Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn’s ‘to go’ format delivers an unusual convenience store concept. John Ryan reports.

Mention ‘convenience stores’ to a food retailer or to a shopper and there’s a good chance they will think the same thing - a place consumers can drop into and pick up something for today, or top up the larder. For many, the top-up element is as important as the ‘to go’ part. These are shops that present possibilities for food customers when other stores are closed.

The idea of a store that is solely about providing food solutions for the moment is unusual, and not generally found on UK high streets. However, in Holland, Dutch grocer Albert Heijn has Albert Heijn to go - a convenience store that does not offer things that may have been forgotten and which has more limited hours than a conventional convenience store. It does, however, cater for the moment and it does it well.

On your travels

Any traveller to Amsterdam will come across Albert Heijn. There are about 60 branches in a range of shapes and sizes in the Dutch capital, and there are times when it seems that almost every second shop bears the retailer’s logo.

The majority of the shops are small and medium-sized supermarkets and the ‘to go’ format is relatively sparsely distributed. That said, take the train from Schiphol airport, and arriving at nearby Amsterdam Zuid railway station visitors will encounter two Albert Heijn to go stores within 200 metres of each other.

Amsterdam Zuid has two big glass buildings that house the World Trade Center (WTC). Incorporated into the body of one of these is a new-look Albert Heijn to go store, which opened last year. On the other side of the railway track another of the same format is located, but this one has not been given the makeover that the WTC branch has received.

The combination of a vivid sky-blue fascia with white font and fuchsia and red as highlight colours mean that this store is hard to miss and is the most obvious retail outlet in the area. It is also modestly sized at about 646 sq ft, which makes it a real convenience store, instead of a supermarket that has been shrunk.

A delivery bicycle, Albert Heijn-branded and liveried in the retailer’s colours is directly outside the store, in a nod towards the fact that cyclists are everywhere in this area. It was originally intended to be used to deliver items to nearby offices, but is now merely a visual prop.

Digital to go

The thing that is really noticeable, however, is the graphics. The coffee offer is promoted in words rather than pictures, and in the centre of the window, a large flatscreen has what appears to be a portion of a London Tube map. This has Albert Heijn to go as the stop at its centre with other stops including Amsterdam Zuid and a mobile website.

The latter, m.albertheijntogo.nl, has been developed specifically for shoppers at the new-look Albert Heijn to go and gives them information, access to offers and allows them to provide feedback on the store. It also provides a clue about the digitally led nature of what’s inside.

Walk through the door and to the left are three screens across which ‘meal deals’ of the day scroll. This is changed on a regular basis and it sits above a ‘deals to go’ chiller unit containing sandwiches and cans of Red Bull.

To the right there is a counter with tills. In the normal run of modern convenience retailing, there would be a couple of cash registers and then a bank of self-scan terminals. This Albert Heijn to go store eschews that in favour of a large number of tills with small customer-facing screens that apologise if a till is not open.

There is a self-scan machine, which is unusually in the mid-shop and on a standalone plinth decked out in the fuchsia colour of the exterior. It bears the legend ‘scan to go’, emphasising that this shop is not about waiting around. Upon enquiry, a member of staff opined that the self-scan terminal was not used much and that most shoppers preferred to wait to be served at the tills.

And when they reach the front of the line, the various hot drinks advertised on the store exterior are waiting to be made by staff behind the counter, and should there be any doubt about what a macchiato might be, there’s a graphic to help.

The emphasis is very much upon small ‘meal solutions’ and the mid-shop equipment that leads to the tills does not offer tins of beans and fresh produce, for example. Instead, the concentration is on confectionery, with ready meals such as salads and sandwiches and fruit juices contained in the perimeter chiller units.

The chiller units are almost frameless - a feature that has been adopted across nearly all Albert Heijn stores, as they give clear views of the product. One member of staff commented that the downside of this is that they are “a nightmare” to keep clean.

In the shop’s back right corner is the bakery and fresh sandwich area. Here, filled rolls are prepared on the premises and changed every two hours. A quick look at the price ticket on each item reveals the fact that as well as the usual day of preparation information there is also the hour and minute at which this was undertaken, in order to guarantee freshness.

What customers want

This is not a huge store and neither does it offer a wide range, but if it’s food for now that is needed (albeit not necessarily the most health-conscious), then this is a natural destination for WTC workers. It is also different from the convenience norm and, owing to the modular nature of the fit-out, it is easily scalable. Albert Heijn parent company Ahold made convenience one of its platforms for growth last year and there are now a handful of similar stores across Amsterdam.

That said, cross the tracks beyond the WTC and there is the old-style Albert Heijn to go outlet. This is not nearly as colourful and neither does it have the same digital elements as the newer store. The inevitable question is whether putting a lot of screens in a store makes it a better shop for those in search of a sandwich and drink - the answer may well be that it does not. This is, however, a convenient store that provides those in the area with what they need for the moment in a bright and cheerful environment.

Albert Heijn to go

Location World Trade Center, Amsterdam Zuid

Format Food for now, not tomorrow

Features Mobile website and in-store digital elements

Ambience Low-cost cheer

Opening hours Weekdays 8am to 6pm, closed at the weekend