No business can afford to live in a bubble. Keeping an eye on the  competition means getting up close and personal with rivals and employing the sleuthing skills of staff and customers.

If any lessons were to be learned from the past year it’s that everyone is at it. Spying that is. Governments are listening in to the private phone calls of heads of state internet providers are spying on private postings of the general public and councils are using terrorism laws to catch parents sending their kids to school in the wrong catchment areas (the villains!). But while this may have us all shifting uncomfortably over our laptops, one area where espionage seems to be accepted, and actively encouraged, is business.

In the commercial world it’s pretty much taken for granted that your competitors will be keeping as much of an eye on you as you are on them. In fact, talk to successful business people and they’ll tell you you’re an idiot not to do it yourself. The practice is not confined just to the multi-nationals successful convenience stores are at it as well.

But there’s no need to brush down the mackintosh and fedora just yet. According to Saki Ghafoor, who has two Nisa stores in Gateshead and Ashington, Northumberland, you don’t have to do a lot, but you have to do it often. “Our general information comes from keeping a close eye on ads by the big stores and making sure we check online, keeping an eye on their websites. But I do it generally every other day when I get a chance,” he explains.

Saki, who says he has identified his main competition as Asda, Poundstretcher and Iceland, also uses customers as extra eyes and ears. “They tell me when anything changes in the other shops. They will come in and say ‘You’re cheaper on this’ and vice versa.”

Talking to customers is a major part of staff training, Saki says, and he tells them to listen carefully to what the customers are telling them: “We train staff to get to know customers on a first-name basis and talk to them. Then they pass feedback to us. It’s a two-way conversation and it takes into account that we might not be cheaper on something, but we are better value on others. Staff can also remind the customers of this at the same time.” Staff also go out and visit stores and report back what is on promotion.

For Lesley Brown of Frankmarsh Stores, Barnstaple, Devon, her staff are key to keeping an eye on what the competition is up to. “Our nearest competition is a Co-op and periodically we send staff out with a list of items to see what’s on promotion and how much the basket comes to.” She says they also make sure they get the mailouts from the Co-op, which means they know the deals as soon as the customers do. “Then the staff can see how best to match them, if possible. We have a bit of a laugh and a joke about it and see if there are any ideas we can steal.”

Like Saki, Lesley says that customers can be a great source of information. “They can come in and say so and so has got this on offer, so we can then try to better the offer, or change the offer we have to a better position in store if the customer has missed the fact that we’ve got that deal too.”

She says that this kind of soft espionage is vital for retailers. “You have to go out and have a look at the competition, even if it’s just to see how they are displaying goods. You’re all serving the same potential customers,” she adds.

However, she says that once you start looking at competition, it can get addictive. “If I do my own shopping in a big store it can take me a long time as I always get side-tracked by what they are doing, why and how.”

Mark Canniford, a Spar retailer from Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, says that this kind of shopping espionage goes both ways as he’s received clandestine visits from other stores. “I believe they come into us to check us out as well. One of the girls recognised a manager of a local Tesco Express who was with a bunch of suits in the store,” he recalls.

He says it’s to be expected, and admits that he indulges, too, but believes it’s the comparison of environment and quality of goods that is often more important than just seeing where price cuts can be made. “Only last week I did a check in Greggs to see what the quality of goods was. We need to see where we are under-competing and over- competing it’s not always the fact that we need to go cheaper there are times when you find that you are too competitive.”

His staff also know to keep an eye out when they’re out and about: “We utilise that information, but it may not mean a change, rather simply highlighting to customers how competitive we are. The impression that Tesco Express has created with customers is that they are expensive which, of course, we’re happy to fuel.”

Mark says that keeping tabs on the competition is vital. “You have to keep an eye on standards at the very least to keep your store at the top of the game. It’s not necessarily about price - we wouldn’t be in the market if it was always about chasing deals. If Tesco knew we were in the market of keeping prices cheaper than them they’d just reduce theirs by going back to the manufacturer, then everyone loses. But it is important that your store is nicer.”

