Mieke Peltijn has been cutting ham for large and small from Hansbeke for thirty-one years. This earned her Miekes Superetje the title of Neighborhood Super of 2023, even though she belongs to a dying breed. ‘Hopefully there will be someone as crazy as me to take over here, so that I also have a shop around the corner when I’m old.’
“I have changed careers, I am a fashion model these days.” Mieke Peltijn (52) has a strong blush on her cheeks as she divides her attention among her regular customers this Sunday morning, the photographer and journalist who arrived, and not to forget: the slicer with which she expertly processes a ham into a sandwich topping.
The red cheeks are the result of a good dose of discomfort for so much attention, mixed with at least as much pride. Miekes Superetje emerged as the winner on Friday in the election for Neighborhood Super of the Year in the ‘independent’ category. An honor that her customers are almost as happy with as Mieke herself.
“I don’t buy anywhere else. I come to Mieke three to four times a week. That’s not just out of convenience, it’s out of principle. I think you should support the local economy. Are you definitely going to write that down, how important that is?” He immediately admits that Serge is also advocating for his own shop: he is the local fishmonger, manager of ‘Santé, healthy with fish’.
Marie-Paul Moens even comes especially from Aalter, ten kilometers by bike. Because Mieke fills a shopping bag for her with products that are about to expire, at a reduced price. And for the smile. “Of course I have supermarkets closer. But there everything is in packages in a refrigerator, no one will hit you up there.”
The latter is exactly why Buurtsuper.be, a sector organization of Unizo, organizes the election annually, says managing director Luc Ardies. “Local shops are essential to our social fabric. We learned that during corona. Now that our lives are returning to normal, it is important to continue to emphasize that.”
Ardies fears the vision of the future that is already reality in many French villages today: a shopless desert. “These are municipalities where the dynamics suddenly disappear. And what do you get, according to research? An impersonal society, in which acidification is increasing.”
Because Miekes Superetje may still be flourishing today, but local supermarkets are certainly under pressure. Between 1,000 and 1,200 remain in Flanders. More than 90 percent of these are stores that operate under the flag of major players such as Spar, Delhaize or Carrefour. There are still a few dozen, maybe a hundred, of the truly independent grocers.
“Until the 1960s, the local grocer was the dominant form of distribution,” explains retail management professor Gino Van Ossel (Vlerick Business School). “Today that is a thing of the past. The number of migrant shops in cities is increasing sharply, but they have a more specific audience. Independent grocers like they used to be, they are in danger of extinction.”
“I’ve known him since he was a little boy,” Mieke points to Kristof Van Den Berghe. He is now 39, and comes to stock up on the charcuterie for the week with his sons Jules and August, aged 9 and 7. “You have here for sure Have you ever ‘caught’ sweets, have you?” Mieke laughs mischievously. It’s Kristof’s turn to be red-faced. “Never! Not really! But I do know who did.”
Mieke too. She tells with amusement how a now grown man reluctantly came to her to confess his past crime last year at the thirtieth anniversary of her supermarket. Another customer intervenes. “Mieke knows everything about everyone here.”
Mieke Peltijn smiles. “It is true. People often tell me their misery. I also always know when it is someone’s birthday, who is celebrating their anniversary, or who is sick. Sometimes they call: can’t you deliver the groceries today? That’s what I do, of course, you have to help the older people in the neighborhood.”
This is precisely where the popularity of Miekes Superetje lies. Her USP – unique selling point – to put it in marketing jargon: her friendliness, her closeness, the fact that she feels like family to the customers. Sometimes she is literally that, born and raised in this village of two thousand inhabitants, where the nearest supermarket is four kilometers away.
“I can’t compete with them in terms of price. But I do deliver quality. Three times a week I get my fruit and vegetables early in the morning from the wholesaler in Bruges. I think my customers appreciate that.”
They will certainly be able to count on Mieke for another eight years. Her lease expires in 2031 and the building is already for sale. She not even secretly dreams that the store will not disappear when she says goodbye. “I hope there will be someone as crazy as me to take over here, so that I also have a shop around the corner when I’m old,” she smiles.
“It is hard work, twice a year I take four days off and on the closing day of the store I am also busy with it. People seem to think that you will die if you cannot go on leave, that is not the case. According to my mother, as a child I wrote in my diary that I wanted to have my own shop when I grew up. This was just my dream.”