Retailers and executives work in partnership at Continental symbol group Intermarché, where store owners split their time between shop floor and head office

The retail landscape is familiar: Aldi and Lidl have a growing share of the market, sales of own brand are soaring, community retailing is embraced, and independents are the retailing face of one of the most recognised symbol groups. In terms of grocery, southern Belgium and the UK share some similarities, but it is the differences, especially in the case of Intermarché, which are so intriguing.

Philippe DeBreuck (pictured left) owns a 6,000sq ft Intermarché store in the Belgian countryside, 40 miles south of Brussels. He is also required to spend one-third of the working week at head office, where he works alongside his executive ‘twin’ for the greater good of the company. It is a collaboration replicated across the Intermarché estate, which has 84 independently-owned stores in southern Belgium, in addition to stores in France, Poland and Portugal.

Store profile

Intermarché La Bruyère

 Size: 6,000sq ft

Staff: 15

Turnover: €100,000

Basket spend: €25-€30

Each pair of twins focuses on a specific discipline, such as marketing, finance, buying, or promoting the company’s values. Philippe specialises in marketing alongside Intermarché Belgium marketing director Stéphane Genicot (top right), with whom he works alongside in the office every Tuesday and Wednesday. The retailers volunteer their time in the office, but it is intended to benefit them in the long term. “We deeply respect this system - it enables continuity,” says Stéphane. So Philippe gets to pass on his ideas and proposals, which Stéphane will pass on to other members, while receiving direct access to expertise as well as all the support from Intermarché.

“Retailers are independent, but can influence the direction of the company - all retailers own it. It’s different to other franchises, where franchisees have no say,” says Stéphane. This unique professional relationship enables them to gain a first-hand experience of each other’s roles. Intermarché is a division of French group Les Mousquetaires, which translates as ‘musketeers’, because it’s ‘all for one and one for all’.

Philippe stocks all of Intermarché’s products, which account for about 90% of his stock. The group supplies dozens of different brands totalling 4,000 SKUs, with sales of own brand up 33% in his store. Intermarché owns 61 factories which make a part of the products, thereby providing economies of scale, better offers and improved credit conditions.

Philippe opened his store three years ago after identifying demand in the region of La Bruyére, a rural location comprising a handful of villages. Intermarché retailers account for about 5% of market share in southern Belgium, with Delhaize, Carrefour, Colruyt, Lidl and Aldi among the competitors jostling for position. So the group agreed to back Philippe, which meant guaranteeing him a bank loan to build the store and negotiating for competitive prices for materials. Intermarché endeavours to use cutting-edge green technology when building new stores, so Philippe’s store is equipped with recovery systems for water and cold air, and next year he’ll be adding fridge doors and LED lighting.

Like all Intermarché stores, customers enter to the fruit and veg section which “brings freshness”, says Philippe. Fruit and veg also accounts for about 9% of turnover, with sales rising year on year. It is also typical in accommodating a delicatessen and butchery supplying local meat, while cross-merchandising is a common sales technique; in mouth-watering Belgian style, mussels, accompanying sauces, chips and wine are conveniently displayed alongside each other.

Promotions have also become much more aggressive across grocery and now account for 16% of the market, according to Stéphane. Philippe’s store is no different, with promotions and BOGOFs communicated throughout the store - as is the loyalty card, which offers 3% off designated products. “You can’t sell under your cost price, but you can promote through your loyalty card to avoid this,” says Stéphane. Other growing trends include alcohol-free wine and Fairtrade products, which Philippe will expand into the health food section, which he says is in decline.

While Philippe must source the majority of his stock through the company, he is able to sell local products, and in addition to the butchery - which provides for 95% of the pre-packed meat in the chillers - he sells local beer, apple juice, eggs from a local farm and cheese to name a few, and the bakery is stocked with bread baked in store, which the pair admit is “the influence of France”.

The store’s relationship with the local community is another source of pride, and a point of difference to some of its competitors. “The atmosphere of the store makes it attractive for people to come here to meet each other; it’s the only place to meet in the area,” says Philippe.

The store also plays its part in supporting community groups in a similar way to many UK c-stores. “It’s very important to get involved in the local community, with old and young people. We sponsor local activities and give free products to associations and charities - always local ones, though,” he adds. The store also encourages community interaction through a noticeboard, displayed prominently next to shopping trolleys and the in-store ATM.

Other ways to outdo Philippe’s competitors is by navigating Belgium’s trading laws to open for a period on Sundays. “Stores must close for 24 hours continuously at some point during the week, it doesn’t matter when,” Stephane says. “So we open on Sunday mornings until 12.30 - unlike most of our competitors - and open again at 1pm on Monday.”

With year-on-year sales up 12%, it appears this intriguing professional double act is successfully out-manoeuvring the growing threat of the discounters. “Some of our competitors just don’t have as big a range and freshness and loyalty,” Stéphane proudly concludes.

Independent retail europe

Les Mousquetaires, parent group of Intermarché, is a member of trade lobby group Independent Retail Europe, the Brussels-based equivalent of the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS).

It campaigned heavily for the recently-adopted European Retail Action Plan, which explicitly calls on the European Commission to show support for independent retailers. The action plan identifies the promotion of groups of independent retailers, such as symbol groups, to support the independent sector. The European Parliament also wants to boost independent retailing by allowing councils more autonomy over planning laws.

Independent Retail Europe is also a founding member of the Supply Chain Initiative, launched last year to promote good commercial practices throughout the food supply chain. So far 41 groups from across the EU have registered, representing 320 operating companies.

ACS is a member of Independent Retail Europe. ACS public affairs director Shane Brennan says: “ACS works with them because it is important to have a voice in EU debates that in time will have an impact in the UK.”