Five C-Store Champions discuss how retailer panels have benefits for all parties

Dean Holborn Holborn’s, 
Redhill and South Nutfield, Surrey
For every idea he puts forward, Dean gets more from other retailers. His business has benefited as a result of attending retailer panels. 

Pinda Cheema 
Costcutter, two stores, West Midlands
Pinda and his brother Paul know the value of time spent away from the store. They regularly attend Costcutter events, as well as retailer panels. 

Barrie Seymour 
Londis, Liversedge, West Yorkshire
Barrie says that attending a retailer panel can result in better ways of working for entire symbol groups. 

Kishor Patel
Nisa Local, eight stores across Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire
Kishor says panels have mutual benefit, giving suppliers an understanding of retailer’s needs and vice versa

Bep Dhaliwal 
Trade communications manager, Mars
Bep is committed to helping Mars work more closely with its retail customers and has been central to the creation of Mars’ new retailer panel. 

Which retailer panel(s) are you on?
: I’m on the Partners For Growth panel and the Association of Convenience Stores’ (ACS) Independent Retailer Board.

Pinda: Me and my brother Paul are on the new Costcutter forum, the Mars panel, the ACS Independent Retailer Board, and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has put us down for its new panel.

Barrie: I was chairman of the National Retailers’ Council for Londis for two years, but no longer. I’m still on the Londis IT panel, and the Nestlé retailer panel.

Kishor: I’m on the Partners For Growth panel and the ACS Independent Retailer Board. I chair the Nisa symbol committee, and I’m a director on the main Nisa Holding Board.

Bep: We held a Mars retailer panel in Scotland last year, and we’ve now taken the knowledge from that to start up a UK-wide panel.

Why did you agree to join a retailer panel?

Dean: You speak to any decent retailer and you always learn and expand your horizons. Panels are great networking events and whatever you put in, you get out. 
Pinda: It’s in the best interest of independents to get their voices heard. As a result of working with the ACS we were showcased at one of their events and that led to other suppliers getting in touch. 
Barrie: With the IT panel, I joined to get Londis to a better place than where we were originally. With the Nestlé panel, the rep approached me and I was happy to go and tell them what works in-store and what doesn’t. 
Kishor: It helps these groups to support their strategies by giving them hands-on expertise of how things work in the shops.

How often do you attend each panel?
: Partners for Growth is quarterly, and the ACS meetings are three or four times a year.

Pinda: The Costcutter forum has only just started, but I think it will be every 12 weeks. The Mars panel had its first meeting in July and they’re holding the next one at the M&Ms shop in Leicester Square later in the year. The ACS panel is about four times a year, and GSK will be the same.

Barrie: The IT panel runs up to four times a year, and the Nestlé panel runs twice a year after Christmas and Easter.

Kishor: There are five or six Nisa symbol committee meetings a year, and about the same number of board meetings. There are four Partners for Growth panels a year, plus complementary meetings, and four ACS panels a year.

Bep: We had the first meeting of our Mars UK panel at the end of July, and we’re planning to run them three or four times a year.

What type of topics do you discuss on the panel?
: Everything from merchandising and business growth, to different initiatives for dealing with crime. You always come back with a good idea or a solution for an issue you had.

Pinda: We discuss retailing ideas, what will work and what won’t, what you’re missing out on, what issues are affecting the trade and so on.

Barrie: On the IT panel we’re working on having PayPoint on broadband so you can use it on multiple tills at the same time. On the Nestlé panel I told them that the multiples were devaluing their brand by selling their products for next to nothing. I gave them feedback about Easter and Christmas sales patterns. I pointed out, for example, that giant tubes are a big seller at Christmas.

Kishor: Nisa meetings are concentrated on developing the symbol group, customer service, branding, loyalty, ranging and marketing. With Partners for Growth, a key focus is ensuring we have the best sellers within different fixtures and category planning. For retailers, it’s all about looking for unbiased advice not just being told to stock Wall’s Cornettos! We discuss challenges faced on the shop floor, whether it’s about store standards or shoplifting. At the ACS, we discuss the lobbying side of things the main challenges for the sector.

Bep: On our panel, we’ve been getting a general overview of the sector. We’ve been finding out what’s really important to retailers, and how manufacturers can work more closely with them and give them the tools to help them grow their business. We’ve also asked retailers what areas they want to be more closely involved in.

What’s the best idea you’ve come away with as the result of a panel?

