Spar comes to Carrigstown, but the benefits may be imaginary

Sat, Nov 5, 2011, 00:00

IT IS PRETTY hard to love Spar. It doesn’t so much infuse a warm feeling in your heart as a strip-light glare in your eyes. No one turns up late in a town and says, “I’ve been gumming for a Spar for the past 30 miles.” Spar is just there. And if it’s not, then there’ll be a Mace or a Gala or a Centra. There must be one such convenience store in every town in the country by now, imposing itself on the street, its flower boxes trying to damp down the ugly palette. Between them, their logos bring all the colours of a dying rainbow.

When The Irish Timesran a recent design-a-postcard competition, the winning entry was a play on the Shops of Dublin poster, with a gallery of Spar and Centra shopfronts replacing the traditional pictures. Spar brought its duotone of livid red and Christmas green, Centra its hard blue and plastic yellow. The postcard was a play both on image versus reality, and on identikit frontage. And yet, even as they have smothered the old streets, in the new estates they have found a place where they finally belong.

Spar is the biggest of the grocery chains; both locally and globally. There are 450 Spars in the Republic and 300 in the North. It has 12,000 stores in countries from Vanuatu to Zimbabwe.

And the reason I mention all of this is because it is “opening” another in Carrigstown, the home of Fair City. How that sits with you might depend on your views on product placement. If you don’t watch it, you’ll soon forget about it. If you do, perhaps your eyes will take a moment or two to adjust to its imposition on the drama, the way they adjust to arriving into the bright-white late-night convenience store.

So Spar will have achieved the ultimate ubiquity, arriving in the living rooms of 500,000 people a few nights a week. Its original name, De Spar, by the way, is an acronym for a Dutch phrase, “Door eendrachtig samenwerken profiteren allen regelmatig”, which translates, according to the company’s website, as “We all benefit from joint cooperation”. It has also been translated as “By united co-operation, all will profit”,although “profit” has other connotations, of course. (By the way, Google Translate isn’t much help in verifying this, interpreting it as “By Allen unison regular benefit”.)

In Ireland, the company created a fairly nifty slogan, “Under the tree, at Spar”, which it used for some time, complete with an infectious jingle that will now be running around your head all day – but it dropped that for the utterly bland “Always there for you”. This had none of the dual logo and name recognition of its predecessor. Instead it aimed for an emotional connection. It is impossible to have an emotional connection with a Spar. It has since brought the original back (the nifty jingle survived all the way through), yet “Always there for you” matched the consumer experience better. It was fine when you heard it but not something you thought about afterwards. And it spoke of its ubiquity. Spar is just there.

There are good things about such retailers – Spar’s parent company in Ireland, BWG Foods, says it is responsible for 15,000 jobs – but there is something deadening about the creep of the convenience-store brands across the country, replacing local names with international trademarks, individualism with template. It is easy to be wilfully romantic about such things, but no one thrills to the sight of a Centra or a Spar, regardless of how many hanging baskets are outside or how much the uniformed staff smile over the bip-bip-bip of the checkout scanner.

And during the boom, such stores came to be not only ubiquitous on the old main street but the chief tenants of the centres of many new estates that sprawled on the edge of villages, overran suburbs, sprouted up in no-man’s-lands.

After the estate-agent stuff about dream living and a sense of place, driving to the Eurospar for a pint of milk was a reminder that you could be any place, any estate, in any other overdeveloped town.

Over the past couple of decades, Spar and its competitors have slowly imposed themselves on the street, their unnatural colours, printed rather than painted, unable to be fully comfortable amid the architecture.

But in the new estates, developers mimicked a town centre, and convenience stores became the artificial hearts of created communities. Where better for Spar to open its newest shop than in Carrigstown, the most fictional community in the country?


shegarty@irishtimes.com

Twitter: @shanehegarty