Dick Boer, the chief executive of Ahold Delhaize, has said that he "totally disagrees" with anybody that rules out a future for bricks and mortar stores, saying, "the more virtual the world becomes, the more need there is for the real world."
Boer was speaking at the Ahold Delhaize Annual General Meeting of Shareholders, which took place earlier this week; the last time he would address the meeting, ahead of his impeding retirement this July.
"Some people say that they do not see a future for physical stores," Boer commented. "I totally disagree with this. Because stores still matter - and that will be the case in the future, too.
"Because people are social animals. They like to meet other people. They like to be surprised and inspired. They like to touch, feel and smell new and fresh products."
Some Things Never Change
Boer added that in the seven years since he became the retailer's CEO, the pace of change has continued to accelerate, and it has "become more difficult to predict where the changes will come from. This gives a further indication that the role of retailers is changing. Just think about it. Ten years ago, you needed to visit several stores to find the lowest price for a bottle of coke. Now, you can find the lowest price across five different stores within a few seconds."
However, despite demographic and technological shifts, there are some things that never change, and are as relevant today as they were when the Heijn and Delhaize families were setting up their independent retail outlets in the 19th century.
"One hundred years ago, fine local products and good personal service were important. That is still the case a century later. A hundred years ago, customers wanted the best quality at the best price. And that will still be the case 100 years from now. Our great brands continue to provide this, both now and in the future."
He emphasised how Ahold Delhaize is seeking to utilise technology to make the customer experience "even better and more personal, improve our stores and upgrade digital channels", noting that the retailer will open its first 'tap to go'-enabled Albert Heijn to go outlet in Amsterdam this summer, followed by 80 more across the Netherlands.
"With technology, we can also make our supply chains more sustainable and more transparent," he said. "This not only gives us a better and more up-to-date view of the production process for our products, it also increases reliability and visibility for customers, using blockchain or other innovative technologies."
Boer joined Ahold in 1998 to head up its Czech Republic division, and in the years since has proven to be one of the company's most loyal lieutenants, even through a profit scandal at the business in the early 2000s that saw The Economist label the retailer 'Europe's Enron'.
He was appointed chief executive of Ahold in March 2011, and following the merger of the group with Delhaize in 2016, has served as CEO of Ahold Delhaize since July of that year.
"A lot has happened during my 20 years at Ahold and later Ahold Delhaize. The crisis at Ahold in 2003 and how this led to emotional reactions from customers at Albert Heijn. The repositioning of both Albert Heijn and Ahold, also in the years that followed.
"The definition of clear strategies, especially the online strategy. The expansion with bol.com so that we could truly embrace the omni-channel approach. The development of ambitious sustainability targets, which have now become an integral part of our strategy. For example, the Albert Heijn Foundation recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary. Then, of course, there was the merger in 2016, when we created a global food retailer."
He closed his speech with words from retailer Albert Heijn, who wrote in his memoirs, "Being a grocer is a career for people who can leave themselves out of the equation"; it is, he added, "a job full of small wins".
As he looks forward to retirement, Dick Boer can take solace in the fact that in the eyes of the retailer's customers, these "small wins" added up to make a big difference.
© 2018 European Supermarket Magazine – your source for the latest retail news. Stephen Wynne-Jones. Click subscribe to sign up to ESM: The European Supermarket Magazine.