Dean: One question we were asked at an ACS panel was what was our biggest concern. Kishor said it was his shop being emptied overnight. His solution was to install a system that sends him a text message if someone enters the store outside of programmed hours. That’s an idea I’ll be revisiting. 
Pinda: Moving medicines out from behind the counter. They’re traditionally merchandised there, but we put them out in the impulse area so that people could pick them up in the queue and it’s worked really well.
Barrie: The chilled operation for Londis and the rebranding of Londis five years ago was one of the best things we ever did. 
Kishor: To look at your business and to look at categories as a whole, rather than concentrating on a particular margin on a particular product. Retailers often get too focused on one product or service, rather than seeing the bigger picture. 
Bep: There are so many ideas we come away with, which we put into practice. We listen to each panellist’s needs and then we come up with a plan for each one to help them realise their individual goals.

What are the benefits of retailer panels?
: The convenience sector is very fragmented and all the major companies struggle to understand it. For them, the panels are a great insight into how the industry works. By mixing with these people, we learn how to merchandise better and get a better idea of how categories work.

Pinda: You get to hear about different ways of trading and you always come back with two or three ideas. It’s also good to have time away from the store you come back recharged.

Barrie: We get to meet other good quality retailers. I’ve met some great people on those panels.

Kishor: Suppliers are spending a lot of money on products, ranges, and prices, and you can see the challenges they face and appreciate what they do and why they do it.

Bep: It’s good for the panellists to be able to network with retailers of an equal calibre and it opens doors for them. For example, one of our panellists has subsequently presented at one of our press events and that introduced him to lots of new contacts. From a supplier viewpoint, the biggest benefit is being able to broaden our understanding of the independent sector and learn how we can work more collaboratively with our trade partners there’s so much we can learn. It’s also a good forum to test out new initiatives. Everything discussed is confidential, so we can see what’s on retailers’ radars and, in return, we can share research results with them regarding upcoming trends.

Do you think retailers have more to learn from suppliers, or vice versa?
: The truth is that both parties learn something from each other. Suppliers are always interested in your store and what makes it successful, and we retailers want to know from them what makes a particular product sell and how to get the best out of it.

Pinda: Both. Sometimes it’s a case of head office having an idea that they want to put into action. We get to trial new ideas, and they get a route straight to market.

Barrie: The suppliers need to start learning from the retailers a bit. The independent sector has a lot of potential.

Kishor: They both have to learn from each other. Retailers have to understand suppliers’ point of view, in terms of delivering promotions. And suppliers need to understand retailers’ need for high margins and their space limitations.

Bep: There’s so much that we as manufacturers can learn from our customers. For example, some of the biggest issues in the trade are around availability, but we need to understand from retailers what’s causing the issue in order to help.

Some people may be reluctant to share their ideas with other retailers. What are your thoughts on this?
: For every idea I give to someone on a focus group, I always pick up another three or four. If you all listen to each other, you’ll learn.

Pinda: We were reluctant to start with. You have to listen and give an idea, and people might laugh at it, but on the other hand, they might take it on board. The retailers aren’t in your area so it’s not like they’re direct competition.

Barrie: The independent sector needs to collaborate more. If I could do it, I’d have Nisa, Spar and Londis working together as a big buying group. If we all put our heads together we could be bigger than Tesco.

Kishor: As long as it’s non-competitive then there’s no harm in sharing your ideas. As long as it doesn’t affect confidentiality, then it can benefit others and you can learn from each other.

Bep: We purposely chose our panellists from different areas, so they aren’t in competition with one another. None of them held back at the meeting. They were all being open with their views and ideas. As they said themselves, it’s not about competing with each other, it’s about competing against the multiples.

Would you advise retailers to join a panel?
: Yes. Take the time to do it. Leave your business for a day. It’s very worthwhile.

Pinda: I’d always say to go along. The experience is good and the knowledge is invaluable.

Barrie: Absolutely. Get on a panel. Don’t worry about spending time out of the office. You can learn so much from other retailers, such as finding out about different electricity suppliers, different ways of working and new ways of managing money.

Kishor: Retailers should certainly consider attending one or two panels. Get involved there isn’t just an individual benefit, there’s a global benefit.

Bep: Retailers need to be really clear about what they believe they can learn from other retailers and manufacturers. As long as they’re open to ideas, then they can really benefit from joining a panel. n