Four Champions discuss how they use their independence to stand out from the crowd

Bruce Morgan, Brownlie’s of Biggar, nr Edinburgh

In order to emphasise their store’s heritage and independence, Best-one members Bruce and Donna insisted on keeping their Brownlie’s fascia, and even have Brownlie’s-branded products in-store.

Satminder Deo (aka Sat), owner of two Costcutters in Wath and Maltby, South Yorkshire

Sat lets his staff do the talking when it comes to highlighting independence. He claims that customers know his shop is independent because of the good service they receive.

Jason Tamplin, manager of Symonds Budgens of Wells, Somerset

While Budgens of Wells is well-established in the local area, Jason is keen to promote the fact that the store is a family-run business by introducing the Symonds family name into aspects of the business.

Jag Purewal, owner of two Spar stores in Romsley and Stourbridge, Worcestershire

Jag and wife Raji have added plenty of personal touches to their Romsley store to ensure that it stands out, with its own colour scheme and historic local imagery

Do customers perceive your store as an independent business?

Bruce: Yes, there’s no doubt about it - we push hard to get the message across.

Sat: Our regular customers do.

Jason: No. We are Symonds Forecourts, but people associate us with the Budgens group.

Jag: I’d like to think so. Our store recently went through a complete knock-down and rebuild, during which time we joined Spar. When people first saw the Spar sign go up they thought we’d sold the store, but when we opened and they saw it for themselves that really put their mind at ease.

Do consumers understand that symbol members are independently owned?

Bruce: No, there’s a perception that symbol-branded shops are owned by a group. We try to keep ourselves well-known to local people to avoid this misunderstanding.

Sat: It’s a 50/50 split between those who understand and those who don’t. I find myself explaining to customers a lot what Costcutter is and how we are different to multiple stores.

Jason: Shoppers see Budgens as a good brand, but they don’t realise that stores are independently owned.

Jag: Not always. If a retailer sticks to the symbol group’s template store layout then it is sometimes very difficult for customers to differentiate from a corporate store.

Why is it important to shout about your independence?

Bruce: If we show people that we are doing something different to the multiples, then they’ll want to come to us to buy products that they can’t get elsewhere.

Sat: Once people know that you are the owner of the store, then they feel that they can talk to you and know that you will act on their suggestions, whereas if they are just speaking to a store manager at a big chain then they can feel they are being fobbed off.

Jason: In Wells there are a lot of supermarkets and people are getting fed up with them taking over. I think they’d shop with us more often if they realised that we were independent.

Jag: I don’t want to be thought of as just another corporate where people come in, shop and go. As an independent, we go the extra mile with customer service. People know what we do and they shop with us because they appreciate our support.

How do you convey your independence to customers in-store?

Bruce: We have a Brownlie’s fascia and Brownlie’s-branded products. Best-one was keen for us to use their branding and colour scheme, but we decided against it.

Sat: We get about 1,200 customers through the door every day and I’m on first name terms with about half of them. It’s just a case of talking to customers so they get to know you.

Jason: We have a Symonds Budgens fascia and it’s on staff uniforms, but the Symonds name doesn’t really stand out. It is an area we are looking at. We’ve just done mailshots where we address people as ‘Dear neighbour’ and we explain we are a family-run business.

Jag: We made it clear that we were happy to be a Spar member, but wanted to keep our own identity. Spar uses an ocean grey as its main store colour. We’ve used a bit of that, but different colours for different sections. We also have historic graphics around the store telling the story of the local area.

What do you do outside of the store to communicate your independence?

Bruce: We tend to gain publicity through our charity work. Our next big event is a firewalk to raise funds for Macmillan Cancer Support. Events like these are a good way to get Brownlie’s into the local paper.

Sat: We sponsor a couple of kids’ football teams and I’ve had my photo taken with them for the press. We have a Facebook page, too, so we talk about our independence on there.

Jason: If we do work outside of the store, such as with the local school, then we’ll push the Symonds Forecourt brand.

Jag: We support a lot of events, supplying local schools and providing prizes for raffles. We also advertise in the parish magazine.

Do you hire a marketing professional to help with branding?

Bruce: We’ve thought about it, but at the moment we take care of it ourselves. It’s a small community here and everyone in the town already knows about us, so our next project is to look to communicate our offering to commuters.

