A tide of neighbourliness is sweeping across the UK’s convenience store trade, as Andrew Don finds out.

More than half of those living in the UK do not know their neighbours’ names and a third would avoid them in the street, according to a survey from Linden Homes this summer. Not so convenience stores and other small businesses, though.

Here there’s an increasing sense of what Alan Toft, chairman of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD), calls “community”.

Admittedly, it can often take a catastrophe to bring people together, but when it does there’s no looking back. When Boscastle flooded in August 2004, Cornish Stores owner Guy Lane-de-Courtin’s first response to the disaster was to leave his own shop and help a local restaurant protect itself with sandbags.

Then he got a call to say his shop was flooding and his fridges and freezers were floating out to sea. He lost about £16,000-worth of stock and £32,000-worth of equipment.

Guy says that the flood marked a turning point in the way businesses in the area co-operate, putting an end to feuds that may have previously existed. After the floods neighbouring business owners began talking to each other a lot more about the best way to deal with insurers, how to get up and running again and put their properties in order.

“We are on better terms than we have ever been. We’re not worried about what the next person is doing,” he says. Stores would previously try to undercut each other on bestsellers - we don’t think like that now. It has changed a lot of people’s mentality,” says Guy.
The FWD is now considering expanding its My Shop is Your Shop campaign. Toft says: “We haven’t gone into how neighbouring businesses can help each other out but there’s no reason why retailers shouldn’t apply this community feeling to each other. That would be a welcome extension to what we are doing.”

Nisa-Today’s group symbol development director John Heagney says the main advantage of being on good terms with the business next door is one of "communication”.

He says: “Local businesses are in an ideal position to share information that may affect them. They share the same concerns because they operate in the same environment and, as such, are often reliant on one another for the safe and successful running of their businesses.”

There are many ways neighbouring businesses can help each other, he points out, such as with security. This could be help with an incident or simply to check up on a store when the owner is absent. Sharing information between local firms can be beneficial, particularly when it comes to rent reviews.

Heagney says local businesses can often generate trade for each other through word-of-mouth recommendation, too. He cites several industry initiatives such as the Association of Convenience Stores’ No ID No Sale campaign, which emphasises the importance of providing valid ID cards when buying age-restricted products.

Association of Convenience Stores chief executive David Rae says collaborative work organising closed-circuit television on a parade is a good way of tackling crime and anti-social behaviour“

There are also now mechanisms like Business Improvement Districts to encourage businesses to work together.”

But Rae says that while some retailers work closely with their neighbours on crime prevention, others adopt an insular mentality, not seeing beyond the walls of their own shop.

“It’s no co-incidence that the retailers who are the most commercially successful are the most open in their approach and most outward facing.”

Musgrave Budgens Londis (MBL) suggests neighbouring businesses act as a drop-off point for deliveries or look after spare keys. It adds that if a store is next to a restaurant or catering firm, they might buy stock such as freshly baked rolls from you.

MBL says retailers are better acquainted with their neighbours in rural locations where there tends to be a stronger sense of community.

However, a spokeswoman noted how shops in West London pulled together to try to prevent the extension of the central London congestion zone.

Costcutter trading manager Sam Oxley-Powell says that being on good terms with a neighbouring business gives a feeling of wellbeing; it’s comforting to know there’s someone close by should you need help. She adds: “Many shops are staffed by a single person at times, so it helps to know there is someone nearby who will pop in from time to time to say hello. Being on friendly terms with neighbours also means you can do each other favours and run errands.

“It could be little things like providing emergency change from the tills, lending till rolls, having posters up in your windows and offering special discounts to staff from nearby shops.

Robert Byford, managing director of Byford’s in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, which combines convenience retailing with butchery, also advocates this approach. He says that if the mincer in his store stops working, any one of five butchers would let him use theirs.
“We have always believed in helping other traders. Supermarkets are our competitors, not other small traders,” he says.

Robert, who is a member of Southend Meat Traders Association, says he can phone another member if he runs short of fillet steak and the other trader will give him some. They also help out if he’s short of staff.
When a nearby sweet shop ran out of cigarettes and didn’t have time to go to the cash and carry, it borrowed some of Robert’s stock. “And we ran out of charcoal and lighter fluid last week for barbecues so the hardware shop next door lent us some.”

Alpesh Patel follows the same principle. When the shop next door to his Londis in Hornsey, north London, had a power cut, Patel ran an extension lead from his store to theirs.

Another Londis retailer, Atul Sodha, in Harefield, Middlesex, takes deliveries for the shop next door if needed, and they do likewise.

The benefits of working together aren’t just anecdotal. British Gas Business has researched how extensively firms interact and the benefits they gain. Commercial director Adrian Harvey says: “By sitting down and sharing points of view and business-building tips with companies close by, companies develop a network of support within the local business community.”