Pandemic Fills The Supermarket Checkout

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Woman wearing medical mask inside a supermarket with a full grocery cart, Madrid. Spain.

Supermarkets are the big beneficiaries of the coronavirus pandemic. Although the Filomena snowstorm has left some of their shelves half empty at this start of the year, putting them in even more supply difficulties for a few days than the covid itself, and although it is difficult for them to recognize it, they are the 2020 winners. one of the few businesses that have multiplied their sales since the virus landed in Spain and hit the economy like no other crisis.

Locked up without being able to leave the house, the first thing the citizens did was fill their pantries as if the end had come. “It was sold in a week what in a whole month”, recalls Ignacio García Magarzo, general director of the Spanish Association of Distributors, Self-services and Supermarkets (Asedas).

Stockpiling of toilet paper skyrocketed by up to 25%in the early stages of the state of alarm, almost as much as the sale of hydroalcoholic masks and gels. It is a trend that some supermarkets, such as Consum, consider unusual and are studying from a psychological point of view.

Later, with limited movements and restricted bars and restaurants, citizens continued to buy food and indulge in the whims that were forbidden in restaurants. Beers, wines, snacks and chocolates made a place in the shopping baskets.

So food distribution does not remember a year like 2020. “Its turnover has grown 7%, three times more than a normal year. It is outrageous and is largely due to the transfer from the hospitality industry ”, acknowledges Patricia Daimiel, general director of the consulting firm Nielsen, who expects that sales of mass consumption (food, beverages and perfumery) will exceed 95,000 million euros at year-end.

“The Spanish food distribution has managed to solve 2020 very well and show its muscle. It is a leading sector in Europe and in which there has been no shortage as in other countries, as well as one of the few industries that have maintained their recruitment levels and increased their turnover rates ”, summarizes Florencio García, an expert at the firm of Kantar market analysis, which figures the increase in sales at 14% until November.

“The sector has been praised throughout Europe and, from the point of view of its image, has taken a great step forward as a social agent, with the population empathizing with the figure of supermarket cashiers.”

Of course, this specialist in mass consumption emphasizes that he has also increased his expenses as a result of health and safety measures and the increased recruitment of personnel with which to face the increase in demand and, above all, to meet the unprecedented e-commerce push. With the increase in investments, the margins of the distributors have suffered, supports Daimiel.

It does not matter if they are supermarkets or hypermarkets or traditional grocery stores, markets or Chinese. All have enjoyed a spike in sales during the pandemic. And some, such as specialized shops or markets, for the first time in 15 and 5 years, respectively, indicates the Kantar expert.

But if there are some absolute winners, those are the regional supermarkets, those local establishments, very close to the citizen, with a large assortment and good fresh produce, the one with the greatest sales boom during the pandemic.

Brands such as Consum, AhorraMas, Bonpreu, Gadis, Alimerka, Condis or Covirán are some examples. They have managed to scratch market share from the absolute leader in the sector, Mercadona, and the rest of the national chains.

“Regional supermarkets, by themselves, are up more than one point over the previous year, when the sector as a whole grew at that rate. They have been the ones that have adapted best and fastest to the consumer’s needs, with fresh produce and prepared food, ”says José Luis Nueno, professor at IESE Business School. Of the big five (Mercadona, Carrefour, Dia, Lidl and Eroski),

The eternal struggle between supermarkets (from 400 to 2,500 square meters of surface) and hypermarkets (of more than 2,500 meters), which in Spain long ago ended in favor of the former (among other things, due to legislative restrictions on large surfaces recalls Javier Millán-Astray, general director of the National Association of Large Distribution Companies -ANGED-), it seems that it will remain.

While hyper-depressed have attracted more consumers in recent months due to their larger size, the ability to make a full purchase and the perception of security that buyers have in them.

“Supermarkets have benefited from consumption outside the home, which has become inside. In hypermarkets, the behavior is the opposite, they suffered with the closing of shopping centers during confinement; As of May they had a significant boom and now, with the third wave, they are falling again due to restrictions on mobility ”, says Rosa Carabel, director of Eroski’s commercial network, with more than 1,300 stores, of which 38 are hypermarkets and contribute about 25% of its turnover.

Carabel highlights the changing situation that is being experienced in the large distribution with the covid-19 and the increase in its sales of 18% in 2020. Dia, for example, closed the year with a sales increase of 0.2%, up to the 6,882 million.

