When Albert Heijn announced its arrival in Flanders in 2011, many eyebrows were raised. Retail experts were not immediately convinced. "I'm not going to lie: it has become much more successful than I ever thought it would be."
This quote is from retail expert Gino Van Ossel, who frankly admits that he had a number of question marks at the start. Not so much about the reaction of the customers: "We already knew that many Belgians went to Albert Heijn across the border," says Van Ossel. "The question was whether Albert Heijn would be able to convince franchisees. I was wrong about that, and then again I was not. The first two stores were opened by newcomers on the scene, not by entrepreneurs from other chains. I expected Albert Heijn to have problems in that area in particular, but today we see Delhaize franchisees also operating Albert Heijn shops."
Jorg Snoeck of RetailDetail remembers that he was one of the few who was positive about Albert Heijn's chances of success. "I immediately said they had a good chance," he says. "I was the first to know they were coming, and also that it was not a crazy adventure. Albert Heijn had prepared well and had put a whole task force on the Belgian story."
Despite all the scepticism from the start, it is now clear that Albert Heijn is in Belgium to stay. The supermarket chain was able to position itself well in the Belgian market. What is particularly striking is how different that market position is here compared to the Netherlands: more of a price fighter in Belgium, more of a service supermarket in the Netherlands.
Young people and 'new Belgians’
Dirk Vanderveken, retail expert at Shopperware, notes that Albert Heijn has managed to attract a specific demographic. "On the one hand, it's about a young audience, and on the other, what I call 'new Belgians'," he explains. "What they have in common is that the specific assortment appeals well to those two groups."
Snoeck also notes that. "Of course, at the time they started in a region where many Dutch people also live," he says. "But what is striking today is how Albert Heijn has found a niche in the Belgian market that does not get in the way of the competition. They have really found a Belgian Albert Heijn customer."
Albert Heijn was, certainly in the beginning, particularly successful with its stunt promotions and characteristic 'hamster weeks'. A model that hurt the competition, certainly in the beginning. "With those stunts, they certainly gave the 1+1 free model a push in Belgium," Van Ossel says. "It puts pressure on the margins. Especially Colruyt, which until then was used to following competitor promotions with its red prices, had to adapt to this. But other retailers also suffered from this approach."
But is such an aggressive approach with stunt promos sustainable? Snoeck shrugs. "It' the name of the game," he says. "With those promos you attract people to the stores, and then they put other products in their shopping cart. Van Ossel also does not immediately see a problem. "These actions are planned over a whole year, in consultation with the suppliers," he explains. "That model has existed in the Netherlands for a long time, and has now simply been exported to Belgium."
French-speaking Belgium is "the next frontier"
It should be clear: the experts are in complete agreement that Albert Heijn has written a fine success story in Flanders over the past 10 years. And they also agree on what the next decade will bring. French-speaking Belgium is "the next frontier" for the Dutch.
Vanderveken is sharpest in his analysis. "As far as I am concerned, it is incomprehensible that they have not yet started on Wallonia," he sounds firm. "Yes, there are some logistical challenges, and you have the issue of translating the packaging and so on. But when you see how chains like Kruidvat and Zeeman are also successful across the language border, that should really not be an excuse." Vanderveken throws the bat into the Ahold Delhaize henhouse. "I wonder if this wait-and-see attitude was not an internal deal to prevent Albert Heijn from hitting sister brand Delhaize too hard."
But internal deal or not, the proverbial conquest of Wallonia is certainly coming. Both Vanderveken and Van Ossel emphatically refer to the Albert Heijn store in Wemmel. Although it is located on Flemish territory, it has de facto become a bilingual Brussels shop. "The staff is bilingual, the customers are bilingual," Van Ossel explains. "And you have to note that that shop is running well, despite the presence of a Colruyt around the corner."
Van Ossel sees great potential in Wallonia. "That region can be perfectly served from the distribution centre in Tilburg. Moreover, purchasing power is lower in Wallonia, which plays into Albert Heijn's hands with its Belgian price-breaker image." Snoeck sees another additional factor. "Ahold Delhaize also owns the web shop bol.com," he says. "French-speaking Belgium is the next logical step for that online platform as well. They can take that step in Albert Heijn's back pocket, as it were."
But Snoeck warns: “Now things are running like clockwork during the corona crisis, and the only challenge is keeping the shelves filled. But when this crisis is over, they will have to watch their backs again. And then it is inevitable that synergies will be sought. That will put the internal relationship with Delhaize on edge.”