Our C-Store Champions discuss the competition in their area and what they do to ensure they hold on to footfall and sales

Malcolm Crump, Spar, Wolverhampton

Malcolm believes retailers need to keep evolving to survive and so has added a butchers, bakery and Costa Coffee machine to his store

Simon Biddle, Biddles Simply Fresh, Worcestershire

Simon likes to keep a close eye 
on his competitors to monitor what they are doing

Barrie Seymour, Londis, West Yorkshire

Barrie keeps in close contact with other Londis retailers to share advice and tips, keeping one step ahead of the competition

Kishor Patel, three Nisa Local stores, Bedfordshire

Kishor hopes the online platform he is developing will go a long way in giving small stores the edge

Who is your local competition?

Malcolm: We have a lot of local competition including a Sainsbury’s Local just over the road, a Lidl up the road, a petrol forecourt and a Co-op, among others.

Simon: We have a convenience store with a post office a third of a mile away, a Tesco Express one mile away, two Co-ops one mile away, a Today’s just under a mile away, a Tesco Extra just over a mile away and an Aldi and a Lidl two miles away - so there is quite a lot!

Barrie: I am in the middle of two towns so there is a lot of competition. Half a mile away is a Lidl, Morrisons and a Co-op; 300 yards away is a Premier; and there are also two Co-op forecourts in the area. A Sainsbury’s Local opened opposite one of the forecourts about six months ago, which I think was a big mistake.

Kishor: I have three stores and the main competition comes from Tesco Express, Tesco Extra, Asda and a Sainsbury’s Local which has just opened up. Multiples are our biggest competition as they have databases containing customer addresses which they can send out promotional letters to. I, on the other hand, can only reach customers with promotions every three weeks via a leaflet drop.

How has competition changed in your area in recent years?

Malcolm: It has increased dramatically. Some 18 years ago we used to be the dominant convenience store of the area, but now we are up against a lot of other similar shops as well as some big discounters.

Simon: We have been in this store for 28 years and have seen competition grow and grow. We were just a greengrocer and grocery store before, but over time we have introduced more and more additions to the shop in order to compete. We may still only be a 1,000sq ft store, but we fit a lot into it.

Barrie: Over the past 10 years convenience stores and multiples have been popping up all around the area and people have now found and settled on their preferred shop.

Kishor: Competition has got harder as discounters such as Aldi and Lidl have come on to the scene. However, at the moment I believe my biggest competitor is the internet; anyone can set up a business online and customers can order from anywhere.

Has local competition altered your expectations for business growth?

Malcolm: It’s got a lot tougher that’s for sure and, of course, it has altered my business expectations. We can only keep trying to be the best in what we do, but it has become a lot harder, especially with the multiples popping up everywhere with convenience formats.

Simon: Yes, we expected to see a drop in sales as a result. We were prepared for this, however, and refurbished the store three years ago in order to give us the best possible chance. Had we not done this, I think we would have lost our customers to Tesco.

Barrie: We aren’t getting much growth now; it’s been quite static for a while, which is really quite sad. I think the only way we will see growth is if more houses are built; the convenience market is just too saturated now.

Kishor: It has definitely hampered my expectations a bit. I am actually in the middle of developing an online platform for small independents with the help of Nisa. I hope this will give us an edge over the multiples.

How do you track what your local competitors are up to?

Malcolm: I do go into other stores, but I don’t make a habit of it or part of a routine of visiting other shops. Instead, we focus on how we can be the best. Spar is very good at letting us know how the market’s changing so we generally get to know what competitors are doing through them.

Simon: We pop into stores and look at what promotions they have running. It’s quite satisfying going into the local stores because sometimes it can fill you with a sense of accomplishment if you believe your store looks better, which we often do.

Barrie: I happily just walk around the stores. I know most of the staff in them, especially the Co-ops. We may be in competition, but we also understand the market and help each other where we can. If I were to run out of lottery rolls, for example, they would happily lend me some, and vice versa.

Kishor: There are many ways to track local competitors. I either visit them myself or check out their apps. I have a whole folder on my phone called shopping and in there is an application for all the multiples and all the wholesalers. It means I can very easily see what offers they have daily.

Do you ever use any of their ideas?

Malcolm: We all do! I may not literally go into stores and select ideas, but I do look at what is going on in the market and adapt my store accordingly.

Simon: I tend to use the shops for inspiration rather than directly copying their ideas; I look at how I could do something similar better.

Barrie: I guess we do in some ways, but there are certain things I just can’t match. My milk, for instance, will never be near the £1 mark.

Kishor: We may try to match a few deals on occasions, but we are about offering something different such as package deals or 10% off particular products. You have to give customers a discount on products they actually want. Offering a discount on mayonnaise isn’t going to get more customers in.

Where do you turn for advice on how to deal with competition?