The citizens have chosen. And they opt above all for proximity, “with which the future of the hypermarket is complicated,” according to Florencio García, even more so given the entry into the scene of new competition from the hand of brands like Family Cash.

But your habit changes go far beyond that preference. They have reduced their visits to grocery stores (6%) and have raised the average ticket (14%). Three trends that the experts consulted believe are here to stay.

Another new habit stands out among the rest and without the possibility of going back: the digitization of the shopping cart. E-commerce has broken two of its traditional barriers during covid-19: age (those over 50 have signed up to fill the cart virtually) and fresh product (the customer has dared to buy fresh products , even fish), explains Jaime Teixeira, Dia’s Director of Operations, who saw online demand tripled during confinement and made a million home delivery deliveries.

Digital commerce has gained 1.5 million customers, has grown close to 30% year-on-year, and penetration exceeds 3%. “The channel has doubled without companies being prepared for it”, considers Patricia Daimiel.

Now, distribution chains are investing in technology, logistics and storage, and online sales can grow much more, Nueno predicts. According to the director of Asedas, supermarkets have allocated 300 million euros to improve their digital response and to provide security measures to their workers and customers during the pandemic.

On protective equipment alone, Dia has spent € 12 million, and Lidl speaks of € 26 million to keep its spaces safe. “All items of expenses have increased significantly during the covid. None has remained in place, and some, such as the online business, have multiplied by four ”, says Rosa Carabel, who places the average increase in expenses between 10% and 15%. “The invoice is not small and the margins are very narrow,” he says.

Despite this, distribution chains have continued to open stores like crazy in the last months of 2020, emphasizes Professor Nueno, thus taking advantage of the consumption pull. “In November, Mercadona, Lidl and Aldi have opened more establishments than in the rest of the year”, Florencio García highlights.

The industry leader opened nine stores in the last two months of the year. It has to do with the Christmas campaign, justifies José Ramón Fernández de Barrena, CEO of Grupo Uvesco. “December is the strongest month of the year, with 50% more sales than a normal month.”

You had to take advantage of it. In fact, supermarkets and hypermarkets closed the year by growing 9.8%, according to the only closed data from Nielsen, to which should be added those of the rest of food establishments.

Carrefour, the group that intends to buy the Canadian Alimentation Couche-Tard, is probably the one that has added the most stores to its commercial network in 2020, about 90, taking advantage of the Dia closures. Also the one that has starred in the largest acquisition of the year in the sector, by taking over the Supersol chain.

Eroski has made 70 openings between its own and franchised stores, in a very good year in terms of openings and renovations, as the head of its commercial network calls it, which foresees many more in 2021. An estimate that is repeated in Lidl, which has opened 43 supermarkets after an investment of 240 million euros, in addition to two logistics platforms, to which another one currently under construction will be added this year. Its workforce has increased by 2,000 people.

And also in Consum, which has opened more surfaces than budgeted, indicates its director of External Relations, Javier Quiles, with a total of 36. On a smaller scale, Uvesco invested 38 million in seven new supermarkets, a figure that this year will reach 40 million for 10 openings, explains its CEO.

These are some examples of the furor in supermarkets, especially proximity, the format with the greatest expansion. And that allows regional chains such as Consum, very strong in the Mediterranean arc, that their turnover grows by more than 15% to exceed 3,100 million euros in 2020 with 780 stores. Or to Uvesco, with 240 supermarkets mainly in the north of the country, to sell 20% more to bring its income above 900 million.

Distribution companies reshape their networks and convert some of their old establishments into dark stores or blind stores with which to meet the growing demand for home orders. “The pandemic has changed the distribution structure, which will continue to encourage close purchases.

The network of stores will be remodeled and relocated. Many companies are already doing it [such as Mercadona, which is expanding its sales centers]. They convert some properties into blind stores to serve online distribution ”, says Enrique Porta, partner responsible for Consumption and Distribution at KPMG.

They are preparing for an uncertain environment that the extension of vaccines could clear from mid-2021. That is the horizon with which the distribution chains are working in the year in which they anticipate the arrival of the economic crisis in households and a deterioration of your confidence.

“We are facing months of recession and a consumer crisis because citizens will have less money to spend. When the ERTE ends, the moment of truth will come. These are difficult months in which the price will be very relevant for the customer and in which we will continue to fight for the euro sold. We are going to be thrown into a price war to gain market share ”, says Rosa Carabel, who already appreciates movements in this direction.