Four Champions discuss their approach to community retailing and how it differentiates them from the multiples

Bob Gibson
Premier, Basingstoke, Hampshire

Partaking in numerous community events, Bob has endeared himself to customers so much so that they refer to the store as 'Bob's', rather than 'Premier'.

David Nice
Nisa Local, Maylandsea, Essex

David and his business partner Paul Miller aren't afraid of taking risks, and have invested heavily in their Maylandsea store in recent times.

Malcolm Crump
Spar Compton, Wolverhampton

Spar Compton is the village hub, thanks to Malcolm and brother Gordon's dedication to their customers. The pair even held a Fun Day last year to keep locals smiling.

Bimal Patel
Londis Crouch End, London

Bimal and brother Alpesh work hard to ensure their store is the talk of the town, implementing exciting initiatives such as fruit sampling sessions.

How important is it for independent stores to be seen as part of their local community?

Bob: It's very important. We probably wouldn't have survived if we hadn't integrated ourselves into the community.

David: I believe it's vital for stores to bond with the local community.

Malcolm: It's extremely important local retailers should be seen as the heart of the community.

Bimal: It's an essential independent stores should be the lifeblood of their community.

How has integrating yourself into the local community benefited your business?
: It has been of tremendous benefit. It's taken a long time to be accepted I've been here well over 20 years. Customers don't come here just for the prices, they come for the friendly atmosphere and because we make an effort to get people served quickly. 

David: When things go wrong, such as an individual stealing from the store, you really feel that the community is on your side. If a competitor opened up locally, I'd like to think that customers' decisions to stay with us wouldn't solely be based on price, but on loyalty. 

Malcolm: People feel valued so they want to come to our store. We're not stuck in an isolated community people have a choice of where they want to shop. If we didn't have a friendly, welcoming atmosphere then people would vote with their feet. 

Bimal: When you donate to local causes, then people really appreciate what you've done and part of the reason they support us is because they know that we care about the community.
What do you do to ensure a community feel?

Bob: We stock as much local produce as possible. There's fruit & veg from the local greengrocer, eggs from a local farm, and locally sourced fresh meat. I also make sure that all the staff wear badges to let people know their first names so that customers can get to know them more easily.

David: We encourage staff to talk to customers, especially elderly people, and to help them around the store.

Malcolm: We've got to know most of our customers by name. Not everyone wants to stop for a chat, but staff will always oblige those who do. There's a serious social aspect to independent retailing and we neglect it at our peril.

Bimal: We have a notice board in our store where people can read the local church and football club announcements. We also support local businesses where possible, such as sourcing fish and bread from local suppliers.

How have you gone out of your way to help customers in the past?

Bob: We have an old chap who lives about a quarter of a mile away. He had to go into hospital for a leg operation and couldn't get to the shop for months afterwards, so we delivered goods to him. We also deliver for a disabled lady nearby.

David: We once had an elderly lady fall over outside the store and the ambulance we'd called failed to show up, so a member of staff drove the woman to the local hospital.

Malcolm: The other day someone needed a one-off home delivery so I helped them out with that. I've also taken customers home if they don't feel well while they're shopping. They're not just customers we know them, and many have become our friends.

Bimal: One of our good customers tripped and broke her ankle and we delivered her shopping for her by car until she recovered. We always try to help when we can.

What types of moral dilemmas have you been faced with, and how have you dealt with them?

Bob: On one occasion a lady came in for a newspaper, but when she saw one of our fresh cauliflowers she really fancied it for her supper. She only had money for the paper, but I let her have the cauliflower and she paid me back next time.

David: We don't sell Red Bull to under 16s, and we would never let children buy magazines aimed at an adult audience. It doesn't help our sales, but the mums really appreciate it. In addition, if we think someone is buying cigarettes for a minor, then we refuse the sale and we try to find out the youth's name and tell their parents.

Malcolm: If a regular forgets their purse, then we'll use our discretion and let them pay us later. It's a real nuisance, but you don't let the customer know that.

Bimal: We stopped selling energy shots a long time ago because we didn't want children buying them. We also always refuse proxy cigarette sales.

What activities do you take part in to get involved in the community?

Bob: We supply coffee and mince pies for the local carol service at Christmas; we ran a street party for My Shop Is Your Shop this year; and we supply shirts for the local football team. We used to have lots of different charity collection boxes in-store, but now we just have two for St Michael's Hospice, which is two miles away. Customers like to see where their money is spent.

David: We deliver goods to old people's homes for free once they've come in to choose what they want, and we run Nisa's Making a Difference scheme to raise money for local schools and football teams. We also support lots of local charities by providing stock for their fundraising events, for example, cakes for a community meeting.

Malcolm: We had a Fun Day last year with games and a cake sale. It helped to raise money for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. We also supply money-off vouchers as prizes for raffles; mince pies to the local hospice at Christmas; Christmas cake for the community centre; and a cheque to the local children's playgroup.

Bimal: We support all local charities in the area, for example, we put money towards the restoration of the church. We also provide food for school fundraising events such as burgers and ketchup for their summer barbecue.

How do you manage to find the right type of staff to create a strong sense of community?
: I'm quite lucky in that most of my staff have been with me for years. When I do take on new people, it's a matter of interviewing them and finding those who are good at mixing with others and who are friendly, as well as being sales focused. 

David: You never know quite what staff will be like when you first take them on, but good customer service is covered in the training. We always look for friendly people as saying hello to customers is really important. 

Malcolm: We always employ local people so they are already part of the community. 

Bimal: When we interview staff, we always ask them to give us an example of when they've been helpful to someone in the past. You have to have a caring nature to create a good community store.
What differentiates your approach to community retailing from that of the multiples?

Bob: The multiples near my store don't seem to bother getting involved in any community initiatives.

David: I'd prefer my staff to spend time helping customers, rather than stacking shelves. If an old lady can't carry her shopping home, we'd give her a lift. Tesco wouldn't do something like that.

Malcolm: The supermarkets can't adopt the same friendly approach that we can. They can't let customers off the odd penny, or order things in especially for people. It's our personal service which sets us apart from the multiples.

Bimal: A lot of independents do so much good for their local area. Multiples are answerable to an area manager so they just don't have the flexibility to help local communities in the same way.

Where do you get your inspiration from on which community initiatives to run or to support?

Bob: I've always been a big believer in supporting local issues. I saw our local hospice being built and the founders had a big chart on the roadside gauging how much money they had raised. I could see it was something that people in the area would like to support, so we got involved.

David: Quite often it's the staff who suggest initiatives that we could perhaps support. They either know local people who are in need, or they pass on requests from customers. They also spot things in the local paper. They then get a real buzz if we act on their suggestions.

Malcolm: We talk to colleagues for suggestions. We also get some charities approaching us, and others we get involved with because we know they are important to the community.

Bimal: The head teacher of a local school is a customer and she asked for our support. We also have people from the church shopping here and they tell us what they need.

How much time do you dedicate to the community initiatives you're involved in?

Bob: It doesn't take up a lot of time just a day here and a day there.

David: We have a weekly meeting with supervisors and we touch on it then, but it's not something we set specific time aside for. It's more about trying to see community retailing as an everyday activity, rather than focusing on individual events.

Malcolm: We're supporting the community all the time in our day-to-day approach to customers. That's more important than running actual events, which are sometimes contrived.

Bimal: I don't spend a lot of time planning community initiatives it's more of an informal thing. People just know that they can ask us for help.