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By Kevin Coupe

In addition to writing MorningNewsBeat each day, Content Guy Kevin Coupe also contributes regular columns to a wide number of publications, including the now-defunct FMI Advantage. As a MorningNewsBeat feature, the folks at FMI have graciously agreed to let us reprint some of these columns.

“England,” Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “is a nation of shopkeepers.”

And never has been that been more true than today. Or more appropriate. Because in an acquisitive world filled with shoppers, being a retailer can be a noble profession. (Which maybe why so many UK retailing CEOs have “Sir” before their names.)

One of the more interesting food retailing developments in the UK is the willingness of so many retailers to embrace different kinds of formats in a variety of locations – seemingly preferring to go to where the consumer is as opposed to creating a box to which the consumer has to journey. One of the best examples of this approach traditionally has been Tesco, which operates supercenters, superstores, metro stores and convenience-oriented “express” stores. Combine that with an aggressive and profitable e-commerce business, and Tesco clearly is looking to be where the customers wants it to be, when she wants it be there, how she wants it to be there, and with the products that she wants at a price she believes is appropriate. No wonder Tesco is the UK’s biggest seller of both automobile fuel and champagne…

On a recent trip to the UK, I had a chance to look at some of the other chains that are looking out to embrace consumers wherever they happen to be. In this case, I was wandering the streets near Victoria Station…

Despite some recent troubles getting traction in the face of domineering competition from Tesco and Wal-Mart’s Asda Group, two of the country’s best-known retailing names are using smaller beachheads to attract customers off the city’s streets.

Marks & Spencer, for example, has its Simply Food concept. There are 68 of the units spread through the UK and Ireland, and two of them actually are in Victoria Station – one on the east side, one on the west – both of which are positioned to take advantage of the breakfast and lunch crowds, as well as offer shoppers alternatives to bring home for dinner. These stores are hardly optimally laid out – they seem sort of squeezed into available space, with odd corners and turns – but while we were there, they were packed with shoppers, picking through sandwiches and salads and all matter of beverage options. There’s a real energy coursing through these stores, and despite the fact that Marks & Spencer has had its troubles lately, these stores, at least, seem highly workable. They’re a good idea well done.

Not far away, there are several Sainsbury Local stores, which are laid out like more tradition convenience stores, though with a broader range of produce and fresh products – more like mini-grocery stores than c-stores. It’s interesting that one of the things we were most impressed by was the way these stores marketed to kids, with an ample supply of its Blue Parrot Café products for kids; there also is a strong sense of how the company is marketing its healthier line of products under the slogan “Be Good To Yourself.” But at the same time, I couldn’t help thinking that kids aren’t the target market for these stores, and that there’s no reason to have these products there.

Is it possible that Sainsbury Local is too much squeezed into too little…that by simply reducing its usual food selection, the company isn’t offering consumers the kind of compelling, differentiated shopping experience that would set it apart? Perhaps. At any rate, the Sainsbury Local stores I saw didn’t seem to have anything like the energy of the Marks & Spencer Simply Foods.

A better example of differentiated retailing can be seen in a test Sainsbury Market store just a few blocks away – a much bigger local operation that uses dark walls and stainless steel cases to create a highly sophisticated shopping experience. There are plenty of staffed fresh food counters designed to create interaction between retailer and shopper; however, there also are several sampling stations that not only weren’t occupied, but have no schedules posted for when there will be sampling of various products. That struck me as a missed opportunity, a chance to get people thinking about coming back to taste this or that. But it’s a neat store, reminiscent more than anything of Urban Fare in Vancouver, B.C.

One of the other food retailing concepts that we saw and liked a lot was something called, simply, “Rocket” – kiosks that feature bagged sandwiches, and food “kits” that can be warmed or cooked for dinner. The selection is small and ever-changing, and the emphasis is on not having what the company calls “the nasties in processed food.” There are 24 Rocket kiosks in locations around England, and you learn more about it at

The abiding concern about the “nasties” in many foods and drinks is something that you tend to run into a lot in the UK. One of the more interesting places where we saw it – and tasted it – was at the Duke of Cambridge pub in Islington in North London, a completely organic pub that is, according to the company, “committed to ethical work practices and organic policies.”

Among the policies embraced by the pub: because “transportation causes environmental damage…we aim to source as locally as possible;” the pub uses seasonal fruit and vegetables; the electricity at the pub is wind and solar generated; and even the cleaning products used in the pub contain no harmful chemicals.

More to the point, the food and drink are terrific. It was the first time I’d ever had a tasty “Eco Warrior Beer,” as well as a great lunch of Cod, Bacon, Potatoes, Cheese and Aioli – all organic, all delicious, all served with commitment and focus to broader cause. It was as good a way as any to top off a walk through London retailing.

Reprinted with permission from the Food Marketing Institute (6/2004).
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