10 April 2006

Milk bars getting the mix wrong

Only a few years ago, liberalisation of supermarket trading hours in Victoria was widely opposed in the name of protecting the interests of the classic corner milk bar and “mixed business”. Milk bars just wouldn’t be able to compete, went the argument.

The reality today? Forget the supermarkets, most milk bar proprietors are their own worst enemies!

Impressions of the typical milk bars in my area (the leafy, well-to-do Eastern suburbs)… windows smothered in cheap, fading posters for obscure phone cards. Poorly lit, visually cluttered and difficult to navigate. Dusty inventory of jam jars, biscuits and instant coffee on home-made pine shelving, overshadowed by tacky plastic toys and no-name socks and underwear. A VCR playing non-stop Chinese movies on a portable TV behind the counter. Distinctly domestic cooking smells wafting from the residence and disinterested counter staff in regular street clothes (whatever happened to the old apron?).

In other words, it’s the absolute antithesis of the kind of environment that’s conducive to buying fresh milk, fresh bread, sweets and treats like ice cream.

Smart retailers have recognised for years that the shopping experience begins long before the customer enters the store and that it involves all of the senses. Real estate agents know about “street appeal” and the smell of a freshly-baked loaf of bread or cookies during an “open for inspection”. So why do people choose to run a milk bar if they don't understand or care about the basics of the consumer experience when buying "fresh" food?

And, seriously folks, what is with the phone cards? What’s the retailer margin? What inventory do they need to stock? Just how many consumers in the Eastern suburbs are looking for cheap calls to Mongolia? (I’ve only ever met one Mongolian in Melbourne.) The benefits of this intrusive and ugly promotion can’t possibly justify the negative aesthetics and the loss of natural light.

Meanwhile, judging by the way it is redesigning and refitting its supermarkets with street frontages, Coles Myer clearly recognises that the local and convenience shopper is attracted by large open windows revealing other shoppers enjoying a brightly-lit, attractive and well-organised shopping environment. Put the fresh and impulse stuff near the entrance, add some express checkouts and a friendly smile and… wait a second, that’s pretty close to what the old milk bar offered, isn’t it?

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