50 Years and Counting (Down)?

One of the many problems of getting older is that more and more anniversaries seem to come along and the numbers associated with them get ever more troubling.

Next year for example my University will have been announced formally for 50 years, though as the first students didn’t appear until 1967, our 50th anniversary is not officially until 2017.  If I survive that long then I will have been at Stirling for over ⅔rds of its existence!  That is really scary.

Perhaps less worrying – or not – is the anniversary I was reminded of a couple of weeks ago.  With Steve Burt I was lucky enough to be invited to present at the Etienne Thil colloquium.  In memory of the marketing director of Carrefour, this annual event brings together retail academics from France with some retail practitioners to discuss academic and business practice.

This year it was especially noteworthy as it is 50 years since the opening of the first Carrefour hypermarket.  Fifty years; half a century – really. Whether you feel the hypermarket has been a good or a bad thing for the face of retailing – and let’s remember it is possibly the format that has been subject to the most state control and intervention – there can be no denying its significance.

It somehow seems a short time (isn’t the hypermarket still new?), yet given current trials, tribulations of “grandes surfaces” and retail changes, also a long time (isn’t the hypermarket past it?).  Is the hypermarket the format of the past, however much retailers try to adjust their formula (a la Tesco and Watford)?

Certainly Carrefour, that pioneer of the European hypermarket, as a company is much less focused on the format, as the table below shows.  What does this shift in emphasis mean for its future and the future of big-box retailing?

Carrefour0001At the colloquium there were interesting business and academic presentations.  My piece – asked to speak on Anglo-Saxon town centres and retailing (a delicious irony given my background and life!) – followed an excellent presentation by the  Head of Property and Development from Fnac.  This presentation demonstrated clearly that the winds of change buffeting food retailing also apply in the Fnac business and demand an adaptive, multi-format strategic approach moving away from the core original format (but hopefully not the culture).

Steve Burt presented something on time – which those who know him will find deeply amusing.  It gathered  a few tweets on the day (#Thil2013) and prompted quite a bit of interest.  The final sessions of the day were by the CEOs of Galeries Lafayette and Carrefour.  By then however the meeting was running a little late and the interpreters were past their contracted time; so being French they simply left the building.  The presentations looked really interesting but were far too sophisticated for my sub-schoolboy rugby-player French.

The hypermarket was the big idea of the 1960s, and it is (in)appropriate to welcome its middle age by questioning its survival.  But, there is little doubt the retail world is moving on and space is not needed as it once was.  If e-commerce is the current big idea (or is it what the French call proximité stores) then where should we be looking for the next one?  And what will we do with the space we no longer need? – which coincidentally was one of the themes of my presentation on towns.

In celebration of 50 years of Carrefour I attach here, the paper Steve Burt wrote on the company in 1986 when it was only 25 years into its hypermarket journey.  The story of the second twenty five years has been as equally eventful.

A final thought: During my PhD at the University of Wales I got interested in some of the planning events of the 1960s and the development of superstores in Wales (such as Carrefour at Caerphilly). I was interested in why we called them “superstores” when the French called them “hypermarche or hypermarkets”. I found a lovely quote from I think a senior planner who demanded the word superstore, as hypermarket had “too many suspicious continental connotations”. Despite the passage of time, some things stay the same.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues.
This entry was posted in Carrefour, Food Retailing, Hypermarkets, Retail History, Retailing, Wales and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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