It’s not unusual for disrupters in any given marketplace to come from outside of the sector that they are disrupting and lead a step-change. Just look at Amazon and its Amazon Go concept, Airbnb or Uber, for instance.
Now a leading wholesaler, which supplies around 90,000 petrol stations, kiosks and convenience stores in six European markets, is disrupting the German forecourt sector with a new store concept.
Lekkerland’s Frischwerk format stands out because it’s been created, not by a retailer, but by a wholesaler with a 60-year history in the marketplace and core strengths in purchasing, logistics and sales. Frischwerk is changing consumer perceptions on the forecourt with a cutting edge store design and delivering a great customer convenience experience.
No surprise the concept was acknowledged in the 2017 NACS Insight International Convenience Retailer of the Year Awards and Highly Commended in the small formats category.
The plaudits for the Frischwerk store format are not lost on Lekkerland’s CEO Patrick Steppe.
“That recognition during the NACS Insight Convenience Summit - Europe was fantastic. Many retailers were surprised that a wholesaler was able to develop such a good looking store and also a good performing store and win an honourable mention from NACS,” he says.
“It was a great achievement for our staff - they have seen that we are able to develop the business into new areas. They see that the world is changing and getting tougher, with everybody trying to get a part of the growing convenience cake, but that we have made the store more attractive for our customers.”
According to Steppe, the Frischwerk concept was developed to respond to changing consumer needs and a more open and competitive market environment.
Up until 2006, store opening times in most markets where Lekkerland operates were restricted and the forecourt was the only location a customer could buy a can of beer after 7pm, for instance.
That meant business was relatively easy and largely assured. “When business is going smoothly, companies don’t tend to develop their offer,” Steppe concedes.
That all changed 11 years ago when opening hours were derestricted and consumers had the opportunity to buy on the go at numerous locations after 7pm and even after midnight in large German cities like Cologne.
At the same time, consumer expectations were evolving. Steppe again: “The end consumer has the same need but expectations are different,” he says. “They no longer want to pay a premium price for an average cup of coffee in an average location,” he maintains.
Forecourts are not always meeting customer expectations, he adds. “Many stores looks the same - there’s no differentiation And so Frischwerk was born with an aim to deliver on a great customer experience and provide a store format that looked and felt very different to anything that had gone before.
Inside that means lots of wooden and steel accents, warmer materials and colours. Steppe reports the finish and palette is designed to evoke a very different impression. “The customer does not feel like they are in a gas station,” he says.
The product assortment, meanwhile, reflects the current market trends to health and wellbeing. “The consumer does not only want a Mars bar or Snickers and a Coke but fresh salads and juices, good coffee and freshly prepared sandwiches on site,” Steppe says.
Lekkerland considered partnering with grocery retailers on the concept but the density of grocers is so great in Germany - shoppers are only ever 400m away from a grocery store - the business felt its 90sq m concept could not really compete with a full 600sq m format store. Instead, it chose to innovate by integrating bakery - a key and popular German category - into the Frischwerk concept. And the offer in the Frischwerk store in Aalen takes centre stage with the bakery counter positioned in the centre of the store in order to engage customers as soon as they enter. This feature cleverly breaks the habits of petrol station customers and opens them up to new experiences.
To date, two Frischwerk stores have been opened - one in Hamburg in partnership with Esso and one in Aalen, about 70km east of Stuttgart, in tandem with a dealer-owned Aral store.
Steppe reports the format is being expanded and Lekkerland has agreements with other oil companies for more stores, which will be the pilot for the next phase of the concept; rolling out in the third quarter of 2018. Lekkerland plans to adapt the offer in food to go, Steppe reveals. The range will be expanded with a broader assortment in bakery and related categories. A small food court concept is also planned to attract new customers, who don’t necessarily wish to eat a sandwich for lunch every day. Hot food solutions, are also a possibility, provided they don’t introduce too much complexity for employees. “It’s more like an evolution versus a revolution,” Steppe states, who acknowledges the reticence among dealers towards fresh products, due to issues surrounding waste.
“With fresh food, there is more waste so we have to convince dealers to invest in those assortments. There is some reluctance and it’s about training and encouraging the dealers,” he says.
Low unemployment rates in Germany compound the issue, since it’s harder for dealers to find good employees, Steppe adds. But operational excellence is a Lekkerland watchword and it invests heavily in developing, training and coaching its employees and retail customers. And, despite the challenges, food to go will continue be a key focus. Steppe again: “We strongly believe that food to go will be differentiator in future for forecourts - not food for later, because customers can get that at a discounter. It’s the same trend in other markets, like the UK, the move towards ‘foodvenience’.”
The new offer is also appealing to a wider audience, Steppe reports. The Hamburg site, for instance, is located close to an industrial zone and attracts workers from a nearby automotive plant, who take advantage of the store’s seated area during their lunch breaks; plus local firefighters, who regularly drop by for a cup of coffee. “So, it’s not just people coming by car,” Steppe says.
In terms of Frischwerk’s performance, food to go, hot beverages and fuels have recorded the biggest sales uplifts. Fuel sales, in particular, are ahead of the market and that’s in spite of tough competition in the area surrounding the stores.
“It’s difficult to say whether that’s due to the food offer, quality of operation or atmosphere at the store but it’s clear that since we have transformed the store, volumes are going up,” Steppe says.
Lekkerland conducted research to gauge customer perceptions of the offer prior to opening with the new look and after the transformation. It found a huge leap forward, Steppe says. And, as well as increased volumes, the average basket size has risen too with a higher participation from food.
As well as leading on food to go on the forecourt, Lekkerland is pushing the envelope with new digital technologies - signage and pricing.
The former means Frischwerk can communicate and promote relevant offers, depending on the time of day ie breakfast, lunch and dinner; rather than rely on static printed materials. “It drives food to go and we see it in the numbers,” Steppe says.
Dynamic pricing has also been well received by customers, he adds. “It does not bother the customer because prices are better balanced - the customer understands that during expensive hours, after 10pm for example, they pay a little more for convenience.” The technology also means employees can focus their attention on serving customers, rather than be occupied with fiddly and time consuming price changes.
Such efficiencies are key in the competitive German marketplace. Germany has the lowest food retail prices in Europe and the discounters - Aldi and Lidl - have a high market share, more than 30%. The discounters are also upping their game. Not only do they now offer A brands, but Lidl is broadening its assortment with fresh meat; while Aldi is testing coffee to go in the South of Germany. That brings them head to head with grocery and convenience stores. Both players are also focusing on bread, so they are competing with Germany’s bakeries; who in turn are focusing more on food to go. As a consequence, competition is coming from all quarters.
So how will Lekkerland keep ahead of the game? According to Steppe, the answer lies in two simple words: retail enablement. “We develop services, formats, solutions and training to support our customers and to make the store more attractive for end consumers,” he says. “In the future, Lekkerland will be providing more and more services and new features for our customers, such as professional category management ie recommending what assortments to sell in the cooler, for instance. We want to be retail enablers,” he concludes.
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