The winter months signal not only a change in weather, but a change in shopping patterns. Our C-Store Champions reveal how they adjust

Scott Graham, McLeish Inverurie in Aberdeenshire

Snow is a common sight outside Scott’s store so he has to be tuned into what shoppers may need.

Jeeta Bhadal, One Stop Woodhouse in Leeds

Jeeta focuses on comfort foods over winter and ensures he makes the most of any higher-margin seasonal products.

Andrew Johnson, Dafarn Newydd Stores in Powys

Andrew ensures local workers and tradespeople are well catered for with hot food to go at this time of year, and focuses on promotions.

Conrad Davies, Spar and Eurospar in north Wales

Conrad can’t rely on trade from tourists in the winter so he embraces all the seasonal events to keep his sales ticking over.

Do you notice a change in the way customers shop in the winter?

Scott: The biggest change we see is in food to go. Sales of sandwiches start to drop and people buy more hot food lines. It is all weather dependent, of course. We are right in the north of Scotland so we see a lot of snow. It is quite difficult to predict and this results in a lot more peaks and troughs in trade at winter time.

Jeeta: Comfort food is what most people are looking for. It also helps that lots of the seasonal times such as Halloween, Bonfire Night and Christmas fall close to one another. People are more likely to buy boxes of chocolate, hot drinks and snacks in the winter. There are a lot more promotions and the margins on these lines are good, so that’s good news for retailers.

Andrew: Our store often attracts tourists visiting the local hills, but we notice the difference in trade in the winter because it is much more about the locals coming in for their everyday shop, rather than visitors grabbing something for a picnic. In general, the things that people buy don’t change too much – some buy more soup and more people opt for hot meals and snacks from our food-to-go counter.

Conrad: The whole mix of the business shifts. For example, people start buying red wine instead of white. Beer sales stay pretty constant, but we notice that people are buying to drink at home. Our margins also take a hit as people buy less fresh meat, and all the seasonal confectionery comes in which sells well, but has a negative effect on margins. Overall, the margins drop by about 1% in the winter.

How important are seasonal products to sales?

Scott: The couple of big seasons you get in the winter such as Christmas and Halloween are good for us. The new product launches you get during the season are also key. The recent npd from Cadbury such as the Orange Twirl helps sales and drives interest as well. It is important that small stores have access to these types of product in the low season.

Jeeta: It is not necessarily all about seasonal products, but they are a help. They are the products that build interest. There is always something going on so customers get excited when they see all the seasonal boxes and promotions out in the store.

Andrew: It is a relief for us to have all the Halloween and Christmas lines because that always brings people into the store. These days the seasonal events pretty much follow on from one another and the promotions that come with each season offer plenty of good deals.

Conrad: Halloween and Christmas chocolates are no doubt good for sales, but your bottom line does take a hit because the margin on these products is usually very low. The good thing about these products is that you can build events around them, but they aren’t quite the same as Easter. In the spring, the Easter eggs are a drain on margins but you can make up for the drop with other areas such as BBQ meats and fresh veg. In the winter, there aren’t as many ways to counteract the fall in profit margins.

What kind of shoppers visit your store most often during the winter months?

Scott: We continue to see workers coming in during the morning – this doesn’t change, whatever the season. The school kids also create their own trade later in the day, and the rest of the time we get the usual mix of locals. The older customers tend to stay indoors when the weather is really bad, but then they come out in great numbers when the weather clears up.

Jeeta: The demographic for our store is mostly students. Over the years we have increasingly seen more students, but we still have our locals. We find that when the nights draw in people are more likely to visit their local shop rather than venturing out to the supermarket. When it is cold and dark, people are less likely to want to drive or travel far, so we definitely see an uplift when the clocks go back.

Andrew: We get workers and families coming in over the winter. At the moment, there is major refurbishment work going on at our local community centre which means we are also benefiting from all the builders coming in for hot baps and breakfast items in the morning. Weather permitting, they are expected to be in town until December so that should make a real difference to our winter trade. Hopefully, the construction work continues because their trade is valuable and keeps us above sales levels of last year.

Conrad: Come 31 October, all the caravan parks and holiday homes have closed down for the season so we don’t get many tourists in. We might get a few over Christmas and new year, but about 90% of the time we have to rely on the locals. November, December, January and February are the toughest times for our business. The difference in trading means we cut right down on fruit and veg, for example.

Do you partner with any other businesses/groups to run seasonal events?

Scott: We try to do lots of sampling in the shop and are open to working with local businesses if they come to us looking for help, or ideas. The main thing that helps our customers get into the winter season is the staff. They are always chatting with the locals and reminding them about certain products and promotions.

Jeeta: We don’t have a history of doing seasonal events, but this year for Bonfire Night I am looking at putting up some stalls in our car park and inviting along some local businesses and restaurants to share their food with the locals. It is a good way to create that community vibe and bring people together for hot dogs or a curry.

