Q&A: Spar UK MD Debbie Robinson

Spar MD Debbie Robinson explains the key trends and challenges for the symbol group in Olympic year


Marketing Week (MW): You joined Spar last September as managing director, having been marketing director at JJB Sports and the Co-operative. What are your priorities?

Debbie Robinson (DR): The real focus has been on a strategic review of the Spar brand. My focus is to bring the sparkle back to Spar as the leading convenience operator in the UK.

We have a real growth strategy in terms of the acquisition of stores and further development with our existing retailers. We’re being much more customer focused particularly around meal occasions and events, everything from Valentine’s Day to Halloween.

The whole sector has a huge opportunity compared with the multiples – and it offers incremental purchase opportunity.

This is going to be a great year in terms of the Olympics and our sponsorship of UK Athletics. That and the Queen’s jubilee present some huge opportunities.

It is through Spar’s sponsorship that many of the Olympians have the necessary support to see them through so – will be bringing that to life in store, within the restrictions of Locog.

MW: What other trends are you seeing?

DR: The other key trend is the new entrants into the market: everyone is reappraising where they are.

Particularly exciting is the merging of food service and convenience and that is fascinating [with Subway opening takeaways within other shops, for example]. How Spar can compete with the multiples [is another interesting thing] – we have more than over 50 years experience in UK and 80 globally in the convenience sector.

The growth is very strong – stronger than in the rest of grocery, which is why it is so attractive to the multiples.

What we are looking at is what our customers need and we are redefining the ‘convenience opportunity’. So that is a review of both the goods and services that are required in today’s competitive market.

I think we are ideally placed to capitalise on the massive growth of online. We are seeing certain supermarkets see their bigger baskets migrate to online shopping, so we’re ideally placed for the daily top-up shopping needs of customers who are maybe having products delivered weekly.

People are coming in more often for fresh food, which perishes quickly, so they come in for a bag of salad or some fresh meat. That presents a huge opportunity for us. On average our shoppers visit three times a week.

MW: What challenges do you have?

DR: The big challenge is increasing the basket spend. The frequency of shop is there – and there is a lot of potential for us to grow out of ‘distress missions’ into planned missions.

If you consider Breakfast time for example, we accept that people are on the hoof and [are considering] how we can start to maximise that opportunity – with anything from a smoothie and a croissant through into lunchtime.

We sell a lot of sandwiches in the morning, so there is a lot of footfall then so we are going to try and make more of the breakfast opportunity. We will also look at the evening meal [market], that is really important as almost 30% of households are single person.

What Spar can do for its retailers and customers is to offer the best of a national range but it can be supplemented by regional distribution centres that are so close to the retailers – providing the sorts of local products that are meaningful in the community.

MW: Where will you look for growth?

DR: The independent convenience market is worth almost £7 billion, so that is a rich vein of opportunity for us, but also we’ve had great success with the likes of Compass and ISS in terms of service providers.

Then there are growth opportunities with the existing retailers, some of them are entrepreneurs who want to grow their business, and some of the regional distribution centres (RDCs) run their own stores as well.

We are also looking at services such as parcel collections [via our shops] and offers which may be through the internet – so we can really develop a robust commercial model that meets customers needs.

MW: Once you have made the changes you talk about, will you start to communicate these through marketing?

DR: There are opportunities, but it is a phased approach of raising the standards in the retail estate, developing the own-label and [then] starting to communicate.

In terms of communicating, we have a lot to say and we need to do that in the best possible way at the right time.

That will give the proof points to the consumer in terms of the differentiation between the competition and us. We need to get the foundations firm and there is a great deal for us to build on.

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