NACS has appointed former Nielsen director, Mark Wohltmann, to the new role of Director Europe, as the Association for convenience & fuel retailing, looks to build engagement with retailers and suppliers on both sides of the Atlantic. Fiona Briggs reports
Strengthening existing alliances, while building new bridges isn’t just the preserve of politicians these days, although in the wake of the latest US presidential election and Brexit, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
But hold fire, NACS, the US-headquartered association that works to advance convenience and fuel retailing is forging a path as a facilitator in the global convenience retail sector with a manifesto for providing knowledge, connections and advocacy.
It’s well placed. Founded in 1961, NACS represents more than 2,100 retail and 1,600 supplier company members, who do business in nearly 50 countries worldwide. While the majority of members are based in the United States, NACS is now spreading its wings with the launch of a European value proposition and the creation of the new position of Director Europe.
Mark Wohltmann, former Nielsen director, with 16 years of experience in the consulting and market research sector, is the executive leading the charge.
However, as Wohltmann is quick to point out, it’s not a US-led assault on Europe but rather a symbiotic relationship.
“The strategic plans of NACS, the value proposition for Europe and my role are all connected,” he says. “Historically, NACS was very much the National Association of Convenience Stores but that has changed and it has become much more international, with members now including the Anglo-Dutch multi-national oil company Shell and leading Polish petrol retailer, PKN Orlen, for example. Those new European members want more information that’s relevant for Europe, while US members want more insight from other regions of the world. That’s what NACS has set out to answer - the strengthened role of Europe and creation of a NACS Director Europe has a lot to do with membership and membership engagement,” Wohltmann explains.
NACS’ new European value proposition will therefore explore developments in Europe, which can support its US members, but also determine the trends and insights that are most relevant for European retailers and suppliers.
It’s a pretty unique proposition. Despite the existence of similar trade associations in individual countries in Europe, there is no umbrella platform for convenience on the European stage.
NACS provides that platform - physically via its Convenience Summit - Europe event (being held in Zurich and London in 2017); personally through Wohltmann himself; and, in the future, through a virtual exchange of information and knowledge, delivered digitally on a platform yet to be determined.
“We are talking to a lot of retailers and manufacturers to determine what their requirements are and to showcase what NACS is offering,” Wohltmann says. “Some people may simply know NACS as an association from the US but we are really global and we have been for a while. We know what’s happening in different markets and can offer that information to countries around the world.”
According to Wohltmann, NACS benefits from two further strings to its bow. Firstly, it operates in the convenience sector, which is a far more open sector than other retail channels, where players are more willing to share information and learn from one another. Secondly, the association is already extremely engaged with leading retailers from around the world.
In his new role, Wohltmann currently has a strategic focus - engaging with existing and potential members to identify their needs. However, he anticipates that will evolve to also providing the appropriate support; be it knowledge, connections or advocacy.
“As NACS we provide our members with knowledge of the industry, connections - the opportunity to learn something from someone else - and we are an advocate for the industry by talking publicly about the industry, so that people who engage with the industry, know what we do,” he says.
Knowledge, he maintains, boils down to thought leadership.
“In our experience, convenience retailers face very few unique regional or country-specific issues; rather each country at any moment in time experiences a different phase in the life cycle of each issue. US retailers e.g. can learn from the aftermath of European tobacco regulation or from the vast variety of highly innovative new store-formats in Europe’s metropoles. European retailers on the other hand can learn a lot from the US, as the sheer size of the convenience market over there has brought up some of the most profitable and innovative convenience players. In the end it all comes down to sharing knowledge, providing thought leadership and insights and to bring the industry together.” According to Wohltmann, positive change can come about by such an involved approach. Preparing members for regulation on alcohol or sugary drinks by looking at existing regulations in other categories may aid the shift towards healthier food, for example. These are opportunities for convenience retail and Wohltmann, with his experience in market research, is optimistic for the future of the sector. However, despite the positive outlook, there are potential threats to the industry, he adds. “Small stores will continue to compete against discount retailers and online, as both these sectors will grow as well. Convenience stores will need to connect their business to the online business as technology will develop faster and faster,” he says. Family-run convenience stores who do not keep up-to-date with technological trends will be challenged in future, he says. “When c-store retailers are not as tech savvy as their customers, that’s a threat because technology is moving on. If people want to pay by mobile phone or order a coffee in advance, convenience stores will have to offer that or else shoppers will go to those outlets where they can. If c-stores offer the technology and react, it’s an opportunity. If they do not, it’s a threat.” The convenience channel holds another Ace card, Wohltmann adds. “The key reason for the growth and success of convenience stores around the world is all about trust,” he says. “And trust is even more important for Millennials, for whom price and discounting products is not top of mind. Things have to make sense for this group - they want to know who they are buying products from and that it’s someone they can trust. That’s more relevant for Millennials but for an increasing number of consumers too.” Wohltmann recalls a recent NACS presentation delivered by The Future Hunters on the big topics that influence society. They included AI and its potential to make human jobs obsolete but also trust. “There’s so much going on about fake news, so little trust in politics, big question marks on cyber security, food scandals etc that trust is much more important than anything else for consumers and everyone,” he says. “What an opportunity that presents for a small, neighbourhood store.” Watch this space to see how NACS’ new European value proposal and its Director Europe help to inform, connect and advocate around that key convenience theme.
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