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Multinational Retailers Go Mini As Argentina Gets Poorer

Globalization downsized? Taking lessons from Chinese immigrant-owned shops, foreign chains Carrefour and Walmart are opening smaller markets to make shopping faster and cheaper.

A Walmart store in Buenos Aires
A Walmart store in Buenos Aires
Martín Bidegaray

BUENOS AIRES — As high inflation gnaws away at their purchasing power, many Argentines have altered their grocery shopping habits, changing not only what they buy but where they buy it.

For some, that means abandoning U.S.-style supermarkets (and even bigger hypermarkets) in favor of doing their shopping at smaller neighborhood stores. The changes haven't escaped the attention of supermarket chains, which are trying to accomodate customers by morphing certain locations into smaller, more accessible estabishments.

"There is no customer who just shops in hypermarkets or supermarkets. The consumer chooses between an increasing number of channels," says Pablo Lorenzo, head of new formats at the French-owned multinational market chain Carrefour.

Carrefour and the Spanish chain Día are leading the trend in opening smaller, local stores. Walmart, through its partner Changomas, is making simlar efforts in Latin America. In doing so, the chains are also competing more directly with open-all-hours Chinese-owned shops, which had expanded quickly throughout the Greater Buenos Aires area but now seem to be going in the opposite direction. Chinese shops had 400 fewer sale points in 2014.

Carrefour plans to open 30 "Express" markets this year, and Día is aiming for 50 similar stores. "This choice of closer to home can be seen in Brazil and Mexico too," says Juan Manuel Primbas, country chief for consultants Kantar Worldpanel. "People are devoting less time to shopping. With the local economic crisis, there is a hyper-rational consumer who is less likely to give in to impulse purchases, and is thus buying less."

A Chinese model

Pablo Lorenzo says Carrefour's decision to open more Express shops is a direct response to how Chinese shops have performed in Buenos Aires. "The Asians made very good progress after the crisis and informal outlets made solid advances in neighborhood shopping. That prompted us to see how we could grasp this market, in which Carrefour is highly developed elsewhere in the world," he says.

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Photo: Tjeerd Wiersma

The estimated number of Chinese groceries here is between 9,500 and 10,000. That's a market the big brands are desperate to bite into. Carrefour Express makes up 365 of the chain's 580 stores in Argentina. In 2014, they represented 9% of its turnover of 36.6 billion pesos (about $4.2 billion). The average receipt in an Express store comes to 68 pesos (a little under $8), while average spending in a Carrefour hypermarket is 450 pesos (about $51). But the number of transactions in big shops declined (approximately 3%) while those in Express outlets rose 9%.

Primbas says traditional grocery stores are losing out as shoppers seek out neighborhood minimarkets and "buy a restricted selection, between seven and 14 categories (of products)." People do not want to pay more, he says, "which is why they are choosing these minimarkets."

Another strong contender is Día, which follows a franchise model. "Día's concept is its own brand and the cheaper, generic product, which allowed it to enter the greater city area. Now it wants to reach middle class and upper middle class districts like Barrio Norte and Palermo," says Primbas.

Día was formerly part of Carrefour. The firm refused to respond to Clarín's request for comment.

Until last year, Carrefour Express did not stock fresh produce or meat. This year they plan to introduce those items gradually. "This complements our neighborhood selection of products. Right now we are strong on frozen food, drinks and cleaning products," says Lorenzo. "We work on the basis of demand. Customers make up their list and the idea is to be able to provide the largest range of items. We don't have 20 different types of noodles like a hypermarket, but we have three or four of the top brands, plus our own label."

Another brand eyeing the sector is Cencosu, owners of Jumbo, Disco and Súper Vea. Meanwhile, Walmart is entering this market through Changomas.

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