zaterdag 1 juni 2013

Dutch cycling and daily shoppings: chicken and egg

This post is part of a series on why the Dutch cycle. Earlier posts and the study design can be found via the top menu on my blog, under 'Dutch Cycling'.

For those living outside The Netherlands:
AH - Albert Heijn, the largest supermarket chain in The Netherlands, having a market share of ~33%

Until the fifties, groceries were tiny, local shops with limited assortment. This was pretty much the same throughout Western Europe. It took until the sixties for the American invention of the supermarket to start its conquest throughout Europe. Interestingly, every EU country took its own approach. Nowadays, there are considerable differences between supermarkets throughout Europe.

For instance,  the old-fashioned groceries in France are almost completely replaced by supermarkets and hypermarkets. These very large shops are typically not in dense residential areas, but they're located in industrial zones, further away from everybody's home. These shops are completely focused on serving customers that arrive by car, and that shop at a relatively low frequency, e.g., once a week. Large parking lots, enormous assortments in food as well as non-food, large portions and consequently, large shopping carts do invite everybody to go home with a trunk full of shoppings. A bicycle could not carry all the contents of such a French cart. Especially hypermarkets have an assortment that competes with all specialty shops of any small town: food includes regional fresh dishes and wines, they sell liquor, clothes, books, TV's, DVD's, toys, fridges, computers, tablets etc etc. Specialty shops in small towns do have a very hard time in France already for ~50 years.
File:Kruidenier in Boskoop Dutch grocer.jpg
Predecessor of Dutch supermarkets: de kruidenier. Pretty standard throughout Europe, but in the 60ies, things start to deviate...

Typical French: supermarkets outside residential areas...
...only a few poorly assorted minimarkets, usually located at the former epicerie, are located within residential areas...
...but hypermarkets in industrial zones is what the French love...

...because one can buy there anything you can think of. Although your new TV might smell like fish... Funny enough, the last picture is taken from an article claiming that hypermarkets have had their peak in France, because they are too far away from residential areas and hyper-shopping takes too much time nowadays...

...whereas the French (Carrefour, 1963) are the inventors of the Hypermarket, and it exists already for 50 years. They are completely car-oriented, and they've turned many old-town centres into deserted places.

In the UK, a slightly different situation evolved. The supermarkets did not completely replace the grocery shops. Instead, grocery shops were turned into minimarkets called convenience stores - the hypermarket concept did not appear in the UK to the same extent as in France. Still, the larger supermarkets and hypermarkets are located typically outside the residentials and these account for the majority of shoppings.

In The Netherlands, things went differently again. In the fifties, marketleader AH was already in business for 70 years with a chain of grocery shops, slowly but steadily expanding from the Zaanstad/Amsterdam area, via the Randstad to the remainder of the country. AH tranformed the old fashioned groceries into increasingly larger supermarkets themselves. Other companies did the same. Small shops expanded their surface area, or, if not possible, they were replaced by larger shops located in the same neighborhood. But none of them went to industrial areas or to shopping malls outside town. The end result was a fine network of medium size supermarkets. Welcome to Lillyput country...

...where the traditional grocery shop or mini-market has completely disappeared, but the hypermarket never appeared either (no stretches of emptiness...). Dutch supermarkets nowadays focus on all types of food and on day-to-day non-food like soaps, toothpaste, dipers, toiletpaper and a corner with newspapers and magazines. No TV's, clothes or so.

Typical Dutch supermarket, located in a residential area. Just enough parking space for cars, and a lot of bicycles in front. This is a relatively large one and has turned into AH XL on a more recent picture. Note the houses in the background.

The reasons for these different approaches between countries are as complex as the reasons for bicycle use. It's interesting to see how cycling, grocery shopping, culture, politics and city planning are intertwined. The first two are the topic of this post, the latter three will come later. But these differences are definitely not due to serendipity. In each country, supermarkets are doing intensive reasearch on how to position themselves, as competition is fierce.  It's interesting how these supermarkets can, as a side-effect, discourage, support or even promote cycling to do grocery shopping. This will become very obvious when comparing different countries.

Also in The Netherlands, several companies (a.o. AH) tried the hypermarket concept, and to date, it always failed miserably overhere. Especially in 1970-1973, several attempts were made, but all these Dutch hypermarkets closed in the 80ies again. In short, supersize hypermarkets just don't fit in Lillyput country, where people shop with a Lillyput vehicle called a bike.

These  historical events do not fit David Hembrow's ideas that the Dutch collectively jumped into cars in the 70ies and that we threw our bicycle into the bin. We did not; otherwise we'd embraced the hypermarkets as much as the French.

To my knowledge, the last attempt to introduce the hypermarket was by Carrefour, back in the nineties. A spokesman of AH was asked on TV what he thought about the 'new' hypermarket concept in The Netherlands. He replied with twinkling eyes and the smile of a spider looking at its meal: 'We welcome Carrefour to the Netherlands, we wish them success and we appreciate that diversity is introduced into the business. But we've done our homework and we're not afraid of any competition.' Never heard anything anymore about Carrefour's hypermarkets in the Netherlands...A few years later, in 2003, AH openly attacked the competition with a price war and succesfully put its largest competitor, Laurus, out of business. By now, AH is secretly becoming a monopolist, with ~33% of the market, but next to that it's also owning no.2, the C1000 supermarkets.

