'Top-up' shopping keeping town centres buzzing

Related tags Convenience store Retailing Igd

The majority of UK shoppers regularly 'top up' their weekly shop
with additional grocery essentials such as bread and milk, a
practice which continues to support the development of the
convenience store sector in the British market.

A recent study from the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD​) showed that most British shoppers (60 per cent) still buy most of their groceries in one weekly trip, but that 93 per cent of shoppers also use top-up trips in between.

The Shopper Insight Store Formats​ report from IGD shows that there are two main reasons for top-up shopping: some 48 per cent of shoppers buy products they have run out of, usually key items like bread and milk, while 37 per cent buy products that they prefer to buy more regularly than once a week, such as fresh foods.

Of course, top-up trips are also used (by 22 per cent of those questioned) to buy items which were forgotten in the main shop, while a further 10 per cent use them to buy a specific item.

All of which goes some way towards explaining the continued development of the convenience store market in the UK, and shows that fears that out-of-town supermarkets will eventually kill off High Street traders are unfounded - at least for now.

That said, the IGD's research showed that most shoppers would choose the venue that was easiest for them to get to when doing top-up shopping. As a result, 40 per cent would to go to a supermarket, with the added convenience of free parking, while 35 per cent choose a local convenience store.

Furthermore, 11 per cent said that they would use a High Street store, and these were particularly useful for shoppers on their way to and from work.

Men (41 per cent) are more likely than women (32 per cent) to use convenience stores to top-up while those with very young children tend to rely on supermarkets (48 per cent).

However, the shoppers that IGD spoke to considered that convenience was not just about how close the store was to them but also how easy the products were to find within it - a factor which is often overlooked.

Joanne Denney-Finch, chief executive of IGD, said: "We are seeing a surge in the trend of top-up shopping and it is not just down to time pressure. Families are eating different foods at different times and there is an increased trend towards snacking. This is creating a great opportunity for retailers of all formats, not just convenience operators.

"Shoppers want convenience, but they also want to able to park and have a wide range of products, as well as being able to find the product they need in the least amount of time and effort. Hypermarkets, supermarkets and discounters all have the capabilities to entice these shoppers and merchandising and product placement will be key in the battle for top-up shop share."

Are town centres really under threat?

So while there are undoubtedly still challenges for the convenience store and neighbourhood retailer in the UK, the IGD research appears to show that there are also significant opportunities as well, provided that store operators there can meet the challenge of their out-of-town counterparts.

But for the increasingly militant lobby group Friends of the Earth (FoE​), leaving the retail sector to the vagaries of competition is not likely to be enough to keep most town centre businesses in, well, business.

The organisation has this week renewed its campaign against the major multiple retailers - the chief ringleader of which appears to be Asda - and their alleged 'illegal' store extension programmes.

Local planning regulations in the UK mean that any store extensions have to be approved by the authorities, but FoE is concerned that the rules do not appear to cover mezzanine floors - expanding upwards, rather than outwards - and that supermarkets are increasingly taking advantage of this loophole to increase their floor space and put High Street stores out of business.

Friends of the Earth is seeking an amendment to the planning regulations to force all such mezzanine floors to pass through the same approval procedure as other extensions.

The lobby group claimed that more than 13,000 specialist stores, including butchers, bakers, fishmongers and newsagents, closed between 1997 and 2002 as a result of out-of-town store developments, leaving communities without accessible local shops.

FoE's main target is Asda, which it claims has plans to build 40 mezzanine floors in the UK, using the new floor space for non-food goods and thus posing a threat not only to town centre food retailers but also shops selling a wide range of other items such as electrical goods, clothing or books.

Asda has always strenuously denied that any of its store extensions are illegal - indeed, it has also denied that it has any such plans to expand at all, although some stores have clearly been refitted with mezzanine floors.

Friends of the Earth surveyed 255 English local authorities about their concerns, and found that the majority of respondents (over 80 per cent) are concerned or very concerned about uncontrolled retail expansion. Three quarters said that they would also welcome new powers to control the internal expansion of retail space. Tellingly, only 38 per cent of local authorities specifically restrict the internal expansion of stores.

Sandra Bell, Friends of the Earth Real Food Campaigner, clearly believes that government intervention is needed to curb the 'problem': "If the government does not close this planning loophole its promises to revive town centres will sound very hollow indeed. Our local shops and town centres are struggling and these massive store expansions could be the last nail in the coffin for them.

"The government must grasp this opportunity to stop the uncontrolled expansion of supermarkets and other stores so that local people have a say and impacts on town centre shops and traffic growth can be assessed."

The problem with FoE's assessment of the situation is that it seems to take little notice of what consumers want - rather than what local authorities are concerned about - and thus underestimates the sheer power of the consumer.

The IGD figures clearly show that consumers do want to have convenient retail outlets close to where they live, but that they also want to have out-of-town supermarkets as well.

A generation of shoppers brought up on supermarket shopping - where a wide range of goods can be found in one single location - has certainly led to the death of specialist retailers in many town centres, but these are increasingly being replaced by more varied outlets - convenience stores combining the functions of butcher, fishmonger and baker, if you will - as the retail sector reacts to the demands of shoppers.

Harsh as this assessment clearly is for traditional High Street retailers, many of which have been family-owned for decades, it clearly shows that many town centres are not the wastelands that FoE would have us believe. The convenience store sector is vibrant, and while FoE is also concerned at the entry of major players such as Tesco or Sainsbury into this sector, many convenience store owners want nothing more than to be bought out by the giant players - as the polarisation of opinion over the future of the Londis chain clearly shows.

So High Street retailing has changed, but not necessarily for the worse, and while there are many other issues associated with out-of-town developments (congestion, pollution, etc), consumer demand for convenience and low prices means that supermarkets will continue to dominate the retail arena for years to come. High Streets will play their part too, though the days of the family butcher are clearly numbered.

Related topics Market Trends

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