‘What is Google?”

Antony Begley

Once upon a time, many years ago, I had the opportunity to speak with a senior executive from Google at a data industry conference.

He was just as impressive as you would imagine a senior executive from Google to be and made some very interesting observations, even about things he admittedly knew nothing about. One such observation was on convenience stores, which we got to talking about. His first, somewhat odd question to me on the subject was: “What is Google?”.

Now I recognise a trick question when I hear it so I mumbled something about search engines and technology. He then said, “no, go deeper than that”. Try as I might I couldn’t, so he spelled it out for me. “Google,” he said, “is where millions of people come together. It’s footfall. Google’s biggest asset is its footfall.”

The penny was starting to drop. He continued: “Convenience stores are very similar. They have huge, regular footfall. How many other businesses see customers every day, sometimes four or five or six times in a day?”

The point he was getting at was: “What would baffle Google would be why you only try to sell them soft drinks and crisps and chocolate. You have all that footfall and your customers trust you yet all you try to sell them is packets of gum.”

That conversation took place maybe a decade ago but it’s stayed with me to this day. And it came back to me very recently on a mini store safari when it dawned on me that tomorrow’s convenience store will be largely unrecognisable from those of the last 20 years. The days of the standard convenience store are drawing to a close.

This is being driven by a mix of legislative pressure on pretty much every important category in a traditional store – tobacco, alcohol, confectionery – but, more importantly, it’s also being driven by fast-changing consumer demands. Megatrends like foodservice and home delivery and technology will fundamentally change forever what a convenience store is and does.

But the best part about all of this? Convenience stores are better placed than any other business to capitalise on these consumer changes. Who else has relationships with their customers as close as ours? Who else has the trust of their customers. Who else understands their customers as well as we do? Who else has stores at the heart of every community, open long hours and every day?

So we have the platform, a platform that many would kill for. All we need is the foresight and the courage to find out exactly what our customers would buy from our stores and then make it happen. As the man from Google righlty implied, we needn’t be restricted to simply devising different ways of delivering food and drink. We could be delivering experiences and we could be looking more at non-food. If your shopper trusts you enough to buy a fresh sandwich or a chicken curry that was hand-made in your store, surely they would trust you enough to buy all manner of products and services?

As my learned friend from the US tech giant put it: “If Google ever did convenience stores, they wouldn’t do them the way you guys do.”

The million dollar question, of course, is: “Well, how would Google do convenience stores?”

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Antony Begley, Publishing Director

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