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The Name: Spar

The Place: 2.4k stores around the UK, so very prevalent basically. And if you are talking global reach then 12k shops around the world.

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Innovation with Spar

The Story: Spar, I hear you cry. What, that corner shop mainstay with its Kingsmill bread rolls and Heinz baked beans. What on earth is innovative about that?

I’ll ask the questions, thank you. What on earth is innovative about that? It’s the way it operates – and localises its stores. For a company with a global brand it’s super good at introducing small differences between units which make a real difference to the shopping public. Small scale changes and differentials of this sort in a company of this size (£8 billion of sales last year in the UK of which would you believe £3 billion is from petrol!) would normally be like turning a tanker and require national rollouts but Spar under Spar UK managing director Debbie Robinson allows her individual retailers to reflect what the local public wants.

So these changes wouldn’t work everywhere? According to Robinson as soon as innovations are deemed right for every single store is the point at which it ceases to be innovative. Remember that.

How about some examples? Well, some are quite simple. A unit near a hospital will probably sell flowers like the one in London’s E17 near Homerton Hospital. That unit (Eat 17) also boasts a café because it is handy for the hospital workers to use.

Aha, working a captive audience. I like it: A store in Cornwall houses a local butcher within it, complete with air-dried fridge. They like to work with local producers if they can. Another Spar in Kent brought in a fishmonger’s stall because the locals specially requested it.

Well, it all sounds very chi-chi and urban, and excuse me while I grow a beard to fit in sort of thing: Stop that now. That is not what Ms Robinson is aiming for necessarily. An awful lot of Spars are in rural locations – the only shop in the village actually, but what Spar helps bring is a touch of modernity. Not bad for a brand that is already 60 years old in the UK.

It’s definitely good to be open to anything: And another thing. There are trials going on with the company RoadChef – where the focus is on bread, cake, items you can instantly consume, and ingredients for an evening meal as those hungry motorists pass through. You see it’s all been well thought out by someone but it can only happen in a receptive company.

OK, that’s enough examples: But there’s more. Eat 17 is the first Spar in the country to be licensed for on-trade alcohol sales. It’s going to be child-friendly and everything. Imagine that – going to spend a night in your local Spar! Crazy. But when you’ve finished doing your shop and an inviting glass of red is just there waiting – who knows?

So I imagine there is no one core customer group here? Am I right? Interestingly Robinson does not see the main focus as families, especially budget holding Mums, as almost all other grocers do obsessively. Instead, she cites the rise of one-person households as the major trend for Spar. In fact even more extreme is the rise in house sharing, even room-sharing, and sofa surfing you name it. For this large group of people the Spar round the corner is their larder, fridge and drinks cabinet all rolled into one. In fact she finds that the needs of very young adults and the very old are quite similar. Cooking for one means you don’t do a massive shop every week.

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Locally produced craft beer anyone?

Well, that’s definitely a new perspective: Convenience is where it’s at, partner. The longer hours they are open, the size of the units, the ‘take your evening meal home on your way home’ thing. And Spar were one of the first retailers to sign up with ApplePay so yah boo to the traditional big supermarket. The market is massive.

How big? From 2015 to 2020 it is predicted to rise from £37.7 billion to £44.1 billion.

Yikes, that’s more than a billion a year: Yup, according to Robinson the convenience store like Spar is the ‘mother of invention’ with some innovative use of franchisees such as Greggs, Costa, Subway and Starbucks. The company structure is built around the basic sound logistics of getting stuff to stores very quickly, but they are also trend spotters and add the localised flair of ‘foodpreneurs’ (don’t ask!) and bobs your uncle.

What are the trends they are currently interested in at Spar? Pop-ups, and cycling. I can’t say anymore otherwise I’d have to kill you but I can tell you about own-brand plans.

Fire away: They want more of it – an increase of 10% over 5 years to be precise. It’s worth £300 million of their sales now. They are radically rethinking their wine selection (the 55 own-brand wines account for 44% of the category’s sales) and would you believe at the 2015 International Wine and Spirit Competition Spar Imperial Vodka won Gold.

Nyet: Da. In fact they have won over 100 awards in 2015 – all giving their retailers the confidence that Spar own-brand will sell. And not only that, the company wants eight core products (including mini chocolate ice creams, pulled pork, rack of ribs, prosecco and olives with chilli) to be in every unit  in due course.

It’s a far cry from beans and nappies: Well of course they will also still be there but Spar is trying to fuse old convenience with new convenience. What senior marketing manager Laura McNally calls “a whole new tier that we’re not known for”.

I just hope that they don’t chuck out the old favourites on the ready meal counter: No fear. Spar knows exactly the proportion required in that range – 38% Italian, 24% Indian, 13% oriental, and 25% traditional British. And that’s final.

Phew. I might use it as a refuge from all the seasonal over indulgence coming up: Bad luck – ‘tis the season for another innovation – a range of licensed gifts for Christmas will be starting this year. Magnums of prosecco and Thornton’s chocolates.

Well, perhaps just the one. That’s the Spar spirit.  

PCMS is a global provider of IT software, specialising in retail services, including point of sale (PoS) software, contact centre and IT support services. It is a pioneer in developing mobile retail solutions, including customer shopping apps and mobile PoS. Its client list includes John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Whole Foods, as well as Walgreens in the US and fashion brands including Prada and Ferragamo across Europe.