Obviously, AH has successfully put its thermometer deep into the daily needs of the Dutch...and is now rolling out AH XL, a large supermarket/small hypermarket concept in residential areas (quel coincidence! see my note at the hypermarket TV's picture). Another fascinating recent development is AH to go, a re-introduction of small mini markets (no carts) located at strategic points (e.g., inside railway stations) with strategic assortments (e.g., fresh coffee, sandwich-in-a-box, drinks and prepared dinner for the microwave) and very fast service (you're in a hurry, having to catch your train!). Brilliant.

AH to go. A cross-over between hi-speed Starbucks and a minimarket. It doesn't promote cycling as such, but I love how the concept fits modern hi-speed life. And it is at its best at the interface of bicycles and trains: railway stations.

A lot of supermarket bla bla, but what does all this have to do with cycling for grocery shopping?

Well, lets have a look at how far people live from convenience store, supermarket or hypermarket in different countries and how Dutch people shop for groceries on their bicycles.

This is how far the Dutch live from a supermarket per province. It's 0.7-1.2km:
Gemiddelde afstand tot supermarkt, per provincie
The mean distance to the closest supermarket per province in The Netherlands.

Let's compare that to France, inventors of the hypermarket and the UK. This is a key table in my story.

Mean store distance in km NL UK UK - London France
Minimarket/Convenience store - 3.0 2.5 -
Supermarket 0.9 5.7 4.1 1.1 - 4.7
Hypermarket - ? ? 5.9 - 20.9

Dutch data: 
British data:, page 15. For the calculations, I used 1 mile = 1.609 km. British data probably have combined supermarkets and hypermarkets.
French data:

In conclusion: Welcome to Lillyput country, again.

Even in London, one has to travel 2.5x further to the closest convenience store than throughout The Netherlands on average...But maybe, this Dutch supermarket at 0.9 km is not the one of your pick?Don't worry, because there are 3-17 shops within 1km range:

Gemiddeld aantal overige winkels voor dagelijkse levensmiddelen binnen 1 kilometer, per provincie
The mean number of shops for daily shoppings within 1km. These shops would include supermarkets, bakeries, butcheries, drug stores, liquor stores etc.

Now so how does this impact the mode of transportation?

In the UK and France, people take the car to do shopping. My environmentalist' reference for the UK is even a bit angry about that, and claims that people living within a mile from a supermarket should go walking. Euh, what? A bicycle would be slightly more convenient, wouldn't it? Oh, sorry, cycling isn't in the vocabulary of the British. Appearently, even not in an environmentalist's. But walking a mile (1.6km, 3.2km in total, easily a 45min walk) up and down for daily shopping?!
Ja doei!
Come on, nobody is willing to do that on a voluntary basis and certainly not in modern times. Too much hastle, too much time lost. Only if one cannot affort a car.

Then what happens to modes of transportation and daily shopping travel in The Netherlands?  Well, this:
Trip frequency/week related to distance to closest supermarket., figure 2, p7.
y-axis: shopping trip frequency per week
x-axis: distance to supermarket
groups: Other (green), walking (yellow), bicycle (red), car (blue)

Look at how the frequency of 'daily' shoppings is related to distance. Frequency quickly drops with the distance. Lower frequency=more goods per shopping=more need for a car.

This is a fascinating figure. It shows that, for daily shopping, shops have to be very nearby to consider cycling. Above 1km (0.6miles), the car is already the dominant choice, even for the Dutch.

Walking is only fun up to 250m (100 feet). Also, all these numbers are completely out of (lower) range as compared to the French or British situation. A Lillyput mode of transportation only fits a Lillyput country...There is a very good reason that the French and British don't cycle to their supermarkets, let alone walk...

Cycling and daily shoppings: chicken and egg

So, how has this situation evolved in The Netherlands? On the Dutch breeding grounds of a flat Lillyput country, supermarket development and cycling were a bit like chicken and egg: who was first? The 18th century Lillyput old village and town centres always had a series of shops that perfectly fitted 19-20th century cycling. In that setting, the Dutch were not willing to travel longer distances to get to a hypermarket. Why would they? They had everything they wanted within cycling distance. They demanded short-distance (and consequently mid-size) supermarkets, and companies like AH just brought what they wanted.

Of course, there's a bit more than just that (some culture and e.g., low labor participation of Dutch house wifes), but not for this post.

And cyclist's road safety? Sorry, not in the equation. For the most part, totally irrelevant on a 1km track through a residential area. Even in The Netherlands, most older (before mid-80ies) residential area's hardly have any specific cycling infrastructure. Even nowadays. Difficult to retro-fit into the narrow streets and not necessary because cars cannot go fast in Dutch residentials anyway. Where they could, reducing car speed by bumps is enough.

Next post of the Dutch railways and cycling.

1 opmerking:

  1. Hi Magic,

    Another post that makes it very clear how special the Dutch situation is. Very recognizible is the distance to the shops, as we live in Norway, our main supermarket is 800 meters from our home, and we are the only people in our area that frequently use a bicycle to get our groceries, Norwegians from the same area just use cars the shop. That is probably the Dutch background we still have, we were used to take a bicycle for this short distances.

    Greetings, Adri.