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More changes brewing in UK convenience store sector


With major deals of the scale of Morrison's takeover of Safeway now all but banned by the UK competition authority, the focus of attention has turned to the convenience store sector, where the regulator has been surprisingly liberal in allowing the major multiples to pursue their expansion.

This attitude is unlikely to last for much longer, however, and companies both large and small are jockeying for position before the Competition Commission closes the loophole.

Both Tesco and Sainsbury have acquired convenience store chains this year (Adminstore and Bells, respectively), while Morrisons/Safeway and Somerfield have both announced plans for new convenience fascias, showing that interest in this sector remains extremely high.

Most of the recent headlines have been about the future of Londis, the leading UK symbol group, which accepted, rejected and then accepted once again a bid from Ireland's Musgrave group, and despite a much higher offer this time around, a significant number of Londis store owners remain unconvinced of the benefits of the deal.

A report in today's Financial Times newspaper suggests that the Londis Shareholders Action Group (LSAG), a small but vociferous group of Londis store owners, is keen to pursue talks with the Big Food Group, the owner of the Iceland chain and the main challenger to Musgrave.

It was an alternative offer from BFG which sparked a bidding war for Londis in the early part of this year, but the company did not take part in the official bidding process organised by KPMG because it objected to a clause in the agreement preventing it from changing any Londis outlets to another fascia. BFG's principal interest in Londis is to expand its own Premier store business, run as part of its Booker cash & carry unit.

BFG's interest in Londis has not waned, despite the second recommended bid from Musgrave, and the LSAG is though to be willing to support a hostile bid for a minority stake in Londis from the larger group.

The Londis board needs to win the support of 75 per cent of the shareholders for the Musgrave bid to go ahead, and the vote could be very close.

According to the FT report, the LSAG is increasingly concerned about the way in which the board has handled the whole takeover. The original £40 million offer from Musgrave would have seen the lion's share of the cash go to just a handful of directors, leading the LSAG to suggest that this was the prime motivation for pursuing the sale of the group in the first place.

The rebel shareholders at least managed to scupper that bid, and force a number of changes to the company's board, but they remain highly sceptical of the need to sell the group in the first place - or the ongoing motives behind it.

The FT report claims that LSAG members were shocked to hear about two previous bids for Londis from BFG - one of which would have meant taking a minority stake and allowing the co-operative structure to remain intact, the option preferred by many store owners - which had never been mentioned by the current Londis management.

Adrian Costain, head of the LSAG, told the paper that the Londis board had consistently failed to disclose key facts such as who the other bidders are or even who the highest bidder was - motivated entirely by its determination to get into bed with Musgrave.

BFG is not the only group which could scupper Musgrave's takeover bid for the second time. The paper also suggests that LSAG members could support another rival bid from Nisa Today's, another symbol group thought to be interested in a minority stake.

While Londis, with over 2,000 stores, would be a real feather in the cap of one of the larger groups looking to move into the convenience store sector, most of the activity in recent months has focused on small-scale acquisitions such as Adminstore, Bells or Aberness, the Scottish group acquired by Somerfield.

The latest acquisitions in the sector is also of this nature, with the biggest convenience store operator in the UK, the Co-operative Group, snapping up the 64 store-strong Conveco group based in the south west of England, and Somerfield adding to its Scottish operations.

The acquisitions of Alldays and Balfour over the last two years have added 750 stores to the Co-op's convenience store portfolio, which it brands under the Welcome fascia, and it now has more than 1,800 stores across the UK - of which the vast majority are c-stores.

The price paid for the three groups - Plymouth and Cornwall Convenience Stores, Devon and Cornwall Convenience Stores and Somerset and Bristol Convenience Stores - which make up Conveco was not disclosed.

The Co-op said it planned to run the chain -38 of which trade under the Spar fascia, the remainder as Local Plus - as a stand-alone business in the short term, before eventually converting the stores to the Welcome convenience format.

Last year, total food sales at the Co-op rose by 17.4 per cent to £3.07 billion and food profits jumped 63 per cent to £113.4 million, helped by a 3.4 per cent increase in like-for-like sales from the convenience store business.

Meanwhile, Somerfield has also continued its move into the convenience sector with the addition of 11 forecourt convenience stores in Scotland, at a cost of £2.6 million. The move comes just a few weeks after it acquired a number of c-stores operated by Aberness in Scotland.

Somerfield will retain and develop five prime sites, which are currently closed, in Abercraig, Newport-on-Tay; Hawthorn Street, Glasgow; New Scone, Perth; Carnoustie and Northern Lights, Aberdeen. The six remaining sites have been sold as part of the deal for development by a third party.

Petrol station forecourts are becoming an increasingly important part of the retail sector, offering greater margin opportunities for both the fuel suppliers and the retailers. Gone are the days when forecourt stores stocked just travel sweets, newspapers and engine oil - most now stock a complete range of 'convenient' groceries, including bread, milk and ready meals.

David Cheyne, head of Somerfield's convenience business unit, said: "These forecourts are in great locations - we now aim to make the investment they deserve and apply our strengths in convenience retailing and store management to provide a valuable service to local customers. We are determined to build on the successful acquisition of Aberness and to strengthen our offer in Scotland."

"We currently operate twenty nine forecourt stores around the UK, and have developed a successful customer offering that is tailored to meet the specific requirements of busy motorists and local shoppers."

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