For Kash Khera of Simply Fresh, keeping an eye on the competition is a clandestine affair. “I’ve got hundreds of pictures on my phone that I’ve taken in other stores - if I see something I like I take a picture of it. Sometimes I get stopped, but I try to be discreet.” He says that there are tricks to not being caught - like having an earpiece in and pretending to be on the phone so there’s a reason you have it in your hand. And he says that something as simple as just picking up a basket can deflect attention. As all retailers know, there’s nothing quite so suspicious as someone hanging around your store who doesn’t seem interested in shopping.

Kash says that he encourages all of the retailers in the Simply Fresh group to use their spare time to have a look at the competition, both multiples and good independents: “You need to keep an eye on what products they are stocking, as well as what they do and how they are doing it. If people want a busy store they have to spend time outside their own store.”

He says that with lines now more blurred between food service and supermarkets, it’s not just about looking at other c-stores. “We keep an eye on Greggs as they are very canny operators and market leaders in what they are doing. Aldi are also doing some amazing stuff and the quality is really good. Everyone needs to step up their game and this is the way to do it.”

He says that retailers also need to think outside their local area competition. “The big out-of-towners are still taking business away from you and you need to keep an eye on them. If there’s a Poundland nearby you need to know what lines they are carrying as if there’s an overlap you might want to look at reducing some of your lines, as you’re not going to touch them. Maybe you need to change your product mix.”

But all this cloak and dagger stuff isn’t for everyone and Arjan Mehr of Londis, Bracknell, Berkshire, takes a slightly different approach, even going so far as to engage the competition in a bit of a friendly chat when he’s in their store.

“We’re all in the same boat and very often people are receptive to talking to outsiders. I’ve had conversations with Tesco Express managers. There’s nothing underhand about it I just simply walk around the shop and if the manager happens to be there I introduce myself - you don’t need surveillance equipment.”

He says as well as keeping an eye on pricing and product mix, he’s always on the lookout as to how other stores are using new technology. “I often go and see other shops and check what the latest trend is,” he explains.

Arjan says that the danger of not undertaking some form of surveillance is that you develop tunnel vision. “If you’re stuck in the shop 24/7 and your only experience of anything else is the cash and carry you’re not in the best place to operate. It’s very motivational if you see another business doing something better than you and it’s often just a case of rejigging. I’ve never taken the view that I’ve been in the business so many years I know everything. There is always something to learn.”

He adds: “At the end of the day, you can be sure that your competition is keeping an eye on you!”

Questions to consider

What you should be asking:

Who are your competitors? You need to look at those in your immediate vicinity as well as big out-of-town stores. Plus anyone who is offering similar products and services as yourself in or outside a convenience environment

What is it I want to know about my competitors? Is it just pricing and promotions, or do I need to do a full competitor analysis (routes to market, market share, sales and profit, customer profiles etc)?

What strategies are your competitors following, and are they successful? Is it one that is applicable to you? Do you have a strategy?

What can you learn from your competitors? Even the smallest change can make a huge difference

What are your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses? Are you aware of yours?


surveillance made easy

Espionage for rookies

Use the web. Start by looking at and signing up to your competitors’ websites to get up-to-date information. You can even create Facebook and Twitter accounts to follow them more closely. If you are monitoring websites, keep a check on updates. Most big corporations will have a facility such as Google Reader or Google Updates, or an RSS feed, which will inform you of updates. You can also set up Google Alerts (it’s also a good idea to set up this for your own store to see what is being said about you online)

Don’t just look at the consumer sites. Go to the corporate site as well. Listed companies often have investor relations sections where they outline future plans and goals

Train your staff. Make sure your employees know the importance of keeping an eye on the competition. Tell them what you want them to be looking out for. Take them out with yourself or a senior member of staff if needed

Get out of the shop. As many of the top retailers know, there is nothing more motivating than seeing that the competition is doing something really well

Don’t forget to consider future competition. Keep an eye on local newspapers and council websites for news of planning applications that might herald fresh competition on your doorstep.