The C-Store Champions discuss the challenges they see for the coming year and the opportunities for growth in the convenience sector

Gary Bilbrough, Nisa Local Toddington, Bedfordshire

Manager Gary says selling quality local lines will keep customers away from the competition

Sandeep Bains, Simply Fresh, Faversham, Kent

Sandeep is aiming to tap into the eating on-the-go trend in a big way with a new coffee machine and hot food-to-go section

Dee Sedani, two One Stop stores, Derby

Dee is preparing for what he believes will be a very tough year, facing increasing competition and restrictive legislation

Harry Goraya, Nisa Rosherville Post Office, Kent

Harry is pleased to have been voted onto Nisa’s board of members and is looking forward to putting his ideas into action

What are your expectations of the trading market in 2016? 

Gary: Year on year we’ve had growth, parts of the year were flat, but the few weeks before Christmas were good for us. We had a Morrisons open about 18 months ago, about two-and-a-half miles away from our store. It affected our sales when it first opened. Thankfully, toward the end of 2015 customers started to return so hopefully as the novelty of the Morrisons wears off we’ll continue to regain more lost customers. They are realising it’s not worth travelling the extra miles for a couple of pennies off their spend. Other than that, I expect we’ll have similar challenges this year as we did last year. The village is getting younger and, unfortunately, there are more people opting for home deliveries. The elderly visit us regularly, but there are younger families which we need to attract. When they realise they can get everything in here, they come more.

Sandeep: Last year was good for us. After a slow start it picked up nicely. We usually dip off in November, but we didn’t and it’s continued strong so hopefully that will continue through the rest of this month and February and we’ll have a good year.

Dee: I think it’s going to be the toughest year ever, not just in terms of trade but in all the legislation coming out - minimum wage, cigarettes, taxes, Sunday trading; it’ll be doom and gloom. I’m already cutting staff hours. I know everyone talks about people shopping locally, but I don’t have that here. I have a Tesco and an Aldi nearby and we are in the middle. It’s a tough environment.

Harry: I think it will remain about the same; I can’t see it changing drastically. I want to go fully managed in the sense of having all staff able to run the store without me or a member of my family as I’ve recently been voted onto Nisa’s board of members so I will need more time away from the store to put into that.

What do you hope to achieve in 2016?

Gary: The main aim is to be more successful than last year. That’s all you can wish for.

Sandeep: Costcutter is having some problems with Palmer & Harvey, and the range - particularly of fresh - is not up to scratch, so we will be looking at changing our supplier.

Dee: I’m looking at possibly getting another store, despite what I’ve just said!

Harry: As a member of the Nisa board I’m looking forward to putting forward my ideas and implementing them. I’m teeming with ideas and suggestions, but I need to tailor those and understand why some of those things haven’t been done, or can’t be done.

Do you have any big investment plans for 2016?

Gary: We are hoping to have a bit of a refit, including new lighting and chiller units, which will make the store more energy efficient. We have a basic draft plan so hopefully after Easter that will take place.

Sandeep: Personally, I have a standalone Subway store in Margate which I will be closing and relaunching further down the high street, and I’m possibly looking to open another store. Investment will also come when we change supplier. If we change supplier they may invest and we will change the store around to give it a fresh look and a better range.

Dee: Other than the possibility of a new store I won’t make any investments. As a One Stop franchisee I’m limited to what I can do. I hope they have some plans for the tough year ahead.

Harry: I would like to look at another site, but they are few and far between and the big boys have buttered up the agents so everything worthwhile is being snapped up. Both my sons are able to run the show so that means we can look at a second shop and be able to cope with that.

What have you learnt in 2015 which you will put into practice in 2016?

Gary: Over the past two to three months I’ve been reducing the lines within each product category. Whereas before we would stock four to five different types of beans, say, that has been reduced to three, giving extra space for new lines.

