Battle escalates for Latvian retail market

  • 2002-03-07
  • Ilze Arklina
RIGA - Lithuanian retailer Vilniaus Prekyba, which plans to seriously challenge the retail market in Latvia, last week opened its first Maxima hypermarket in Riga. The company plans to operate 50 stores here by year's end in a Latvian retail market increasingly dominated by foreign companies.

The Feb. 27 opening of the Maxima hypermarket, the anchor brand in Vilniaus Prekyba's chain of supermarkets and shops, attracted some 13,000 shoppers to the Rigan suburb of Plavnieki.

The store's floor space is 9,000 square meters and will employ 280 people.

About 40 percent of its turnover will be in food sales.

In addition to groceries, Maxima also offers home appliances, clothing and other non-food items, and it is one of two hypermarkets in Riga. The other opened last fall.

Henriks Danusevics, president of the Latvian Retailers Association, says Vilniaus Prekyba offers a credible threat to the grocery market, which is currently led by the Norwegian company Rimi.

"Vilniaus Prekyba ranks second in average monthly turnover (in Latvia), now with the opening of Maxima they offer a serious challenge," he said.

Rimi currently holds a 15 percent market share and the company's turnover in Latvia grew by 50 percent in 2001 to 65.44 million lats ($102.25 million).

Rimi hopes to increase its market share to 30 percent, Rimi General Director Knut Kvisvik has said.

Rimi operates 28 stores in Latvia and will open at least 15 more this year. "We're ready for competition," Kvisvik said.

Another market heavyweight, Finland's Kesko Food, plans to acquire 25 percent of the Baltic retail market, estimated to total 4.2 billion euros ($3.65 billion), within the next few years.

At the end of 2001, Kesko received financing from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to develop its retail chain in Latvia.

The company opened its first Citymarket supermarket in Riga last year and plans to open 3 more in the Latvian capital this year.

Kesko hopes to operate a total of 10 to 15 supermarkets in Latvia.

By the end of year, Vilniaus Prekyba plans to open two Maxima supermarkets and another hypermarket. Within three years the company hopes to have 86 T-Market stores (small grocery stores), seven Maxima supermarkets and three hypermarkets, said VP Market Latvia director Gintaras Marcinkevicius.

"We aren't setting as our goal to overcome Rimi or not let Kesko develop," Ignas Staskevicius, general director of Vilniaus Prekyba said. "We just want to develop a business we've been good at for nearly 10 years."

Staskevicius said that Vilniaus Prekyba planned to increase at the expense of what he called "disorganized trade - open markets, kiosks and small shops.

The presence of large, multinational retailers has already had a drastic effect on Latvia's retail market.

The number of medium-sized grocery stores in Latvia - those with 50 to 100 square meters of floor space - have fallen from 1,493 in 1997 to 99 last year, according to the market research firm Profindex.

Vilniaus Prekyba entered the Latvian market last year with its T-Market stores - a discount food retailer. There are currently 19 of them in Latvia.

"T-Market is not our billboard," said Ignas Staskevicius. "They're good, cheap stores, but Maxima is the quality standard we can offer to our customers."

In 2001, Vilniaus Prekyba's sales totaled 671 million euros, a 37.5 percent increase compared with 2000.

The company's turnover in Lithuania was 657 million euros, in Latvia 13 million euros and in Estonia 1 million euros.

Vilniaus Prekyba has 142 stores in Lithuania, 20 in Latvia and 1 in Estonia and employs 7,900 people. It has a 30 percent share of the retail market in Lithuania and is edging close to the 40 percent ceiling set by Lithuania's antitrust authority, which partly explains its push north.

Vilniaus Prekyba is the probably most visible Lithuanian company in Latvia, but there are others.

The charter-flight tour company Novaturas is a market leader and forecasts a turnover of 3.8 million lats this year.

Three leading Lithuanian clothing manufacturers - Lelija, Utenos Trikotazas and Levuo - opened stores in Riga last fall and plan to expand.

Lithuanian companies are also quickly becoming market players in the food service and IT industries in Latvia.