The Dutch catering wholesaler Sligro had imagined its conquest of Belgium in a completely different way. Every new store is a new struggle: “The competition has made it very difficult,” says CEO Koen Slippens.
“Champions League sponsor of the legal profession”
Originally, Sligro had wanted to enter the Belgian market through acquisitions, but that did not work out: “The suitable chains were not for sale. That is why we wanted to do it on our own”, Slippens says in Dutch business newspaper FD. But then there was movement in the market: Sligro succeeded in acquiring first Java and later ISPC, and was eventually able to open its first branch in Antwerp in November 2018 – a year later than planned. But even that opening was compromised for a while, because Sligro had just lost his building permit just before that.
“The competition has made it very difficult for us”, the CEO says, just like the local residents near that first store. “We have become a Champions League sponsor of the legal profession”, Slippens refers to the many objections and lawsuits he encountered on his way. In the end, all matters were settled in favor of Sligro, he says happily.
Two more months of patience
And even after the first store opened, there is not that much reason to celebrate: especially the self-service customer in particular remains absent. Sligro is aiming for a 50/50 distribution of delivery and cash & carry, but that ratio is still 80/20. “We have to fight harder to attract the self-service customer”, Belgian director Rudi Petit-Jean confirms. “In order to do just that, we will start giving cooking demonstrations.” Snackbar owners are lured to the store by sending people on the road: “We have given all our employees a bicycle and sent them to snackbars with a stack of flyers. You have to approach customers very directly.”
Petit-Jean hopes to reach the desired sales level in two months, and the intention remains to be just as profitable as the locations in the Netherlands: “The costs are a bit higher, but we expect that there will be more sales.”
Fight for every new store
In Bruges, where the second store should open, Sligro Belgium is preparing itself for a new legal battle: “That is where our biggest opponent comes from” (Horeca Totaal Brugge, ed.). “We can do good business with the authorities here, but opponents can object within Belgian law,” Slippens has learned in the meantime.
That is why the CEO approaches the Belgian adventure ‘pragmatically’: “We are not going to finish our list of desired branches one by one, but we will simply open the stores that we can open first. Then perhaps the number one of our wish list will not open first, but rather number five… that is just how business works. “