Village food shops face an uncertain future

Shop owner, Klara Seiler, fears for the future of the corner store Keystone

The little village grocery store is as much a part of the Swiss landscape as cows and mountains. But around 1,000 such stores are in danger of going out of business because a major supplier says it is too costly to continue delivering to them.

This content was published on July 29, 2000 - 15:05

In a terse letter, the Frimago distribution company in Zurich informed the stores that supplies to them would end in September, because they were not ordering enough merchandise to warrant deliveries.

The announcement caused outrage among many Swiss, who see these small family enterprises as an integral part of the landscape. It also made front-page news in the mass circulation Blick newspaper, based in Zurich.

The strength of feeling against Frimago's decision put the company on the defensive. The company even issued an apology for the way in which the news was broken.

Frimago's parent, the Bon-Appétit group, said the company had made a mistake. In an interview with the Berner Zeitung newspaper on Friday, Bon-Appétit boss, Edwin A Scherrer, said "no one should have to close their shop just because they cannot get supplies from us".

Scherrer said the Frimago would still be stopping deliveries to small grocery stores, but added the company would do what it could to help to ensure the retailers found alternative arrangements.

His words are unlikely to calm the families who run these stores. Paul Schmid is the owner of a small neighbourhood shop on the outskirts of Berne. His own business is not affected, but he says he shares the anger and outrage of his less-fortunate colleagues.

"At one time", says Schmid, "we were considered partners; now we're of no importance to them any more. It's just another example of shareholder values".

Schmid admits that some of the small shop owners are partly responsible for the problem because they tended to order supplies from too many different distributors, thus watering down their buying power with Frimago.

But he also points a finger at Swiss consumers who, he says, have turned their backs on the little shops in favour of cheaper prices at the big supermarkets. He says it's ironic that those very same people are now bemoaning the plight of the small shops.

If the small stores are forced to close in the end, among the biggest losers will be older people without mobility, as well as those living in rural areas where there may be only one store in an entire village.

Jeanie Steiner, a resident of the tiny hamlet of Arni in the Bernese Emmental put it this way: "In the 23 years I've lived here, we've lost three small shops. If the last one closes now, it will be a real hardship for the older people in particular, for whom the village store was a social gathering point. The service in the small shops is also a lot more friendly."
Other suppliers have expressed a willingness to step in wherever possible. But whether this will be enough to guarantee the survival of all the shops concerned remains to be seen.

by Bob Zanotti

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