You know what they say about best laid plans, and retailing is no exception. While it's impossible to plan for all eventualities, quick thinking and strong supplier relationships can help make sure you don't lose out on sales when unexpected demand for certain products crops up.

Dan Cock of Whitstone Stores in Devon has built up strong relationships with several suppliers in order to avoid getting caught out. "Demand for some products just happens almost overnight and catches you unawares," he says. In early summer Dan experienced a sudden surge in demand for Crabbie's ginger beer thanks to a big TV campaign coupled with warm weather. "We couldn't keep up with demand and neither could our main wholesaler, so we had to look to alternative wholesalers and nearby stores to source the goods. We managed to get it in, but it was a challenge."

As a result, Dan increased the number of suppliers he uses and says that helps him stay fully stocked. "I have three wholesalers and a lot of the local produce I stock is delivered by the producer itself," he says.

"It can take some managing, but it offers me more flexibility. If one source doesn't have what I need then I have several other avenues to follow. One supplier may let me down, but five or six certainly won't."

He has recently set up a business partnership with other retailers in the area and says that he hopes they will be able to support each other should the need arise. "If one of us is short of a particular product then we'll be able to help each other out if we can," he says.

"At the very least we'll be able to direct customers to a business that we know has the product they need, keeping their custom within the local community."

This was the case when he witnessed a sudden demand for gluten-free bread. "A few regular customers started asking for it, but we didn't stock it," he explains. "We did have other gluten-free products and gluten-free flour so we suggested that people could make their own bread if they wanted, but for those who didn't we directed them to a local bakery.

"Since then, we have started stocking a small supply of gluten-free bread ourselves."

Snow business

Like many retailers around the country, Fran Thomas, who runs Arkwrights in Swindon, Wiltshire, along with her husband Ken, had problems keeping up with unprecedented demand during the heavy snowfall in January.

"Customers were stocking up on bread and milk because they weren't sure how long the snow would last, so there was a huge demand for these products," says Fran. "However, our deliveries weren't able to get through so we had no fresh stock."

To prevent disappointing customers, Fran and Ken used their good relationships with suppliers and customers to get the stock on the shelves. "We worked with Robert Wiseman and Dangerfield Bakery, and they agreed to deliver to another store in the town that they could reach safely," explains Fran. "We then contacted one of our customers who has a four-wheel-drive vehicle and they were able to pick up the milk and bread.

"Thankfully, we weren't without for too long," she says. While a sustained snowfall cannot be planned for, Fran says that the experience has taught them the importance of maintaining relationships with suppliers and customers.

"We don't expect the snow to be as bad as that for a long time but, just in case, we keep on good terms with our suppliers and, of course, our customers," adds Fran. "It stood us in good stead."

Freak weather also caused problems for Lynne Cooke and her husband Richard. The couple run two Londis forecourts in Keswick, Cumbria, and were forced to juggle both staff and stock between the two outlets during last year's floods.

"One of the branches was flooded and we had to close it, but our other forecourt was the only big store open in the town. Turnover trebled but stock quickly ran down," says Lynne. "We had to get on to our symbol group and put in an emergency order to make sure the town wasn't without food. They were happy to do it and we now know that we can ask them again if necessary, but at the time it was quite stressful as we thought we might be without stock until our next scheduled delivery."

Even though there will always be unforeseen situations, having a back-up plan will help you cope with the unexpected. So next time you have a minute, take a look at your contingency plans and ensure you have the right contacts to call on in times of need.
How to be ready for anything

Consult weekly weather reports for your area so you can prepare for any eventuality 
Talk to other convenience store retailers about their contingency plans 
Build up links with other businesses in your area you never know when you may need to rely on each other 
Read trade magazines so that you are aware of any big advertising campaigns which may boost demand Check the local papers to find out what's going on in your area a local festival may lead to a surge in demand for soft drinks and confectionery 
Consider all your supply options, including alternative wholesalers, in order to maintain maximum flexibility