Tales from Abroad

A look at the relatively spread out convenience retailing channel in France

Published in CSP Daily News

Editor's note: When we here at CSP heard one of our former interns, Ashley Dickens, was heading overseas for three months, we seized the opportunity to have her provide some perspective of the c-store market in the cities and countries she'll be visiting. Watch CSP Daily News every two weeks for regular reports from Germany, Italy, Ireland and other European destinations. In this first installment, we get a look at retailing convenience from a French perspective.

STRASBOURG, France -- As a college student traveling abroad for only a couple of weeks so [image-nocss] far, I've already experienced many different ways of living. For example, one feature of life in the United States that I sorely miss is retail convenience. In Strasbourg, most stores close at 7 p.m. every night and all day on Sundays. Gas stations are few and far between, and convenience stores exist in separation.

There are two types of stores that can be compared to American c-stores: Turkish markets that offer food items and tabacs (pictured) that mainly sell tobacco.

Turkish markets are scorned by local residents. First, they are not well situated in town, some are close to adult bookstores and some are scattered among the many side alleys of Strasbourg. Second, Turkish markets are open later than 7 p.m. and are open on Sundays. In a typical Turkish market, you might find wine, some fresh fruits and vegetables, baguettes, a small selection of packaged goods and lunch items such as stuffed grape leaves.

Tabacs, on the other hand, are hole-in-the-wall stores that can be found on most large streets in Strasbourg, squeezed between other, larger retail stores. They are the size of a small college dorm room. You can usually find a floor-to-ceiling display of magazines and newspapers, a lottery-ticket machine and some postcards. Opposite to the massive magazine rack is the purchase counter. Here, phone cards are available upon request (hidden behind the counter in a grocery bag). A small rack of candy sits on the countertop displaying three or four of America's most popular candy bars.

Tobacco, however, is the main draw of these "convenience stores." The front windows of many tabacs display a variety of smoking pipes and accessories. Likewise, a floor-to-ceiling cubby for cigarettes hugs the wall behind the cashier. In fact, I found many tabacs are beginning to just sell tobacco products.

I was told there are two gasoline stations within the city limits of Strasbourg, a more than 2,000-year-old city with a population of about 250,000. I haven't seen either one, however. Desperately longing to tour these locations, I asked about 10 French citizens for directions. I was subsequently directed to the train station, two auto mechanic shops and the tabacs.

I did, however, manage to sneak some peeks at the gas stations outside the city limits. Brands represented include Shell (which is a smaller scale site than a typical American store), Totale and Essero. These stations are also few and far between. They offer one or two pumps and a small store that carries wine, some carbonated soft drinks and very few food items.

Overall, I learned that the separation between tobacco, food items and gasoline are essential to understanding the c-stores of Strasbourg. In fact, this separation seemed to draw more customers to the various stores, depending on their needs. For example, the hours of Turkish markets appeal to customers in need of goods on Sundays, while the locations of the tabacs draw many men eager to grab a newspaper or a cigarette while their wives or girlfriends shop in the other retail outlets.