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AMSTERDAM – We’ve learned a lot about retailing this week, and none of it in this city’s famed Red Light district.

We’ve been here all week to speak at and help facilitate the 52nd annual International Spar Congress, which happens to be celebrating Spar’s 75th anniversary.

You may not know much about Spar International; we didn’t either until a few years ago, when we had the privilege of making the acquaintance of a number of retailers who are part of this unique organization.

Just FYI…Spar is a global retailing brand with close to 14,000 stores in some 33 countries, generating more than $36 billion (US) in sales each year and operating wide range of formats, from convenience stores to hypermarkets. But it isn’t exactly a chain; rather, it is an organization that brings together independent retailers and wholesalers under a branding umbrella, allowing them to easily share information and strategies that will help them compete in various markets.

At the annual Congress, much of the time is spent sharing ideas and experiences, as well as laying out plans for the coming year. The stories are all over the map – literally and figuratively. For example, Nick Veropoulos of Spar Greece showed video taken by a mystery shopper with a hidden camera to demonstrate how exceptional and questionable consumer experiences can be used to train staffers in how to treat customers; shortly thereafter, there was a sobering presentation by Fred Appel of Spar Zimbabwe, explaining how his company is surviving in a nation that is corrupt, violent, economically unstable, and impoverished – not to mention suffering from an 84 percent unemployment rate. (You think you have problems? Listen to Appel speak for about five minutes, and it puts everything into perspective.)

But one of the things that most impressed us was the general atmosphere of sharing and camaraderie – there is an unusual feeling of shared exposure among the Spar retailers, understanding that it is a tough world and that despite geographic differences, they are in it together. (“Look and Learns,” excursions that take retailers around the world to see the best of food retailers, is a core component in the Spar experience.)

Here are five basic strategic ideas we took away from the Spar International Congress:

1. In the Netherlands, spar last year opened what it called “Spar & Joy” during the holiday season – essentially a holiday-oriented supermarket located in a recreational area, heavy on fresh and baked goods, and an effort to “get close to the customer.” When the holidays were over, the store shut down…and the company pronounced it happy with the experiment. This demonstrates an interesting and unusual flexibility on the part of Spar, as it looks to find new angles from which to compete.

2. Gerhard Drexel, of Spar Austria, showed a series of television commercials that his company has been using to illustrate its stores’ low cost clothing offering – especially underwear. One particularly effective commercial showed a gorgeous Brazilian model walking down a fashion runway wearing nothing but cotton underwear…and it is only when the camera rolls back that it is revealed that she’s actually walking atop the frozen food case in the supermarket, and parents are covering their kids’ eyes. The ad is funny and it makes the point…though we suspect that in the US, at least, it might sufficiently annoy enough women to be counterproductive. But that didn’t seem to be an issue in Austria, and we liked the cheekiness of it all.

3. We loved a presentation by Peter Kealy of Spar Ireland, in which he described a new store developed by the company as a flagship unit just a few years ago…and which, the company realized, was representative of 20th century thinking and largely irrelevant for a 21st century consumer. Spar Ireland then developed a new small-store format that is organized along the lines of consumer motivation – “mission zones” - rather than traditional departments, with separate zones set up for “enjoy now, “celebrate,” “your usual,” “take it home and eat it,” and “stock up.” The effort has been enormously successful, according to Kealy, and the stores, from our perspective, look to be both attractive and effective.

4. One innovation shown at the conference was both simple and elegant – stores looking to get customers to try local products would put a tag saying the following next to those items: “We’re trying to support local producers. Why don’t you try this item from a local manufacturer (or farmer)? I think you’ll like it.” And then the tag bears the signature of the store manager…which personalizes the store and the item in a very effective way.

5. In Germany, the Spar retailer is looking to find new places to compete for food dollars – and so it has been opening small stores in places like Berlin’s Tegel Airport. Which strikes us as very, very smart, because it goes to where the customers are, as opposed to forcing the customer to go to more traditional locations.

The goal, one retailer said, is to create a “relevant food dialog” with consumers…and the Spar retailers seem to do it ways that will challenge the competition, embrace the shopper, and build on an organizational mission that stresses sharing and real strategic thinking.

Works for us.
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