October 19, 2003

Dawn of the Spar generation brings a convenient way of life

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Ballyvourney, or Baile Bhuirne, is named after Mary the Immaculate herself, reflecting the premium on public piety during Ireland’s era of hyper-Catholicism.

Before it was named Baile Bhuirne, the place was called Carraig an Adhmaid – Rock of the Wood. According to local lore, when Cromwell’s troops arrived, in order to stop the heathen Englishmen sheltering in the church of St Gobnait, the locals removed the wooden roof and hid it behind a huge rock on the far side of the village. Ballyvourney’s rebellious instincts were revealed again in the civil war as it was the last republican stronghold to fall to the Free State forces. It remains, along with Ballingeary, the last Gaeltacht in Cork and I’ve a special affinity with the place since being sent to an Irish-speaking national school there.

The Spar in Ballyvourney is a serious shop. There’s nothing you can’t get and my cousin, when he’s not off diving in Kerry (and generally leading a much healthier life than his suburban jackeen relative), manfully tends the place. Although I’m sure, as with most Irish families, that the mother really runs the show.

The growth of Spar and Centra has been one of the most interesting phenomena in Irish life over the past ten years. The way we shop reveals a lot about who we are, how and where we live and what type of lifestyle most of us enjoy. Nothing so accurately reflects Irish people’s changing daily experience as the shops on our main streets.

What we buy and when we buy it sheds light on what and when we eat and with whom. It tells us about the state of the Irish family and the state of the workforce.

Our shopping habits are affected by our hours of work.The things you put in your basket tells whether you are single, divorced, widowed, in love, on the rebound or the head of a traditional family of six kids under the age of ten.

Spar also tells us more about the state of an area, particularly urban areas, than any estate agent’s blurb. The arrival of a Spar on the corner of an inner city street means that gentrification is underway or has nearly been completed. So if you’re a property investor and are bullish, buy on the arrival of Spar. If like me you are bearish, the opening of a Spar could signal the top of the market. Either way, a Spar index of residential development is helpful for any prospective property player.

This week, the boom in Spar was evident in its fantastic results. Sales are due to hit €850 million by the end of this year, up from €763 million last year.The company has opened 35 new stores since May and is aiming to open over 100 new stores in the next year, bringing the total number of stores in Ireland to over 400.

Within five years, Spar and Centra will become like Starbucks in the US – ubiquitous, generic and essential. A Spar generation is emerging in Ireland and these people will dominate consumer trends over the coming years.

The future of Ireland is in the hands of the Spar generation. Today’s twentysomethings shop three times a week in Spar.Their shopping habits indicate how much the old divide between urban and rural Ireland has disap-peared.When people in Ballyvourney and Ballyfermot are shopping in the same shops and eating the same food at the same time of the day, then you know the suburbanisation of Ireland is complete. Modern Ireland is one big suburb.

The fact that over the last two years the fastest growing retail products have been ready-meals and food-onthe-run products indicates a serious fall-off in family dinners at set times. Members of the Spar generation are reasonably rich, but indebted and very consumer savvy.They are staying single longer and they are not having children.

They are working long hours, many in what are called “prairie dog” jobs. This description captures well the image of huge numbers of young workers in office jobs where they are hemmed into walled workstations only sticking their heads above the parapet for a “recce” every so often to see what’s going on with their workmates.

These are people who have been elbowed out of the property market by silly prices.They are also largely apolitical. Most importantly, the Spar generation consists of the bulge in the Irish population that peaked in 1980 – on average they are 24 years old. As a result, these people are a marketer’s dream and a political strategist’s nightmare.

Contrast the Spar generation, those born in and around 1979, with those born just a decade earlier. When I was a youngster, convenience stores simply did not exist. In fact, many of the products now sold in Spar were banned at the time. In the years leading up to 1979, people came back from England with three commodities that were unavailable in Ireland – porn magazines, condoms and, believe it or not, illicit sweets.

The list of banned sweets in Ireland included Curly Wurly,Twix,Toblerone and (my personal favourite at the time, for some bizarre reason) Opal Fruits. Those of us living on the east coast had to endure the torture of UTVand HTV beaming smiling British kids into our living rooms, their mouths stuffed with banned goodies and declaring: “Opal Fruits – made to make your mouth water”.

In the real world,we had to make do with Irish Macaroon bars. In 1979, the fatwa on Curly Wurly and Opal Fruits was lifted, leading to an explosion of choice, E numbers and, subsequently, a marked rise in diabetes.

The Opal Fruit-isation of Ireland coincides with the birth of the Spar generation. If you want an image of what the Spar generation will be like when they reach their thirties, listen to Nirvana (a band important to the Spar generation) and imagine a late thirtysomething, balding Kurt Cobain screaming, “Here we are now, entertain us”. Smells Like Teen Spirit defined the Spar generation in their teenage years and the same, “free, here and now” attitude will be evident when they hit 35. Instant gratification will become a must. They will maintain the same appetite for immediate, frantic climaxes and retailers will try to respond.