Sandeep: There’s big talk about chilled and food to go, which is why we have invested in a Costa Express machine and a hot food unit and a Cuisine de France range. We put the coffee machine at the front of the store and made £30-£40 an hour for the first two to three hours. We also work with United Biscuits - I’m on their retailer ambassadors’ forum. Warburtons has been good to us, doing projects with us and helping us optimise our range. We’ve cut down on cakes and increased our range of bread, and we’ve started some special offers, such as buy an 800g loaf of bread and get a free pack of sandwich thins, or a six-pack of bagels.

Dee: Community investment used to be something I was so proud of, but people don’t care so much now. People don’t care about the things they used to care about, such as customer service. If you go into Lidl, it’s like a cattle market, everything is thrown in. At the end of the day people care about price more than the layout.

Harry: Something I already knew but was endorsed is always keeping your options open. Never think something’s not a good idea before trying it because you can be surprised what will work as the market is constantly changing. If you’re not adapting, you’re going backwards.

Where do you expect will be the biggest challenges?

Gary: Tobacco will be a bit of a nightmare, along with the big multiple offers. Some convenience stores can’t even buy for what they are selling at. Also Sunday trading - the multiples will fight for that.

Sandeep: The challenges will continue to come from the discounters.

Dee: Legislation and how to keep the consumer engaged.

Harry: I think the challenge will be for the symbol groups. There’ll be a lot of consolidation within symbol groups and the challenge will be who will be best at getting the retailers.

How do you plan to overcome these challenges?

Gary: All you can do is continue to do what you do well - customer service, availability and keeping positive perceptions. We pride ourselves on customer service and we do a lot within the community. We did a massive Christmas party for 80 pensioners for our sixth year in December. Word gets around about how we get involved in the community and do things for the village and it brings the shoppers in. Availability of products on a Sunday is important if new Sunday trading laws come in; we have to ensure the customer knows they can get what they need here.

Sandeep: We need to offer our customers more value for money, better promotions and a better range, and generally create a better perception of value for money. That will probably form a large part of our decision over which symbol group or supplier to move to.

Dee: I’ve got to work to keep the margins up year on year.

Harry: Nisa is the best symbol group in terms of where we are at the moment, but we could be a lot better and we will be with the changes going on within Nisa. I’m reasonably confident Nisa will be okay.

What are you most looking forward to?

Gary: The refit. It’s always exciting when you decorate your home and this is like my second home so I’m looking forward to that.

Sandeep: The Euro football championships. Hopefully, we will make it a bit further in the competition this time. We have a park opposite our store so we are hoping for a good summer.

Dee: We’ve got to keep networking; there are some great stores and retailers out there. We are all in the same boat, but at different levels.

Harry: We are starting to have a greater relationship with suppliers and now they are realising there are good independent retailers so they are getting more on board with tastings and new product trials and so on, so we’re looking forward to doing more of those.

Where do you expect will be the biggest opportunities?

Gary: The Euro football championships will be good this year when they are held in June and July. Hopefully, we’ll have a good summer as well and that will provide a big opportunity for alcohol and BBQ sales. I’m focused on getting chilled and grocery right and getting more promotions in. Customers are looking at promotions more and more, and there’s a big margin to be made on food to go.

Sandeep: The opportunities are food to go and chilled. We want a much bigger and better range of chilled food as soon as we change supplier; almost every aspect of that needs improving.

Dee: We need a value range to take on the discounters. Booker’s Euro Shopper model is very good.

Harry: Food to go provides a big opportunity. Subway and others are trying to get into the convenience market.

Which new products would you like to introduce over the course of the next 12 months?

Gary: We are doing quite well with gluten-free at the moment. I’m putting in a four-metre bay of gluten-free. I also want to do more local produce. We’ve just started selling a new range of ale from a brewery about four miles away; we sell about 100 bottles a week. It just goes to show that demand for local products is there. I’d like to do more fresh and chilled, such as cheeses.

Sandeep: I’m less concerned about new products and more interested in consolidating a bit more. We are carrying too much dead weight so we want to put an emphasis on making our core range the best range for us.

Dee: I’m tied to a degree because I have to have 95% loyalty so I don’t have the freedom to pick and choose new products.

Harry: We will look into more ales - local ales - and soft-scoop ice cream and more food to go. We’ve had huge success with our slush machines so we will see what we can develop with our new coffee machine.