Getting involved in your local community is now an essential way to stand your ground, and customers expect it of you. Robin Mannering reports

Engaging with your community wins you hearts and minds and footfall. But new research by BritainThinks found that people expect community involvement to be part of a c-store’s service, suggesting that ‘unengaged’ stores could be exposing themselves.

The Local Services: Happy Places report, commissioned by the Association of Convenience Stores, revealed that 79% of respondents said an essential requirement for a c-store is that it is run by people “committed to the local”. So the importance of community involvement is unquestionable.

The first point about community involvement is that, in addition to the good PR it generates, it raises the profile of the store and your business ethos. Speaking at last week’s ACS Heart of the Community conference in London, Budgens Hassocks retailer David Knight said: “As a result of our involvement with local schools there’s been a massive influx of parents coming to the store and a massive shift in demographic, and people are also buying into our ideals, which is about locality and sustainability.”

ACS chief executive James Lowman urged retailers to become civic leaders in order to exert influence on local decision-making. “This is a golden opportunity for retailers to establish themselves as civic leaders by engaging with Community Alcohol Partnerships, the newly elected Police and Crime Commissioners and local planners,” he said.

Julian Huppert, Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, added: “Those who are ambassadors for their communities will get more business as people will know about them.”

There are various ways to make your mark. “Contact your local MP and councillors and invite them to your store,” Lesley Brown of Frankmarsh Stores, Barnstaple, Devon, told delegates. Sunder Sandher, of Londis Leamington Spa, advised going to your local school and talking to the head.

Amanda Long, of Eastern Co-op, recommended giving your customers ownership of one of your community schemes, citing the Waitrose green chip charity scheme.

But don’t forget the simple things, Sunder added. “Make tea and coffee in your store when it’s cold; people really remember it.”
Speaking at an ACS community masterclass event the following day, Cambridgeshire retailer Jonathan James said he hosted a community lunch at his Dersingham store when he first moved there. “I invited one person from each community group and that way got to know all the movers and shakers in the village.”

ACS communication manager Chris Noice urged retailers to contact their local newspaper. “You need to shout about what you’re doing, whether its charity donations, fundraising, awards, visits from MPs or store refits,” 
he said. Getting to know the newspaper photographer was especially effective, while many reporters are on six-month placements from national papers so need showing round, he added.

Spar Seasalter retailer Paul Hudson said that promoting his work in the community was an excellent way of educating people about his store’s independence. “People didn’t know we were a family-run store, even though we’d been there 16 years!”

Julian Taylor Green, of Londis Linford, Hampshire, agreed with this tactic but, echoing the findings of the BritainThinks report, he added: “There’s an assumption that we will do it.”

Your toolkit
Four themes of community involvement:

1. Gathering - the social role
● Show an interest and recognise customers’ routines
● Respond to the needs of your customers
● Organise community events

2. Customising
● Ask shoppers what they want
● Seek out gaps in the market
● Embrace trial and error

3. Giving something back - the community role
● Compile a community plan
● Listen to projects that your customers are interested in
● Educate staff and customers about the work you do

4. Leading - a civil leader
● Talking makes a difference
● Use your influence
● Collaborate

Based on research conducted by the ACS and the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School