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A Tale of Convenience: What We Can Learn From The SPAR Success Story

If I was to ask any passer-by on the street the question “Which major brand has the biggest franchise network presence in the U.K?” I’d bet a significant amount of money that their answer would be one of the major fast-food giants. They might throw in a curveball and hazard a guess at one of the household assistance franchises such as a lawn care brand or perhaps a personal care franchise.

But no. The biggest franchise chain here in the U.K. is SPAR. It’s a convenience store franchise with over 2,400 franchises here in the U.K, dwarfing the likes of McDonald’s which has around 1,200 UK franchise units. Originally named DE SPAR, the SPAR network has nearly 13,000 stores worldwide, across around 48 countries.

What I personally love about the SPAR story is the origin of its name. DE SPAR is an acronym of the Dutch phrase “Door Eendrachtig Samenwerken Profiteren Allen Regelmatig”. In English that translates to “through united co-operation everyone regularly profits”. And actually, doesn’t that sum up what franchising is (or should be) all about?

The Spar story is an intriguing one. Intriguing because it bucks the general trend of smaller “corner shop” retailers here in the U.K. becoming financially unsustainable businesses, squeezed out by the major out-of-town supermarkets and facing closures across the board. The convenience store industry as a whole has never faced tougher times, with wafer-thin margins and competition from discount chains entering the marketplace left right and center.

Yet SPAR is holding its own. It’s been around for forever and a day – the SPAR story began in Holland in the 1930s, arriving here in the U.K in 1957, and it now holds the apparent honor of being the worlds largest international food retail chain.

It’s clear therefore that SPAR reveals some very interesting lessons that we can all learn as franchisors – either here at home in the UK or over on the other side of the pond.

Strong branding

The SPAR brand is instantly recognizable. The red and white colours of SPAR signage and the green fir tree have been part of the branding since the word go. SPAR founder Adriaan van Well had the foresight from the very beginning to understand the importance of brand consistency across sites and this has surely played a significant part in the franchise brand success. Over the years the branding may have had an intermittent refresh but never in such a way to move away from its roots. The SPAR branding is enmeshed in its stores, from prominent signage both in and outside of store, to staff clothing and own brand product ranges.

Local community focus

Spar is proud to call itself a business that is ‘run by locals, for locals’. As a brand, it has always ensured that its sites are embedded in the community and retain a local feel, from small touches like community noticeboards to stocking products from local producers. If it spots a gap or demand in the local area for something butchery counter, it will look to install one. With consumer-driven trends for shopping locally and valuing product provenance high on the agenda, this puts SPAR ahead of the game when it comes to other national competitors operating from larger and impersonal locations. Customers love the local, community feel of the stores and working with local producers means store offerings can be adapted to local tastes and demand. For any franchisor or franchisee, the ability to be agile enough to be able to respond quickly to local customer demands surely puts you several steps ahead of the game.

Remaining outside of the competition

As previously indicated, SPAR operates in a highly competitive industry. The supermarket retail marketplace in recent years has seen aggressive (and sometimes somewhat unattractive) marketing campaigns pitched by the largest providers against each other, and similarly aggressive price undercutting. SPAR endeavours to remain outside of the fracas, focusing its own marketing on its strengths of convenience, freshness and quality. It recognises that price is not something that it can generally compete on, given its often costly store locations. Rather than attempting to compete, SPAR keeps its focus and energy on its own business and has an innovative strategy of rolling promotions to entice customers and hold their attention, interest and loyalty.

Focus on franchisee support and retention

Anyone who has read my previous articles will know that I am a firm believer that a happy and engaged team of franchisees is any franchisors biggest asset. SPAR has a partnership approach to working with its franchise network and has invested significant amounts in its processes and procedures so that it not only carries the stock burden but also frees up its franchisees from having to deal with suppliers and fleet so that they can focus on the core business. It is also renowned for the transparent nature of its agreements, promoting openness and trust with its franchisees. As a result it reportedly has a very high franchisee retention rate.

Collaboration with other brands

As a franchise brand, SPAR recognises that there is great power in allegiances and has formed close alliances with other brands whom, to an outsider, could be viewed as direct competitors. It has introduced Subway sandwich counters into over 40 of its stores, together with Greggs bakery counters and Costa Coffee. An initiative introduced back in 2015, this is another way in which SPAR seems to have successfully managed to hold its own against some of the supermarket giants, recognising the value of harnessing the influence of these other brands. As any savvy franchisor knows, collaboration with other names who have appeal to your target market really can be the key to building something which is not only bigger but also more sustainable.

It’s all credit to SPAR that despite being one of the oldest kids on the block, they seem to be riding the storms of change. Being in touch with their local community allows their franchisees to remain agile, fresh and relevant. And ultimately, as a franchise brand SPAR has seemingly remained true to their original name and value – working together as a team, everyone profits. That’s the spirit of franchising, right there.


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