CEO Albert Heijn: ‘The checkout-free shop is not as far away than you think’

Ten years after the first Belgian store opening, Albert Heijn is on track to open 100 supermarkets. The retailer is experimenting with office and checkout-free shops. “We are Ahold Delhaize’s European laboratory,” says top woman Marit van Egmond.

As a child she wanted to become the director of Efteling, but she became CEO of Albert Heijn. In that capacity, Marit van Egmond (47) celebrated the opening of the 60th Belgian store of the Dutch supermarket chain on Wednesday. “I wanted to be there in Merchtem, and that’s why I came back to Belgium for the first time since the corona crisis,” she says during a stopover at Albert Heijn’s Belgian headquarters in Antwerp. ‘I’ll be visiting our shop in Brasschaat in a minute. That is our first Belgian supermarket, which we opened exactly ten years ago this week. Because of corona we keep it sober and we can’t have a big party, but I tell myself it’s a big party. ‘

In the past ten years, Albert Heijn has put itself on the map in Flanders as the major challenger to the large supermarket chains, including daring discount campaigns such as 1 + 2 free. The 60 stores today collect more than 3 percent of all the money that Belgians spend in supermarkets. For example, Albert Heijn is a small, but growing player.

French

The supermarket chain wants to continue to grow and plans to open at least 40 more Flemish stores to clock at 100 points of sale. ‘We are on track‘says Van Egmond. She remains vague about when she wants to achieve her goal. ‘Opening stores is complex, and we want to have good stores in good locations. But it doesn’t have to take ten years anymore. ‘


We are expanding our home delivery. We are aiming for urban areas, which is not to say that we will not be active in less urban areas.

Marit van Egmond

CEO Albert Heijn

Observers are calling on Albert Heijn in the retail trade magazine RetailDetail to also open stores in French-speaking Belgium, as Kruidvat and Zeeman have already successfully done. ‘I read that,’ says Van Egmond. ‘Never say never, but for now we have plenty of work in Flanders and the Netherlands. We are converting 39 stores there, which we have just taken over from a competitor. ‘

Albert Heijn also has its hands full with its Flemish e-commerce plans. Since Monday, the residents of 33 municipalities and districts in and around Antwerp can have groceries ordered online at home for 5 euros extra. Will the rest of Flanders follow? And when? Again, the CEO does not let her look at her cards. ‘We are certainly expanding our delivery. We are aiming for urban areas, which is not to say that we will not be active in less urban areas. We go to the regions where there is a demand from the customer. ‘

23 years of service

During the interview, Van Egmond makes no controversial statements. With her 23 years of service at Ahold Delhaize

she speaks in a similar way to other managers of the company. ‘I started working at Albert Heijn after an internship for my studies in food technology (bio-engineer, ed.). I immediately knew that I would rather work for a retail chain than for a food company. In the store you immediately see the things you have developed. You call me one one company woman, but I see that slightly differently. Ahold Delhaize is a large company with several chains (including Delhaize and Bol.com, ed.). Except positions at Albert Heijn (see inset) I was also CEO of our liquor chain Gall & Gall. ‘


Our new office stores fit in a world where people work from home more often.

Marit van Egmond

CEO Albert Heijn

She developed a passion for nutrition in her childhood. ‘My grandfather was a butcher and all my childhood my family talked about food. Although as a child I indeed dreamed of becoming CEO of Efteling. In a way, that is still my childhood dream, because it is a beautiful amusement park. ‘

As the top woman at Albert Heijn, Van Egmond is also building things that still seem fairytale-like, such as a shop without cash registers. “Cashless stores are not as far away than you think,” she says. ‘It depends on what you mean by’ cashless’. It is already possible in some Dutch city shops to scan the products you want to buy with your smartphone and pay with your device. It is perfectly conceivable that you will soon walk into a large supermarket, log in with your phone, scan and pay. Without going through a physical cash register. ‘

Cameras and sensors

Marit van Egmond

1973: Born in Etten-Leur in the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant.
1991: studies food technology.
1995: Masters in Management in London.
1997: Ahold management trainee.
2000: category manager Albert Heijn.
2006: operational director Albert Heijn.
2008: Commercial Director Gall & Gall (Ahold).
2011: CEO Gall & Gall.
2014: director merchandising and sourcing Albert Heijn.
2018: commercial director Albert Heijn.
2019: CEO Albert Heijn.

The chain attaches great importance to technology. Albert Heijn was the first to launch the barcode in the Netherlands at the time. We want to stay ahead with digital innovation, ‘says Van Egmond. “We are Ahold Delhaize’s technology laboratory in Europe. We share our know-how about e-commerce and digital payments with our Delhaize colleagues and with Ahold Delhaize’s Eastern European and American chains. ‘

Albert Heijn is also experimenting with a new concept, which the chain itself does not describe as a ‘shop’ and will soon also be coming to Belgium. These are small food and beverage outlets in the workplace. They can replace the traditional canteen and are only accessible to the staff. ‘You can buy lunch in those AH to go stores. Think of sandwiches, salads and juices. ‘

‘These are actually cashless shops, too,’ says the manager. ‘The customers themselves pay at a payment terminal. We count on them to scan everything fairly. In two weeks’ time, the first Belgian office store will open at Selecta, a self-service restaurant operator. Other companies have already expressed their interest. In the Netherlands there is already such an AH to go at DHL. In Dutch cities we have also opened such shops to the public. Store employees monitor whether customers scan their products properly. There will be no public shops like this in Belgium for the time being. ‘

At first glance, it seems like a strange plan: opening shops in offices that are virtually empty due to the corona virus. ‘I know, and they will also be less populated after corona because people will work from home more,’ says Van Egmond. ‘But many classic caterers are currently keeping their doors closed. Companies want to be able to offer the employees who are still in the office something. For corona, too, we were asked by companies whether they could offer our lunch products. ‘

Many company restaurants will not survive corona. Does Albert Heijn want to jump into that hole? Van Egmond nods hesitantly. ‘Our concept fits in a world where people work more from home.’

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