Sat: We do all our marketing ourselves - it’s not a hard message to communicate. Customers can tell from your customer service that you are an independent. We’ve bought a second store in Maltby, which used to be a company-owned Spar. We are gradually getting the message across that we are part of the professional Costcutter group, but that we also have a friendly, personal approach.

Jason: It would be too high a cost to employ someone, so I do a lot of the marketing. As long as you have the passion and you’re behind the brand, you’re part way there.

Jag: At the moment, we’re happy to handle marketing ourselves, but maybe in the future when we expand we will consider taking someone on.

How does your symbol help you to communicate your independence?

Bruce: Best-one does extremely well for us. They don’t push their brand on us too much, which allows us to make the most of our own brand. Our promotional leaflets have Brownlie’s branding, but Best-one colours.

Sat: Costcutter advised us to get banners created to tell customers that we won the Best Small Store and Best Customer Service awards at the Convenience Retail Awards.

Jason: Budgens supports us as an independent. Some stores have their family names on leaflets, but we don’t. I’m sure Budgens would help us to communicate our independence if we approached them, though.

Jag: I think of myself as an independent retailer in partnership with AF Blakemore. Some retailers have a perception that Spar dictates what you do, but they’ve been very supportive of our individuality. We send out customised leaflets about three times a year with offers bespoke to our store. Spar encourages things like this as they know you have to go beyond the norm to succeed.

Where do you get advice and ideas on communicating your independence?

Bruce: We get ideas from customers, our regional manager Colin Smith, and from the Best-one ambassadors’ meetings.

Sat: Costcutter offers us advice, and we also talk to customers. Jason: Myself and managing director Nick Lloyd discuss ideas. For me, it’s about doing something different. We’ve done a hand car wash that we branded ‘Symonds first-class car wash’. We also work with suppliers to offer deals exclusive to Symonds.

Jag: It’s about using a bit of your own know-how. If you spend time in store and get a feel for what customers want, then you can take it on board. We also get ideas from trade magazines.

What’s your advice to retailers who aren’t communicating their independence?

Bruce: People should be able to walk into your store and know straight away that you are independent. You have to put your mark on it in terms of customer service and range.

Sat: Firstly, retailers have to offer a different level of service to the multiples, and then they can shout about it. Get staff talking to customers about what makes you special, such as your ability to be flexible and that you can offer home deliveries to the elderly.

Jason: A big share of customers prefer independent businesses and will support you if they know you are an independent, so it’s important to let people know.

Jag: If they’re not shouting about their independence, they’re missing out in a big way because customers value independence.

Does knowing that you are independent have a positive impact on customers’ shopping behaviours?

Bruce: Yes, customers know they get more choice with us because we have goods from more suppliers, particularly local producers, in store. The multiples all have similar product ranges, whereas we stock lots of specialist products.

Sat: Customers would rather spend money with us than go to the Tesco down the road. People hold a grudge against Tesco, whereas they’re willing to pay a little more to go to an independent store as long as store standards and service levels are high.

Jason: Yes, definitely. Communicating our independence is an area that we are looking at. We want to come across as a family business.

Jag: Most definitely. Giving the store an individual look with lots of local imagery makes it feel that we are part of the area.

Do you think independent c-stores have a promising future?

Bruce: I do. There is a worry with multiples moving to convenience formats, but as long as we deliver on quality, we have a promising future.

Sat: The lazy ones don’t. I’ve been in shops where products aren’t faced up and staff are sitting at the till chatting. The businesses that fail to maintain standards won’t survive.

Jason: As long as independents are more thoughtful about their customers than the likes of Tesco, then they will win shoppers over. Independents do things differently, such as community work, and that’s what builds loyalty.

Jag: They do. Being independent means that we can cater to the needs of customers quicker. But you have to continuously improve and invest in your business.•

The C-Store Champions are a group of experienced retailers who understand the central role of the local store in their community. They are tuned into the demands and desires of their customers, and believe in continual development of their businesses. Each month we ask a few of the Champions to share their experience and expertise with other retailers.

Wanted: independent champions

Are you an experienced retailer and willing to share your knowledge? Call Sarah Britton on 01293 610220 if you’re Champion material.