Playing to your strengths

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From community involvement to local produce, c-store retailers have a USP to use to their advantage. Our C-Store Champions reveal theirs

Harj Dhasee, Nisa Village Stores Mickleton, Gloucestershire

The biggest competition for Harj’s business comes from grocery delivery services

Tess Flower, The Village Shop, Upper Dicker, East Sussex

The coffee shop element of Tess’ village shop is where she beats the multiples and nearby stores

Bay Bashir, Lifestyle Express Belle Vue Convenience Store, Middlesbrough

A high level of customer service and community involvement give Bay the upper hand

Kay Patel, four stores in Stratford and two in Wanstead, London

Refits, range reviews and keeping shelves well stocked ensure customers come back to Kay’s stores

How much competition does your store have and how has this changed over the past few years?

Harj: My main competition is the big delivery companies Tesco and Ocado. We don’t have any other shops within walking distance of the store so these are very useful services for residents in our area. We’ve started to notice these delivery companies starting to take business from us, particularly in the past four to five years. I think families have really started to switch onto this option for their weekly shop. We do deliveries for the more elderly shoppers, but that’s all, so we can’t compete directly with their offer.

Tess: The supermarket delivery services are the big one. Everyone in the village has a delivery once a week. It’s hard for any convenience store retailer to compete with them as they can deliver everywhere.

Bay: We have a Tesco Express and an Aldi nearby, and a couple of independents. This hasn’t really changed much in the past few years. What’s changed more is the market and the products that we are profiting from.

Kay: Each of my stores is in a different area so some have a lot of competition and some have less. My store in Wanstead is in an affluent area on the high street and there we have seen a convenience store and a newsagent close in the past year. But there are a Tesco, a Co-op and a couple of other small independent stores nearby so we’ve all shared the benefits of the closures. The closure of those stores doesn’t make me concerned about the safety of our store. We are constantly improving and investing and all six stores have undergone a renovation programme, and sales are strong. The next to open in the area very soon will be an M&S. I’m sure people will go in there to buy their sandwiches – even I will sometimes – but they will still come to my store for the other items that they can’t get there, or that they charge too much for. I’ve also just heard that an artisan bakery is opening so that will compete directly with our artisan bread offering. At the end of the day, when your store is in a high street the competition will constantly change as there’s bound to be bank branches and pubs closing and bakeries and food stores opening.

What is your competition’s biggest downfall, in your opinion?

Harj: People definitely still come to us for our fresh and chilled products because they know they will be fresh and local.

Tess: They aren’t able to provide the same high-quality local products with the same personal touch that we are able to provide.

Bay: Probably their inability to provide the personal customer service that we do. I get feedback from customers frequently to tell me that they are impressed with the level of service they’ve received in my store and it goes to show how much they appreciate it.

Kay: Branded alcohol and tobacco. I’m not sure that M&S even does tobacco.

In which categories do you feel you beat their offer?

Harj: The best way we can beat their offer is by offering lots of locally-sourced products that we know they won’t offer, and by providing great customer service. We have a good local butchery range and dairy produce and many other locally-sourced products. We really push that local image across the whole store. We can also take some sales away from them by doing eye-catching promotions on everyday items at the right time of the month. So in the second week of the month we will do promotions on household items which they might have put on their supermarket shopping list but will happily buy from us if they can see we’re doing a good deal. We also provide that personal customer service that they can’t get from delivery services.

Tess: Our home-made cakes are very popular, and our coffee beans as well. We have beans from a local roaster and while some people like to come in to drink a coffee in the shop there are a growing number of shoppers coming and buying bags of the beans to take home and grind in their machines at home. We also do a lot of take-away coffee, particularly for people who are on their way to work.

Bay: Our off-licence offering is very good. We’ve built a reputation now for providing good value lines so people will come in with confidence that they will get what they need for a good price.

Kay: We can beat M&S on their branded alcohol range; they barely have anything. I can definitely envisage people coming to us even after they’ve been to M&S.

What is your store’s main USP and how do you maintain this?

Harj: Local and high quality. We shout about this. We make sure people know that what they are buying is local. We also try to keep the store looking “posh” by using simple display solutions such as blackboards to give a farm shop feel.

Tess: Definitely the high-quality and locally-sourced coffee and home-made cake. People come in just for the coffee shop and that’s what we are going to continue to concentrate on.

