What can we nick from NACS?

Dan Brown, Walter Bryson, Pete Cheema
Kensitas Club April 2021 week one section banner

SLR Rewards winners Walter Bryson and Dan Brown jetted off to NACS in Atlanta last month to see what they could learn from the world’s biggest convenience trade exhibition. Here’s what they discovered…

by Antony Begley


As convenience trade shows go, they don’t get any bigger than the annual NACS conference in America. Held in Atlanta this year, the show attracts more than 23,500 delegates from across the globe and this year that delegation included two of Scotland’s finest retailers, Scottish Local Retailer of the Year Walter Bryson and Scottish Young Local Retailer of the Year Dan Brown.

The trip was the Reward that both won for taking the top prizes at this year’s SLR Rewards with Walter visiting courtesy of sponsor JUUL Labs and Dan visiting thanks to sponsorship from the Scottish Grocers’ Federation (SGF). I was lucky enough to join the touring party as was SGF Chief Executive Pete Cheema, keen to learn what we could so that we could share it with the wider retailing audience back in Scotland.

busy trade exhibition

Huge scale

The show covers some 400,000sq ft of floor space and offered us a unique opportunity to gain critical insights into the latest developments in the huge US convenience market. Clearly, the trip also gave Walter and Dan the chance to discover some great ideas that they could take back home to implement in their own stores in Prestwick (Walter) and Musselburgh (Dan).

Comprehending the sheer scale of NACS is no easy task. It runs over four days and features a mind-boggling array of presentations, demonstrations, education sessions, case studies, exhibitions and working groups as well as a few social events where the tens of thousands of delegates have the chance to get to know one another a little better.

Peanut-shaped van

One of the key challenges facing our little group was to decide what the best use of our time would be. This was complicated by the fact that the event is tailored for the US market which differs from the UK market in some very fundamental ways. For example, the US convenience market is roughly 80% forecourts and 20% c-stores. In the UK that picture is more or less reversed. Similarly, the US has very different regulations when it comes to categories like alcohol and tobacco; it was a shock to see huge exhibition stands dedicated to cigarette brands – something we haven’t seen in the UK for a long time.

But we did our best to make sense of the 160-page event guide and chose an agenda that exposed us to a little of everything including a handful of presentations on topics including food waste management, innovation in retail, technology in retail and foodservice optimisation. We also managed several lengthy tours of the various exhibition halls with literally thousands of exhibitors.

Key learnings

The big learning? The US market isn’t so different from ours after all. Walter said: “I think the thing that maybe surprised me a little was the fact that a lot of what we saw in Atlanta was really quite similar to what we’re doing over here. There were one or two things that they perhaps do a little better than us like foodservice, but the bulk of it is very recognisable and I wouldn’t say that we’re lagging behind in many respects.”

Dan Brown and leprechaun

Dan agrees: “It was actually quite reassuring because while I learned a lot and really enjoyed getting a look at the US market in that amount of detail, I didn’t come away with the impression that we’re miles behind the US any longer. If anything, I think we’re probably slightly ahead of them in lots of areas like healthier eating, sustainability, in-store innovation and, dare I say it, customer service.”

SGF Chief Executive Pete Cheema is similarly reassured by his experiences at NACS: “It’s a hugely impressive show and it’s hard to get around the whole thing in just a few days, but I came away with the firm belief that in Scotland the convenience sector is leading the way on many fronts. Yes, there was a lot to learn from the Atlanta trip but perhaps the biggest learning is that we’re no longer way behind the US, and in many ways we’re significantly ahead of the curve.”

What’s big in the States?

flavoured cigars

Flavoured cigars

There was a lot to see at NACS in terms of new product and service offerings but many simply won’t make their way over here. One big trend was flavoured cigars with huge interest and dozens of stands offering mango, chilli, raspberry and vanilla flavoured cigars, often in small 2-packs. Not something likely to trouble many local retailers in Scotland.

Chances of making it big in Scotland? 0/10


hard sodas

Hard sodas

A big trend that might make its way over to these parts, however, was so-called ‘hard sodas’. Basically, flavoured spirit RTDs. Effectively these are repackaged and relaunched versions of what we once referred to as ‘alcopops’. They appear to be cashing in on the growth in craft beers with funky designed cans, bright colours and weird and wonderful flavours like grape, tangerine, cherry and elderflower.

Chances of making it big in Scotland? 7/10


nicotine pouches

Nicotine pouches

One big US trend that has already started making it’s mark in Scotland is nicotine pouches. JTI has already launched Nordic Spirit over here but at NACS at least half a dozen companies had similar offerings, again often in quirky fruit flavours. They’re effectively the latest versions of the once infamous Skoal Bandits but this time around they are tobacco-free and simply offer smokers and vapers more discrete, easier to use ways of getting their nicotine hit.

Chances of making it big in Scotland? 8/10

Irn-Bru April 2021 end of story