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Cleaning up the mess? Inside a Carrefour supermarket in Buenos Aires.
Cleaning up the mess? Inside a Carrefour supermarket in Buenos Aires.
Damian Kantor

BUENOS AIRES — If there is a force more potent than Chinese work habits, it must be multinational competition. In Argentina, hundreds of Chinese grocery stores — the ones that, to the chagrin of local shops, are open 24 hours — have closed as large global supermarket chains have opened small convenience stores.

Over the last two years, in fact, 418 Chinese groceries have closed. Some 300 of those turned to the increasingly popular "pay-per-weight" lunchtime catering in response to multinational brands muscling into the daily shopping market, especially in the Greater Buenos Aires area. That represents the closure or conversion of 7% of all Chinese grocery shops in Argentina.

Twenty five large chains, including Carrefour, Dia and Walmart, are gaining ground in this market, according to CCR, a consultancy firm. These big companies are now estimated to make up 50% of Argentina's food shops with an area of less than 500 square meters, all providing the same quality products as their larger outlets — and at the same price.

Chain analysts and directors chalk this up as a response to changes in consumer habits, and not strictly related to the recession. Carrefour currently has 559 outlets, of which 349 are in this "local format," says Carlos Velasco, its communications chief in Argentina. He says the chain opened 34 Carrefour Express stores and that the company is "aiming to open 15 to 20 more." The consultants at Kantar Worldpanel estimate that big brands control 55% of retail sales in Argentina, in all their outlets, the remainder being shared between groceries, other department stores, wholesalers, fairs and markets.

In a Buenos Aires supermarket — Photo: EMartin Zabala/Xinhua/ZUMA

"The preponderance of the big supermarket is declining, and the presence of local shops increasing," says Federico Filipponi, a consumer trends analyst at Kantar. And the type of shopping being done at the local supermarket — the minimarket or minisúper — is perhaps more significant than previously thought, he says, with people buying up to 15 product types on average.

Significantly, 92% of the chain stores that opened in 2014 were in the small, local format, compared to 59% in 2011, 78% in 2012 and 85% in 2013. It's a solid trend because, as Kantar's Filipponi says, "people want to save time" by avoiding the huge big box stores.

And yet it doesn't signal the end to the major supermarkets. The average shopping bill at one of these is four times bigger than at a local shop. And as Carrefour's Velasco reminds us, only 9% of the brand's turnover in Argentina comes from "mini markets."

Chinese shops shuttering

One way or another, Chinese shops are in retreat. Miguel Calvete, president of the association of Chinese shopkeepers CASREC, blames the recession but also the forward push of chains. "On the one hand, people are consuming less and are more careful with spending," he says. "On the other, the chains are pursuing a very aggressive expansion plan, mainly Carrefour and Dia," he says, citing inflation and price controls imposed by the government of President Cristina Kirchner.

Corner shop closures and conversions are frequent. "Many are forced to close or they migrate inland, to cities with fewer than 40,000 residents," Calvete says. "Those with businesses in wealthier ares, in the capital or large inland cities, turn to selling food by weight."

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