As part of the 2021 C&I Industry Leaders Forum, Darren Park, CEO, UCB Stores, talks about staying ahead of the curve in independent convenience retailing.

C&I: Highlight one achievement at UCB you’re particularly proud of from over the past 12 months.

Park: The independent channel was faced with significant and seemingly never ending challenges from the onset of the pandemic, that made ‘business as usual’ a thing of the past. Despite the widespread uncertainty and unpredictability of the world (not to mention the day-to-day), my team continually and tirelessly rose to the challenge. The way they responded and adapted to ensure that our members were well informed and could continue to operate safely and effectively, was truly something to behold. In addition, the effort by the entire industry that went on behind the scenes lobbying of government departments, ensuring we could be classified as an essential service. I’ll always look back and be proud of the part UCB played during this most difficult of times.

C&I: What do you enjoy most about convenience and what is one challenge you’d like to see addressed in the industry?

Park: Whether working in the industry or simply as shoppers, we all know that the retail sector is truly dynamic and ever evolving. Whether it’s changing shopper behaviour, wants and needs, or societal trends, new products, retailers and new technology, many ongoing influences have an impact on how we operate. While this continual movement and fluidity can seem daunting and overwhelming to many, it’s what I thrive on. The constant requirement to adapt and evolve with the industry and the opportunities it presents are really what excites me about convenience. The opportunities are endless, from technological, product and category innovation to shop formats, service offerings and retailer education, there is never a dull moment.

The one challenge I’d like to see addressed in our industry continues to be alcohol retailing. With other P&C markets around the world showing that the category can be retailed responsibly and with great success, it’s hard to fathom what makes Australia so different. I’d love to see the industry come together to mount an aligned and convincing representation to the powers that be, in order to make this change happen.

C&I: What is the immediate focus for UCB in 2021?

Park: Assuming we don’t see a direct repeat of 2020, the outlook for UCB in 2021 is bright. We have some really exciting initiatives in the pipeline for our members and their customers, while the evolved role of the channel that has resulted from COVID-19 has presented us with some really exciting strategic and tactical opportunities, which in turn will be our focus for the near future. In addition, I believe there has never been a better time for independent retailers to invest in their retail offers, which is exciting in itself. There has been so much change, innovation, and advancement over the past 12-18 months and so we’re working towards optimising the way our members seize the opportunities and capitalise on them. Our goal is to ensure they stay ahead of the curve in independent convenience retailing both now and, in the future, whatever it may hold.

C&I: How do you envision the next six months for convenience?

Park: The next six months is critical for the convenience channel, irrespective of what the world throws at us. There have been some really positive stories emerging from the AACS State of the Industry Report and it is now upon us as a channel to capitalise on the opportunities they present and the new role we now play for everyday Australians. There are new shoppers, missions and behaviours, health, and safety standards to be met and opportunities to grow the shopper basket, not to mention the ever-increasing role of technology in our customers’ lives and their interaction with brands and retailers. Our channel has been given a fantastic opportunity to grow and cement our position in the Australian retail landscape and I believe those who are willing to invest in making this happen will really see some great results.

C&I: How do you see the retail and food service model through P&C evolving?

Park: The P&C channel can be as simple and complex as we make it. We just need to make sure whatever we do, we do it well. With the top five categories delivering nearly 85 per cent of shop sales, we need to ensure we execute these well ensuring shoppers keep returning to our stores. This being said, there is still a need to evolve our service model to align with the expanded role we play in our customers’ lives and the Australian retail landscape. We must become more than just an occasional shopping stop and capitalise on the new routines and behaviours now evident in the marketplace.

Shoppers are coming to our stores for a wider range of products than before, so a retailer’s ability to meet their expectations, while surprising and delighting them with an appropriate selection of quality offers is essential. From increased, higher quality coffee, food-on-the-go, and meal solutions, to offering a wider range of convenience lines, it’s essential we continue to grow our understanding of the convenience shopper in order to guide our evolution with our trade partners.

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