This is why I’m perplexed this week when I see big shops like Dunnes Stores being investigated by Carmel Foley for below-cost selling. This is yesterday’s battle and an exercise in showboating. Dunnes is not threatening small family-run outfits, in fact, the opposite is the case. Retailers will respond to the demands of the Spar generation by building more Spars.

Across the country, from Ballybrack to Ballyvourney, convenience and instant consumer gratification will be the name of the game and franchised corner shops selling all things from paint brushes to Playboy are the future of retailing.  


  1. Eamonn Balmer

    Sounds like things would have come full circle back to
    the “Ike Godsey convenience store” set-up. If it can do
    for the baby-boomers what in did for John-Boy then it’s not
    necessarily a bad thing.

  2. Ciaran

    Having just read your Sunday Business Post column of
    October 19th, 2003, I noticed that you forgot about Cape
    Clear Island (Oileán Chléire), which is also a Gaeltacht in
    Cork!!!(Although admittedly an offshore one!).

  3. Leo Crawford, Chairman & CEO Spar Ireland

    I very much enjoyed your article in the Sunday Business
    Post regarding the “Dawn of the SPAR Generation”.
    Naturally as Chairman and Chief Executive of the SPAR Group
    in Ireland I am probably a little biased!

    However the article did reflect the amazing changes that
    are taking place in the social and shopping habits of the
    Irish consumer. You are absolutely spot on with regard to
    the average age of the SPAR generation at 24 years old.

    Research released this week by Retail Intelligence / TNS
    MRBI shows that the SPAR motto “All you need when you need
    it” achieved a 57% recall with all consumers but peaked at
    a massive 87% recall in the 15-24 age group.

    I also remember the ban on Opal Fruits!

    LEO CRAWFORD
    Chairman & CEO
    SPAR Ireland

  4. Derek

    As a part of the ‘Spar Generation’ it sickens me to have
    to frequent these establishments due to lac of
    alternatives in an easily reached distance. Convenience
    obviously will cost more but the rate at which we are
    willing to spend more simply highlights the biggest
    problem with people in this country, i.e. that we have
    much more money than sense.

  5. John Doherty

    The reason Spar is flourishing is the same reason that the
    Killiney Court Hotel is closing – a lack of development
    land. Note that Lidl, Aldi etc advertise for sites to
    acquire so they can open. If we had a really competitive
    retail market i.e large stores with good parking and
    access, Spar would be finished.

  6. Cormac Murphy

    As a 22-year-old man living in the city centre of Dublin,
    I should be, theoretically, a member of the “Spar
    Generation”. Nothing could be further from the truth. I
    have seen the disintegration of Dublin’s inner city where
    corner shops would thrive with dismay. This was where the
    shopkeeper would know your name, and his establishment
    played a very important role in the community. Compare
    this image to the one we have today where Spars are
    positioned at every possible location, each indecipherable
    form the last.

    I have avoided Spar for the past year in favour of the
    dwindling old-style shops. It’s no easy task, but it is
    possible. I would recommend everyone to try to keep the
    smaller shops alive, if only to preserve some personality
    in our fair city.

  7. Tadhg McGrath

    I clearly remember eating Opal Fruits in Dublin before
    1979. Well maybe not clearly, but I’m pretty sure of it. I
    vividly remeber an occasion when brother was attacked in
    Cabra and had his sweets taken off him by some older boys
    in what became known in my family as “the Curly Wurly
    incident” This happened sometime in the nineteen-
    seventies, so I can’t believe that these were banned too.

    Are you absolutely certain that your parents didn’t just
    let on that these sweets were prohibited by law to stop
    you eating them?

  8. elewton

    Has anyone found confirmation of the sweet ban? This story has come around to me a couple of times, but with no clear point of origin.

  9. I am currently hosting an exhibition at my gallery in Mullingar called The G2W Project. One of the exhibiting artists has included a piece entitled ‘Ban Lifted 17/03/1979. The artist has individually framed three chocolate bars; a toblerone, a curly wurly and a twix. It is a striking piece but is causing a bit of contraversy as visitors to the gallery, particularly those who grew up in the 70′s are refuting his claim that a ban existed. Is this a case of rose tinted glasses or was there really a childhood pre-curly wurly?

  10. Nikki Moss

    As a forty something year old silverback, I also refute this claim of a sweet ban (on Curly Wurly’s in particular) They were given away on the cover of the first issue of a kids comic in 1972. They used to be a foot long and as wide as your mouth (well maybe not, but they were much bigger than the tiny little things you get today)

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