It’s not just the lower prices that tempt carloads of Norwegians to cross the border and go grocery shopping in Sweden. A new study confirms that the sheer selection in Swedish grocery stores is so much bigger and better that it alone can be worth the trip.
“I think the selection at Norwegian grocery stores could be better,” shopper Karen Østrem told newspaper Aftenposten as she picked up a few necessary items at a CoopXtra store at Majorstuen in Oslo this week. “I especially miss a better selection of fresh foods, like cheese and cold cuts.”
“There are a few of the Norwegian chains that have a good selection, but in general they’re not especially good,” Østrem continued as she surveyed the same “industrial production” of cheese that can be found in most all Norwegian stores, supplied mostly by the dominant Tine dairy cooperative.
Even though the selection of items at Norwegian grocery stores has improved and expanded in recent years, it remains spotty and thin compared to what’s on offer at Swedish grocery store chains. A government commission claimed five years ago that the difference in selection between Norwegian and Swedish stores was great. That’s been confirmed by a new report from the consumer research institute SIFO, which shows that Norwegian grocery stores have just 55 percent of the selection found on Swedish shelves.
Twice as many cheeses
SIFO surveyed 14 different product areas. The range of fresh sausage, bread, cheese, pasta, coffee and drinking water was more double that in Norway. In the cheese department alone, Swedish stores have an average of 298 types for sale. That compared to just 144 different types of cheese on average in a Norwegian store, and that’s after the Norwegian chains responded to customer complaints and expanded cheese selection, also at the lower-priced chains like KIWI and REMA 1000.
The selection of rice, snacks and chocolate in Sweden, meanwhile, is 50 percent larger than in Norway. “There are disturbingly big differences between the selection Norwegians have access to in their stores and what the Swedes have,” Randi Flesland, director of the Norwegian consumer council Forbrukerrådet told Aftenposten.
Her organization asked SIFO to repeat the survey it did for the government commission report in 2011. It showed at least one positive development: Selection in Norwegian grocery chains has increased by 20 percent in the past five years. It’s increased even more, however, at the Swedish stores.
Too many small stores in Norway
Professor Frode Alfnes of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) in Ås, south of Oslo, noted that one of the main reasons for the difference in selection is that Norwegian chains have chosen to operate lots of small stores scattered around neighbourhoods instead of concentrating on larger stores that cater to more people and have more shelf space. “In Sweden, each store serves an average of 2,530 people,” Alfnes told Aftenposten. “The comparable number for Norway is 1,335. The consequence of that is poorer selection, and politicians should be aware of that when they approve zoning or construction of new stores.”
In the Solli district of Oslo, for example, there are three KIWI stores all located within a few blocks of each other, plus small Bunnpris and Joker stores that are open on Sunday. There are only two larger stores in the area that offer a larger selection, a Meny (owned by the same grocery conglomerate that owns Joker and KIWI, NorgesGruppen) and CoopMega, which took over the locations formerly operated by ICA before it pulled out of the Norwegian market last year. Meny and CoopMega have a larger selection, especially fresh meat and fish, but the exact same items found at KIWI, for example, are invariably priced several kroner higher. Price-conscious consumers thus need to frequent both a KIWI and a Meny for the best selection and prices.
“When competing stores pop up next door to each other, it means they’ll each have a smaller customer base,” Alfnes said. “Then it’s not profitable to offer products that don’t sell in large quantities.”
Flesland agreed that Sweden’s larger and fewer stores result in better selection for consumers. “It means a store in Stockholm can have four times as many people to sell to, and then it can offer a much broader product line,” she said.
Three chains dominate the market
The Norwegian stores, dominated by just three major chains (NorgesGruppen, Coop and REMA) who all but control the market, claim they sell what Norwegians want. Items that don’t sell briskly are pulled off the shelves. Coop director Håvard Jensen claimed Norwegian shoppers “don’t want to have to drive to a shopping center except on weekends,” so that’s why there are so many small neighborhood stores in Norway. All stores except the smallest sized less than 100 square meters are also closed by law on Sundays in Norway, whereas they’re open in Sweden.
Lars Kristian Lindberg, director of strategy and purchasing for the REMA 1000 grocery chain, admitted that “in Norway, we have a high degree of the same items in all the stores. We’re working on that now, to find products that would set us apart.” REMA 1000 is also working directly with suppliers to produce house brands that can only be found at REMA.
NorgesGruppen, which also owns the Spar chain in addition to Meny, Kiwi and Joker, seemed to be in a state of denial regarding selection. It conducted its own survey, comparing items between one of its Meny stores in Norway and Hemköp stores in Sweden, which it considered comparable. “We found out there weren’t very large differences in selection of food and beverages,” Bård Fultvedt of NorgesGruppen told Aftenposten. He also claimed there are fewer suppliers to Norwegian stores than there are in Sweden. “That shows there’s a need for more innovation and more suppliers in the Norwegian market,” he said.
Flesland of the consumer council isn’t satisfied, and remains well aware that grocery prices in Norway are still higher while selection is lower than in most other European countries, not just Sweden. “There are so few stores in Norway where consumers really have a choice,” she said.
Shopper Karen Østrem, who only picked up some milk at her local CoopXtra, said she drives to Sweden once a month and returns home with cheese, meat and cold cuts. “I don’t think it’s all that much cheaper any longer,” she told Aftenposten, “but I drive there to have a bit of a tour, and because it’s more exciting to buy food there.”