Kishor Patel has been travelling the length and breadth of
Britain in a customised Smart car to help fellow retailers improve their businesses and raise money for trade charities.
Since he launched his Retail Smart project at the Confectioners' Benevolent Fund's Candy Ball in March, C-Store has been following his progress. To date he has visited 11 retailers, and is on schedule to have seen up to 20 within the year. "The response has been tremendous," he says. "I assess their requirements over the phone and then make a visit.
"I started Retail Smart because I was getting calls from retailers from time to time asking for advice on a range of issues such as epos, shop fittings, staffing and so on, so I thought I could invite retailers to phone in and I would visit them."
Kishor has devised a 'store health check appraisal' form to evaluate each store he visits. Using a points system, he assesses store location, marketing activity, store standards and facilities, ranging and merchandising, epos usage, staffing procedures, security, adherence to legislation, investment in the community, customer service, accounting procedures and self-training. Each section is given a red, amber or green rating - red being a priority with action required immediately, amber being action in six months' time, and green indicating the need for a review in six to 12 months.
"I go with a blank sheet of paper and look at the whole operation - how they run the store from day to day, who makes the decisions, whether there are family or staff involved. I look at their supply chain, investment levels, and all together it gives me a picture of their strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. Some stores have good standards but they need some advice on marketing or people management, for instance. Some want to start from scratch and redevelop the store."
Harry Goraya, who runs a 3,000sq ft store in Northfleet, Kent, with wife Charlie and son Jas, is one retailer who has received the Retail Smart treatment. Harry was concerned that he didn't have sufficient support and retailing skills to manage a large store - he'd managed an 800sq ft outlet for 18 years - because now he faces the challenges of dealing with IT, managing people, ranging a larger store, security, marketing, analysing data, and managing his relationship with the group. His turnover hasn't met the expectations projected by some symbol groups, either.
On top of that, Harry found the fresh and chilled category the most challenging, and tried and tested various ranges - which resulted in waste - so he cut back on chilled and filled the space with soft drinks. Training and delegating tasks to staff was another concern, along with an epos system that didn't meet all of his requirements, and an under-performing food to go counter.
Kishor's first recommendation was for Harry, Charlie and Jas to spend some time in other stores to get a better understanding of ranging, marketing, epos, people management and community involvement. Other recommendations included changing his epos software, taking a closer look at pricing policy and clearing the checkout and floor area of clutter for a more professional image.
On people management, Kishor advised that staff and the Gorayas wear uniforms and badges, and all staff have clear responsibilities. Involving staff by holding regular updates on store performance and getting their input was another recommendation.
With regards to ranging, Kishor told Harry he should eliminate slow sellers, multi-face his faster sellers, and, taking one bay at a time, re-merchandise, with help from suppliers, Nisa or Kishor's own planograms. Harry wasn't ordering much fresh produce through Nisa so Kishor recommended using a local supplier or going to the market every other day to control availability, consistency, freshness and pricing.
His final comments were on the importance of getting involved in the local community, increasing the leaflet drop and introducing a non-charging ATM which, claims Kishor, attract 96% of all transactions, as against 4% for charging ATMs.
One of Kishor's key motivations for launching Retail Smart was to raise money for trade charities. His Smart car is smothered in brand logos and he's appealing for donations from suppliers and retailers.
"There's another blitz going out soon. I've been testing the water so far but the response has been very positive - we've had some large donations. Country Choice was the first to sponsor, followed by PayPoint, and we're expecting support from Camelot, Retail Plus, Skillsmart and the IGD. I've started
receiving donations from retailers as well and I'm comfortably on target."
Kishor's first target was to get sufficient funding to buy the Smart car and auction it at the next Candy Ball. He now intends to buy a new Smart car and the brands or companies who sponsor or donate to Retail Smart will get their logos on the car that's auctioned.
"We're hoping to reach £5,000-£10,000 on top of what we get for the car, and the appeal will carry on until the middle of next year."
Aside from the fundraising, Kishor's primary goal for Retail Smart is to share best practice and his extensive experience with other independent retailers. But as the project has progressed, his ideas have got bigger and broader, and he's
forging strong relationships with various industry organisations in a bid to co-ordinate advice for independent retailers.
"There's a lot of advice out there, but retailers really do need practical solutions. They don't want just another phone number or just another web address. For example, with something like people management, they need the whole package - application forms, staff handbooks, staff contracts,
everything. They need things like self-assessment checklists to ensure they're prepared for any visit from environmental health, and a complete store assessment tool to check they're fully legal - they're really crying out for tangible things like these."
To push these ideas forward, Kishor is working with the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) to devise some self-assessment checklists and planograms specially designed for independent retailers.
"We're looking at a web-based self-layout facility so that retailers can enter their store dimensions and get recommended layout suggestions for their stores."
Also on Kishor's Retail Smart to-do list is the creation of a network of 'skills shops' - flagship stores that are willing to help other independent retailers improve their own operations.
"I'm working closely with Nisa to put up 13 flagship stores that have virtually everything in place, so that retailers can witness best practice in store management, merchandising, people management, store disciplines and ranging. I'm also working with Skillsmart to push a similar project forward."
Kishor admits that Retail Smart has developed into a great deal more than he initially imagined. "I didn't envisage all of this at first. I thought I would go out and visit a few retailers, raise some money for charity, and that would be it. Then I found that there's a real gap that can be filled, but we really do need the support of other retail organisations like the ACS.
"It's been quite challenging but I'm thoroughly enjoying it. I've met a lot of people - suppliers and retailers - and it's broadened my knowledge and vision of the sector."
Tony Hundel, who runs an independent store in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, is set for a major store transformation following his Retail Smart visit. He's due to begin a store extension in January next year and wants to join a symbol group.
"I have my options open at the moment and would like to learn more about the four symbols I've narrowed it down to," he says. "I'm going to be inviting them to tell me how their format can benefit the store, the community and my bottom line.
"Kishor discussed and identified our strengths and weaknesses, and gave me great confidence in the future of the independent convenience sector and my store in particular. He mentioned that I need to plan the store out - my shelving was fine, I just needed a few more shelves, which I immediately sourced. Kishor put me in touch with a shopfitter who attended within days.
"I visited Kishor's store in Houghton Regis, which was an inspiration. I just felt I wanted to replicate what he's got in my extended 1,200sq ft store.
"I found Kishor's advice was down to earth and what I wanted to hear. In his opinion we have the potential for a 50% improvement in turnover. I'm certainly going to give it a go; let's face it, I can't go backwards from what I'm doing now."
If you would like a visit from Kishor, or are a supplier who would like to sponsor the Retail Smart car, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him on 07801 370432. If you would like to pledge money to the CBF, you can do so at www.justgiving.com/kishorpatel.
Satnum Channa, who runs a Mace store in the village of Scholes, near Leeds, was one of the first to get a Retail Smart visit.
"Satnum's been there 30 years and wants to expand from 850sq ft to 2,000sq ft," says Kishor. "It's a really nice village with big houses, and the store is on a corner location with planning permission to extend, so everything's in place for him.
"We both thought there was great potential in this location. Taking into account Satnum's potential customers, I think he'll need to make sure he has sufficient chilled space and offer fresh bread, local and organic products, plus premium wines.
"He'll also have to market his store well. He should run promotions and send leaflets to neighbouring villages. There's a lot more noise he can make with local PR."
Family Choice Superstore in Anstey, Leicestershire, had a different set of challenges. "The store is in an old mining village, and needs to have a range appropriate to local needs," explained Kishor Patel. "I recommended adding more licensed products and fresh and chilled lines. The owner should also consider joining one of the entry-level symbol groups."