Bay: Customer service and community involvement are our main points of difference. Everyone has promotions and everyone offers the same deals, give or take a few pence, but customer service is one area where we can really stand out. We spend a lot of money on training our staff to be helpful, kind and courteous, and take the time to speak to people and give them their time and show them they are important. This ensures that the customers will keep coming back.

Kay: Availability is key to being a successful convenience store. We ensure that every product is never out of stock for more than a few hours.

How do you plan to continue building on this USP?

Harj: We will continue to source more products from local suppliers, such as with the new range of ready meals. We will continue to go to the monthly farmers’ market and the local farm shops to get inspiration and see what is selling well for them. Whenever we have new locally-sourced products in store we will promote them strongly through social media.

Tess: We are forever reducing the amount of shelf space we have for selling branded products. We frequently go through all the products to check the sell-by-dates and if we find we have to throw away a product twice then we will delist it. At the same time we aren’t bringing in so many new products as we don’t want to risk products sitting on the shelves and not selling. I am always willing to try out something new, as long as the supplier is willing to give me 35% of the sales. This way I am removing the element of risk to my own business and they are taking on the risk themselves.

Bay: We will continue to get involved in community activities as well as continue to sponsor local and school events. We shout about the community work that we do on social media.

Kay: We are looking at our spirits planograms at the moment. We are delisting some lines and bringing in some new ones. We’ve been noticing the premiumisation trend for some time now and want to cash in on the increasing interest in premium gins. We already expanded our BWS range in our recent refit, but are now going to increase our shelving space behind the counter so we can expand our gin and whisky range.

What’s your advice to any retailer finding it hard to compete against the mults and discounters?

Harj: It’s important to keep exploring new avenues and ideas and keep your offer unique. If you are concentrating on offering local products then make sure you shout about this in store.

Tess: I’ve noticed that lots of small shops are putting little café areas into their stores now so it’s something a lot of people can do. If their store is too small for this then I suggest trying the cold brew coffee available now. This seems to be a trend that’s emerging and these don’t take up much space in the fridge. If they want to do coffee-to-go then I suggest getting a local roaster who can do blends specific to your style of coffee machine or filter machine.

Bay: Don’t look at the mults. Look at your own store and what you are doing and what extra little things you can implement. There are plenty of opportunities to increase your chilled range and advertise offers to draw people in. Make sure your prices are competitive – don’t be greedy and go way over the rrp, because people won’t pay more than they can get elsewhere.

Kay: Do range reviews and concentrate on what you are good at. We are good at alcohol so we are going to increase the space we give to that category.

Competition

In which categories do you find it particularly hard to match competitors’ offers in terms of price and range?

Harj: Their ready meals and meal solutions. There’s only so much we can fit in our shop and we can’t offer the sort of range they have. I have enquired with Cook whether we can sell their range, but they said we can’t because the local farm shop already sells it. It’s a real shame, because my shop caters to a completely different mission to the farm shop so it would definitely create more sales for Cook. This week we did find a local supplier of ready meals, though, which we are going to start using from next week. We will start with eight different varieties. I found them in a local Simply Fresh store.

Tess: It’s becoming harder to get margins on branded products now. With everything being pricemarked, you can’t rely on the same branded products that are sold by the multiples.

Bay: At the moment we can’t compete with their offering of fresh and chilled. Their range is far wider than ours, but we are looking to do a refit in January which will see this category expanded and this will help us to compete with their offer. Fresh and chilled is definitely where the trade is now. Those morning customers who want food to go and coffee are where the big opportunity is.

Kay: They do have a good food-to-go offer, but we are currently developing our own brand of food to go called Made with Love, and I’m hopeful that that will help us to compete against the M&S range. It will be a premium offer, but at a slightly lower price point.

Standing out

Is your USP something you have consciously created, or has it just evolved organically?

Harj: This has always been our USP. We’ve been concentrating on high-quality and locally-sourced products for the past seven or eight years.

Tess: We’ve had the coffee shop element for about 10 years and it’s grown in popularity ever since. For quite a while it was about a 50/50 split between the store and the coffee shop, but now it’s more about the coffee shop.

Bay: Being a good, responsible community store has always been a passion of mine. It’s not something I consciously wanted to make my USP, but it’s certainly something that’s very important to me.

Kay: It’s just a basic necessity for any convenience store to remain convenient to their shoppers and ensure their shoppers don’t find they have to leave your shop and go somewhere else to get what they need.

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