Andrew: We are working with the local community centre to organise the food for their upcoming festivals. They are organising a BBQ and have ordered the fresh meat from our butcher so it can be delivered to our store and stored fresh for the events. We also recently helped out with a local marathon, supplying all the sandwiches, crisps and water for the day. It worked out at about £400 in business for us so these types 
of community-based seasonal events definitely work out well financially.

Conrad: We tend to do our own events, but I’m always on social media nicking ideas from other retailers. I follow so many people and stores on Instagram and Facebook that there are always ideas how to make our events better and come up with an improved plan for the next year.

How do you change the layout of your store at winter time?

Scott: We don’t make huge changes to our store layout, but we introduce more POS material and make more of every section, with better marketing that highlights all the different products we sell for Christmas, for example. We would rather keep things simple for our shoppers with a familiar layout and just work harder on the signposting.

Jeeta: All year round we have big stacks and gondola ends out on the shop floor, but these are enhanced and shopped more frequently over the winter. One Stop tends to increase the frequency of its offers in November and December so the deals are usually good for customers and bring people in with better value products.

Andrew: Our store is less than 1,000sq ft so there isn’t a lot of room to move things around in the winter. The promotional shelves change and we make more space for certain deals, which seems to work out fine for us.

Conrad: In the winter, the fruit and veg runs straight into the seasonal section. We cut right back on the amount of BBQ meats, burgers and sausages we stock. The main display at the front of the store also changes to reflect the season. The rest of the store also changes, but that is done on a review basis – everything from cereals to biscuits. I always set a target of 1 March to get everything sorted in the store so that we are ready and prepared for the high season in spring and summer.

What advice would you give to other retailers looking to improve sales this winter?

Scott: I think you have to be tuned into what the customer wants and put yourself in their position. Think about scenarios where they are in your town and what they want for lunch and try to have a compelling offer that stands out from the competition. This will help sales and make it more likely that they will come back again.

Jeeta: Make sure you review your range regularly and keep up good levels of availability. It is a good idea to stock up early so that if the weather does change you can respond. I would advise retailers to make sure they know what the weather is going to be like before they start planning which products to sell.

Andrew: Look at getting into hot food and compare yourself to the competition. We are lucky that the nearest convenience store is nine miles away, and people aren’t going to drive to them in the winter, but we still have to offer something that compares well with the supermarkets. It always pays to look again at your range and stock products that will attract customer interest when the weather is cold.

Conrad: Keep going with the events and seasonal themes. Get behind them and always make sure the store is bright and tidy so it is as attractive as possible when the nights start to draw in. Window displays need to look their best and this is a great way to add something different and encourage people to spend in the winter.

How do you increase basket spend at this time of year?

Scott: I think you have to be clever with things like coffee to go and encourage people to buy something else with it. Linking purchases with meal deals really helps in the winter when you need that extra value. For example, we are doing a soup and a sandwich deal at the moment. Pairing hot and cold food to go is a smart way to increase sales across the board.

Jeeta: We do more linked promotions between categories such as alcohol and crisps. Our food-to-go meal deals do really well in the winter, and the promotions on coffee and snacks go down well. Our till-point displays are really important because they help remind people to pick up something extra at the checkout, like a large box of Maltesers for their Big Night In.

Andrew: We focus on the workers and our hot food range and takeaways. These are areas people will visit often for breakfast, lunch and dinner so we have to get our offer right to encourage spend.

Conrad: There are lots of activities in the winter and we get a big take-up of products at Halloween and Christmas. We also do a flash sale in January which works well because Blakemore are good at putting on extra promotions. We also have a bit more time over winter to take stock and re-lay or remerchandise parts of the store. This planning time can also be used to get ready for Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, which are times when you can always increase sales.

How are you planning to make the most of any extreme weather?

Scott: We’re always keeping an eye on the weather – the same as we would do in the summer. Whereas with the heat we are looking to stock more soft drinks and BBQ items, the winter is more about the essentials and groceries, but the same rules apply. For example, we might bring more bread and milk in when it is snowing.

Jeeta: When I do my weekly order on my phone I always check the weather app and add or take away products as needed. It’s something I do for all the seasons, but in the winter things tend to be more changeable. For example, if it is raining one week then you have to have extras like umbrellas in stock, and if it snows then scrapers and de-icer are a must. You can only take advantage of the weather if you have these kind of items in stock.

Andrew: If the forecast is bad then we will order extra stock to avoid running out during snowy conditions. It is never easy to predict or fit everything into a small stockroom, but we manage as best we can.

Conrad: We can react very quickly to extreme weather and respond to customer demand. We always keep an eye on the weather, but I think all c-stores benefit from the extreme and do very well when it is snowing or stormy. Because we are an independent retailer, we can source products simply and make a quick decision to change orders.