Spring came to the West Midlands earlier this month and brought with it retailers from all over the UK as the convenience store sector converged on the NEC for this year's Convenience Retailing Show.
More than 200 exhibitors played host to a record number of visitors over three days, with the products on display ranging from hot food to cold cabinets, from smoothies to movies.
Convenience Store's stand at the heart of the show was home to the Ideas to Take Away film presentation, demonstrating some of the initiatives which have helped boost retailers' revenues. Also on show were the results of the 2007 Shop Project, C-Store's very own makeover show.
Healthy eating was very much a talking point, with several exhibitors offering samples of fruit smoothies and health bars. The Sandwich and Snack Solutions area picked up the trend with recipe demonstrations and in-store drinks merchandisers.
It wasn't all about food, however. This year saw the first appearance at CRS of prepaid credit cards which can be bought over the counter, and the number of refrigerated display manufacturers reflected the belief that another hot summer will see more lines being sold direct from the chiller.
The C-Store team spent the show touring the aisles, asking visitors to nominate their highlights, so if you didn't make it to Birmingham, here's some of what you missed.
Sweet Cred has a new functional energy brand, 24/7. At the moment the range consists of energy strips and gum, but an energy drink and bars will be available later in the year. Three of the energy strips are equivalent to one can of energy drink and, say the makers, the effects are felt more quickly because they dissolve on the tongue.
Cracker Drinks announced that from April its drinks will be available through Booker in specially designed outers of 4x1ltr. It claims the ambient natural fruit juice drinks taste as good as eating fresh fruit. The company also plans to add two new formats for the convenience market: 200ml wedges and 400ml PET.
Birds Eye made its first CRS outing following its split from Unilever. The stand was shouting about the £25m marketing spend on the brand this year, as well as all the recent new product development and just-extended range of pricemarked packs.
? Country Choice received a great deal of attention from independent retailers with its Bake & Bite 'shop within a shop' concept, which is now in 10 stores across the UK. Another popular launch was Country Choice's new smoothie bar. The bar is fully Bake & Bite branded and comes complete with freezer, blender, fridge, preparation area and overhead menu boards.
Technology solutions provider Torex Retail revealed its new energy control systems which monitor and control electrical consumption for refrigeration, heating, ventilation, lighting and humidity, providing big savings for retailers.
Fresh produce wholesaler MJ Morris & Son was pushing its new Micro-Steam range of vegetables, along with its extensive range of loose and prepacked produce.
Distributor and importer Richester Foods has expanded its range of sugar confectionery with the Melloworld range. Director Ryan Venter said: "We feel that fat-free offers benefits and we're thinking of adding vitamin C to the Mellows and gumdrops, too."
Cuisine de France used CRS to showcase its new food-to-go concept - Cuisine to Go. The range includes French quiche, hot pies and pastries, French bread pizza and paninis. CDF marketing director David Girdler told Convenience Store: "Retailers like the freshness and quality it offers. They also like the fact that the equipment is fully modular and that its colour scheme can fit into any store fascia colour."
Simply Coffee displayed its range of bean-to-cup coffee machines. New for CRS was the company's smallest unit, designed to give small
c-stores and CTNs the option of providing a coffee-to-go offering.
Among the wheely good ideas at CRS was the rolling basket found at the Eden Shop Equipment stand. Eden's Andrew Baylis said that interest in the baskets had been phenomenal. He said: "The baskets have more capacity than hand-held ones. They encourage customers to spend longer in the store, increasing their spend by up to 20%."
Unilever's biggest npd of 2007 in the laundry category - new Small & Mighty two-times concentrate liquid detergent - made an eye-catching CRS debut. Retailers saw the advantage of the smaller pack size - a one-metre shelf will hold nine of the new format rather than five dilute bottles, with a 50% increase in revenue for the space.
Most of the symbol groups were out in force and kept busy by a steady stream of retailers.
A show first for Nisa-Today's was a live CCTV feed into Kishor Patel's store in Houghton Regis, Bedfordshire, and word has it that Kishor himself took the opportunity to ring staff to ask them to replenish the bread after seeing stocks were running low. John Heagney, symbol group development director, showed visitors 360° images of four stores, as well as its new warehouse. "We look at the retailer and the demographic of the area they operate in, and design a store that's right for that area," he said.
Budgens and Londis were fully integrated on one Musgrave Budgens Londis stand, giving visitors the opportunity to explore the offers of both fascias.
Costcutter was offering retailers more than £5,000 in instant savings if they registered their interest in the symbol group at the show and signed up within 28 days. The savings include free membership fees for both Costcutter and supplier Nisa, free media fees and up to £1,500-worth of free window vinyls, plus a similar amount off the cost of the shop fascia.
Select & Save and reported lively interest from visitors considering a retailer-owned symbol. The group has grown significantly recently to nearly 150 stores, and drew a lot of attention with its aggressive 'Let's beat Tesco' themed advertising.
Landmark Wholesale was at CRS for the first time and drew the crowds with its Hot House retail programme, new Winners promotional schedule and its own-brand lines.
Bimal Patel, Londis, NORTH London
"I've come to CRS to look for bake-off equipment and a digital photo lab, where customers can print their pictures from a memory card. I like the Arneg gondola island fridge that can sit in the middle of the store, so I've asked for a rep to come and see us. I've also picked up a good supplier for sandwiches. It's called Yummy and has M&S-style packaging. I also like the rolling basket - I've put an order in for those."
Burhan Uddin, Costcutter, Wakefield, West Yorkshire
"I'm looking for new products and to enhance my knowledge of retailing. I'm going independent soon so I've been checking out what all the other symbols can offer me."
Baz Patel, Mollies, Luton, Bedfordshire
"Coming to CRS gives me the opportunity to see what's changing in the market and there seem to be a lot of new ideas this year, especially in bake-off. I've asked Bake & Bite to come and see us about the 'shop within a shop' concept. I'm also looking at security cameras - I like the remote monitoring CCTV so I can keep an eye on my three stores when I'm out."
Steve Flitter, Winster Village Shop, Matlock, Derbyshire
"We're looking for everything from refrigeration to epos and development ideas. This is the first time we've been to this show and we've made a couple of really good contacts. We've got loads of paperwork to read and lots of contacts to follow up."
Terry Philpott, Londis Martins of Castle Carey, Somerset
"I've been coming here for the past three or four years and think this is the best yet; there's a better range of suppliers. The business presentations were also very good and the perfect chance to share best practice with other retailers. I always find it very useful."
Dilip Patel, Londis Regent's Park, London
"We come here every year to get ideas to take back. And it's a day out from the business!".