are low where operators are not seeking to satisfy a specific need, such as BP/Connect when it comes to a full top-up shop. But the analysis does paint a fascinating overall picture.

Somerfield’s Market Fresh in Wanstead emerged top, scoring 60 out of 70. This was a major departure for Somerfield, with a continental feel, coffee to go, high quality fixturing and graphics and a great range. It felt like two different stores: fresh and chilled at the front and ambient at the back.

In contrast there was clearly work to be done at the Co-op Welcome. It had many out of stocks, a poor presence of ready meals and looked tired, despite being converted from Alldays this summer.

To make a wider comparison, we also visited a Post Office in Wickford. This opened mid-August with a convenience offer - if you can call one fixture with a couple of packs of tea bags, some confectionery and biscuits a convenience offer. We expected more from Allan Leighton’s crew. On the other hand Woolworths in the high street offered superb sandwiches from foodservice operator Taste, showing that competition in this sector is coming from all quarters.

Food to go3

Dinner tonight4



Full top-up6

Overall experience3Converted from Alldays in June with Safeway as competition. At 2pm the key problem was out of stocks in fresh and chilled, which took up about 20% of space. While the store appeals to older customers, there was a poor presence of ready meals and too much space for packets and tins. Underwhelming.

Food to go8

Dinner tonight1



Full top-up1

Overall experience7At 2.25pm the store was busy, with many customers buying food with their petrol. The store has been open four years but looked new thanks to its expensive shopfit. Food to go was the best but the internet and seats seemed unnecessary. Some 30% of space was given to chilled but a full top-up was impossible.

Food to go4

Dinner tonight8



Full top-up8

Overall experience8At 2.45pm this store, opened in March, was very busy. Trolleys indicated you could do a decent shop. About 45% of space was given to fresh and chilled. The overall appearance was let down by an ugly duvet display. Generally good, but food to go was poor compared to Connect and staff looked bored.

Food to go3

Dinner tonight7



Full top-up9

Overall experience8Converted from One Stop, this store opened in October and has an eye-catching fascia. At 3.45pm it was busy. The fit out was as you would expect - bright and utilitarian. About 30% was fresh and chilled but food to go was poor. One customer commented on the keen prices and said staff were happier now.

Food to go3

Dinner tonight6



Full top-up8

Overall experience7Another One Stop conversion in a typical chimney stack area. Not as big as Silva Way and less impact from the outside. At 4.15pm it was quiet, with some school children about. About 25% was given to fresh and chilled and there were some promotions. As at the other store, staff seemed more corporate and less ‘local’.

Food to go8

Dinner tonight9



Full top-up9

Overall experience10This Market Fresh concept store, opened in September, was superb. Fresh and chilled made up about 40% and were enhanced by the ambience, continental in feel. The different shopfit in packaged goods at the back made it feel like two stores. Food to go was impressive, with a Bewley’s fresh coffee offer. Excellent.