Malcolm: We work closely with Spar so I will always go straight to them with any queries I may have.

Simon: I rarely need to look for advice on the topic. However, if I do I tend to speak to other Costcutter retailers directly.

Barrie: I speak to retailers mostly. I am part of the Londis WhatsApp group, which myself and a host of others use. We let each other know of any anti-social behaviour, promotions in wholesalers, and we discuss Londis deals and offer advice. Just today we have exchanged more than 100 messages.

Kishor: I go to my suppliers and internal consultants who give me a good idea about what’s happening in the future. I also speak with Nisa a lot as they send out daily emails.

What would your advice be to retailers who are concerned about local competition?

Malcolm: I think all retailers should be concerned about local competition. They need to keep on top of their game, adapting and reviewing their range accordingly. Sitting quietly will do nothing; retailers have to keep evolving in order to survive in the current market.

Simon: I would advise retailers to find a unique selling point, something we have worked hard to do in our store.

Barrie: Do what you do well and stop focusing on the competition too much. Find your difference and work at it.

Kishor: Play to your strengths and be unique. Of course, sometimes it is good to find your competitors’ weaknesses and be better than them in that area, but it isn’t always possible.

What is or has been the biggest threat?

Malcolm: When the multiples moved into the convenience store market I definitely felt the most pressure. Also, time itself is a threat. When we first opened we used to have dominance in newspapers, but we don’t have so much now. Similarly, tobacco - once a regular high-profit line for us - is showing some decline.

Simon: I think it was when the supermarkets came to the area 10 years ago; I don’t think there was one convenience store close by that didn’t feel the pressure. But times are changing as supermarkets are the ones feeling the pressure now.

Barrie: Two years ago Tesco tried to buy a local pub across the road to make it into a Tesco Express. We couldn’t let it as we knew we would be in great danger if it did, so we fought against it. It took a lot of work, but we beat Tesco and are very proud of the result.

Kishor: The biggest threat I can see is the living wage increase and the trouble I will have to go to in order to get the £97,000 required over the next five years in order to keep the business going. The multiples are in a better position to respond to this increase than the independents.

Do you think independent retailers should be working together to stay ahead of the game?

Malcolm: If they want to stay in the business they should. Retailers need to be there for each other by sharing ideas and advice. I speak with many retailers, mostly under the same Spar symbol group.

Simon: I think so. I’ve been to a number of Association of Convenience Stores events and it’s great to be with other retailers as we can share ideas. We need to stick together.

Barrie: I certainly do - I do it already with my Londis retailers.

Kishor: Yes, because we can learn from each other.

Do you think symbol groups working together could help independent retailers deal with local competitors?

Malcolm: I’m not sure. Symbol groups compete with each other and I’m not sure they would be able to find the neutral ground required.

Simon: I think it’s a lot harder for symbol groups to work together as they like to be unique. However, if they did they would gain more buying power, which would help independent retailers.

Barrie: Definitely. I think all symbol groups should work together in an attempt to fight against the multiple sector. It seems as if things could be going that way anyway after Booker’s most recent acquisition.

Kishor: I definitely think they should be working together. There are so many manufacturers out there who have to put different labels on the same products just so the product looks different from that in another store. Instead, what if retailers were able to have any product from any symbol group in their store?

What are your competitors doing to drive sales and footfall?

Malcolm: We are all part of the ongoing price war; I can only imagine that stores are fighting to offer customers the best price. Discounters have proven this by how well they are doing at the moment. There are just too many convenience stores; the market is growing too fast.

Simon: The local post office has recently had a refurbishment. Also, the last time I visited the Co-ops, I noticed they were running a lot of special offers.

Barrie: Promotions, promotions, promotions, that’s all it is! The £1 line is still going; surely it must be coming to an end soon?

Kishor: Our competitors are focusing greatly on the prices of their products at the moment. Also, seasonal lines seem to be coming in earlier and earlier each year. Everyone has had their Halloween bits in for a while now and as a retailer you just have to join them in this.

How have you adapted your offer to remain competitive locally?

Malcolm: We have made a number of adjustments in order to compete locally. We added an in-store butchers 18 months ago, a bakery, Costa Coffee machine and turned our post office to a Post Office Local so we could stay open all hours.

Simon: We have played to our strength of being a local shop, introducing as much local produce as possible to give us a unique selling point. Our meats come from the local butchers and we have a lot of organic and gluten-free produce.

Barrie: I have just tried to be different. Our unique selling point is our wine and spirits section which takes roughly £8,000 a week. It’s like a shop-within-a-shop, with the majority of products in chillers. We are discussing the introduction of a Subway next year in order to gain more growth and remain competitive.

Kishor: I just make sure my store is doing the best it can on all levels: customer service, product availability, pricing, theatre, displays and the overall look. I believe retailers need to have something in their store that will impact a customer so much that they won’t forget it.