Any self-respecting builder will tell you that a sound construction is reliant on four key elements: sturdy foundations; quality materials; reliable tools; and last, but certainly not least, thorough plans.
And when it comes to building a durable convenience business, the mix is no different, as Convenience Retail Awards winner Steve Bassett illustrates.
As the child of convenience retailers, and with more than 20 years of his adult life devoted to running his own empire (which currently consists of three Londis stores and a seafront sweet shop in Weymouth, Dorset) Steve’s foundations are rock solid.
His wife also works in the business (when C-Store visited she was up to her ears in envelopes, manning the Abbotsbury Road store’s post office) and despite being retired, his father pops in regularly to help out with the paperwork.
Good working relationships with Trading Standards, local police, and environmental health officers (EHO) have also helped further strengthen Steve’s business foundations. “I go to my EHO for advice all the time, particularly now that I have such a large food-to-go offer, and he’s always really helpful. The authorities would much rather help you out and prevent you from having a problem than prosecute you. It’s a partnership.”
For Steve, it’s one that is definitely working out. “I’m looking to add a new dimension to my food-to-go offering by introducing a bar for homemade layered salads, and my EHO has been brilliant at advising me on how to go about doing this. On his advice I have put up plastic cladding on the kitchen walls so that they don’t get damaged by splashing water when we make the salads. My next challenge is to design some professional-looking packaging. I’m not quite sure which style of container to go for, or what the labels should look like yet, but I’m sure that we’ll come up with something great.”
Store profile: Londis, Abbotsbury Road, Weymouth
Size: 2,000sq ft
Opening hours: 6am-10pm
Staff: Eight full time, 20 part time
Services: National Lottery, ATM, off licence, post office, telephone ordering
And when it comes to Steve’s team, the materials without which he could not function, he is quite rightly, demanding of quality. Some 25 staff are employed at Abbotsbury Road, Steve’s busiest and most impressive store, and many of them are local teenagers on part-time contracts.
“I like to employ school leavers. You get a good five years out of them before they head to university or off on gap years, and even then they’re keen to work during the long university holidays or between job interviews. They’re also happy to work Sunday shifts, which are always the most difficult day of the week to fill. I’ve also had quite a few who have returned to work for me full time and gone on to become supervisors.”
No managers are employed at any of Steve’s stores; he believes that a host of well-trained supervisors who all report to him is a better way of working. Looking around at his gaggle of grinning girls and boys, it certainly seems that way. The more equal footing has helped to create a team spirit which is immediately obvious.
However, that’s not to say that when things go wrong he’s afraid of pulling punches. “Being a responsible retailer is important to me and I take all underaged sales training very seriously,” he says. “For me, failing a test purchase is a serious offence, and should it happen to one of my staff I’d probably dismiss them. It’s my livelihood we’re talking about here, and the risks are just too great.”
He adds: “I’d also recommend that other retailers set their own stores and staff up for responsible retailing by asking their own underage friends or family members to conduct test purchases.”
In fact, so serious is his commitment to responsible retailing that last year Steve took the bold decision to ban anyone under the age of 21 from buying alcohol at his store.
“We had a problem with youths hanging around outside and drinking alcohol in the local park. While we were confident that we weren’t selling underage, we had little idea what the over-18s were doing with the alcohol they bought. The problem had been bothering me for a while when one night I drove past the store and realised that through a customer’s eyes the gang looked really intimidating. The very next day I decided to put a stop to it all by introducing a 21s policy for alcohol.”
The results were astounding. “The youths didn’t really complain, they just moved on I think they’re outside the local Asda now. What really surprised me, though, was that our sales actually went up as a result of the ban. I guess the gangs had been putting older people off from coming in. I’d much rather have customers with proper money in their pockets rather than gangs of 18- and 19-year-olds who’ve clubbed together a grubby handful of change.”
When it comes to tools it’s immediately clear from looking around Steve’s office that he’s rather discerning. The flashy iPad, iPhone and epos system might have cost him a pretty penny, but he says that without them running the business would be impossible.
“Gadgets such as my iPhone mean that I’m constantly in touch with the business, no matter where I am. Without them I wouldn’t have the freedom to travel around as much as I do, or attend as many meetings and industry events.”
He adds: “I love how fast-paced technology is. Last week my cash machine supplier wanted me to sign a new seven-year contract, but I had to say no. You can’t sign a seven-year contract anymore because things are evolving so fast. In seven years’ time we may all pay for things via our mobile phones and won’t even need cash machines.”
And talking of tools and gadgetry, earlier this year Steve made the clever decision of moving his stock control computer from the office above the store to a small alcove on the shop floor. It’s a simple move which has had even more positive repercussions on the business. “Having the computer downstairs means that staff spend less time in the office and are much more visible on the shop floor. Customers like it because there’s always someone to answer a query or have a chat, while improved visibility has been good for deterring shoplifters.”
So now to planning, because according to Steve, “you’re only as good as your plans”. As such, Steve is the proud owner of meticulous business plans for the future of all of his stores. Foresight helps, too. When the red brick cottage backing on to the rear of his store came up for sale five years ago, Steve had enough of this to snap it up. It was a clever move as it meant that when the time came to extend Londis Abbotsbury Road, he could build into the house’s garden. Owning the house also meant that he wouldn’t be plagued with complaints from residents about noisy chillers or deliveries. That’s seriously smart planning.
“You can’t stand still for long in this game because customers’ expectations are always changing,” he says. “Refits and refurbs need to be planned carefully in advance and happen on a regular basis if you want to compete with the likes of Tesco Express or One-Stop stores which are developed all the time.”
Steve’s Abbotsbury Road store was given a full facelift including an extension to make way for the addition of a high street-style sandwich bar. The counter area was also relocated, and smart new flooring was added just under four years ago. As part of the build Steve also decided to give over more of his stockroom space to the shopfloor. “Having daily deliveries from Londis means that I simply don’t need a large stockroom anymore,” he says. He has had to invest in a cardboard baler, though, to minimise packaging waste.
And despite the store going under the knife so recently, Steve’s already planning the next round of cosmetic surgery, including the addition of the aforementioned layered salad bar. He’s also on the lookout for a fifth store, but says that he’s after “an opportunity”.
“I don’t want to buy a run-of-the-mill convenience store. What would be the point of that? I want something a little different, that will get people excited and give them a real reason to come through the door.”
With such an impressive track record, we’re sure that whatever Steve builds shoppers will come.
Londis, Abbotsbury Road, Weymouth, Dorset Size: 2,000sq ft Staff: 8 full-time, 20 part-time Opening hours: Monday to Sunday 6am10pm Additional Services: post office, National Lottery, ATM, telephone ordering, off-licence
Responsible Retailing Award
Steve’s bold policy of selling alcohol to only those over the age of 21 was rewarded when he was handed the Convenience Retail Award for Responsible Retailing this year. That Steve and his team have also established a close relationship with the local licensing authority, police and Trading Standards also impressed the judges. The strong working relationships paid off when Steve mounted a campaign to tackle a problem with fake IDs circulating in the area last year. The campaign, which included posters and pictures of seized fake IDs, helped to raise awareness of the problem among teenagers, parents and other retailers.