As all our readers can testify, life as an independent retailer is far from easy. But every year more are lured to the job – some even jumping over from the supply chain side of the fence. 

Such a move is surprising, you might think, considering how many stressed-out retailers they must have encountered in their careers. But those that make the choice are quick to point out that the skills they’ve picked up in their previous life do a lot to help them on the shop floor.

One of those who made the leap is Lionel Cashin, who owns Turnbull’s News Shop in Market Weighton, East Yorkshire, with his wife Yvonne. Before branching into independent retailing he spent 26 years working for Mars, including six as national account manager and then a decade as the company’s first UK trade relations manager. He also spent five years as director general of the Confectioners Benevolent Fund (CBF).

“My role as trade relations manager was incredibly varied,” explains Lionel. “It was a new role at Mars. I was the first person to be quoted instead of a spokesman in any of the trade press. I also represented Mars in a number of associations, including the Association of Convenience Stores and Scottish Grocers’ Federation.”

Lionel says his decision to move into independent retailing was always something he thought could happen at some stage in his career. “My mother used to run a cake and pie shop in Liverpool so I’d always wondered what it would be like to have my own store. I’d always had the comfort zone of working for a large organisation, though.

“The opportunity came when I was able to buy out my father-in-law, as he was looking to retire. I worked out six months’ notice with the CBF, but basically after one phone call and one meeting the deal was done. 

“Although it’s a very different role I’ve got no regrets. A lot of what I’d learnt has been useful today. I don’t necessarily tell people my background, but it can be an advantage.

“I learnt the benefits of being part of a buying group and it’s the right route for us. Something else which definitely helps me today from my previous positions is the whole idea of retail theatre and creating interest in certain areas in the store.”

Lionel is very grateful for the advice he receives from those doing his old job across various categories, and especially from the two main tobacco companies. “I get some very good advice from them in terms of merchandising, but also how to keep up with all the legislation. I would like to see a more consistent approach from the confectionery manufacturers in following planograms of a group’s head office rather than just receiving contradictory opinions, though.”

Lionel says he’s also very aware that it’s not only the selling price of products that matters, but also the buying price. He explains: “I learnt that from my previous role. I buy everything through my wholesaler, WH & HM Young, and I’m part of the News Shop symbol group. They gave me some very useful advice and helped me to properly understand the business of news and magazines.”

For Lionel, there’s no going back to his old career. “Independent retailing brings something new every day and you sink or swim by the decisions you make. We’ve had the impact of a large supermarket opening 200 metres away and experienced the challenges firstly of survival and then returning to growth by developing new niche markets and all the time protecting the bottom line. I wouldn’t have missed a moment of my first five years as a retailer.”

A Sure Bet

Another retailer pleased to have moved to the other side of the till is Andrew Newton. He purchased his Nisa Local store in Brierley Hill, West Midlands, with the help of his father, having previously worked as a retail business executive for Camelot.

His work involved a large number of store visits, advising retailers on new lottery products and discussing how they can best maximise sales. “It was a consulting-type role rather than a direct sales rep forcing sales on retailers,” says Andrew. “My role also involved communicating with the symbol groups. It’s definitely helped me in my work today.”

Andrew believes the experience he gained at Camelot has taught him to take a step back from his store and view it as a customer does. “As a rep you get to spot things that retailers don’t,” he says. “I still make sure I walk the store regularly and act like an outsider looking in. The experience I gained with Camelot in elements such as pos and presentation also transfers well to other categories. My negotiation skills had to be good during my time at Camelot, but they’ve actually improved as a retailer. It’s useful to know what it’s like on both sides, though.”

Andrew says he resists trying to tell reps who visit his store how to do their jobs. “My attitude to reps who come in is that they are the experts,” he says. “I let them to do what they think is right. I’ll always give things a try to see if they work out.”

Andrew had always thought that he might one day own his own store, as various members of his family had done so over the years. “Ever since I was a young boy I’ve always liked selling things, even in the school playground! I was at a bit of a crossroads in my job with Camelot and heard of a store on the market. My father helped out in getting me started until I could buy him out. I was very lucky to get the support of my family.”

No Regrets

There are a few things that Andrew misses from his days at Camelot, but not nearly enough to convince him to turn his back on retailing. “I miss the holidays as well as some of the camaraderie from my time at Camelot,” he says. “I’ve gone from working nine to five, five days a week, to seven days a week, 7am-11pm, but I love it.”

The decision to enter the world of independent retailing is also paying off for Andrew Thornton, owner of two Budgens stores in Crouch End, London. Back in 1989 Andrew founded SRCG, a category management and convenience retailing consultancy firm. After 18 years as managing director of this successful venture, where Andrew advised the likes of Marks & Spencer’s Simply Food and international chain Circle K as well as Budgens’ parent company Musgrave, he decided to put his theory into practice.

“There’s a lot of crossover between the two roles,” explains Andrew. “It’s all about classic marketing and how you can provide a unique proposition against your competitors.”

He continues: “I preached to companies for a long time that it’s possible to compete with the multiples and now I’m proving it. There’s a Tesco very near us and we’re trading very well by having a point of difference and doing things such as local sourcing.”

Andrew enjoys the fact that his decisions now impact directly on his own business and adds: “While it was my own consultancy, I am much more free now as I make my own destiny. I’ve got no regrets and know it was the right move at the right time. I certainly don’t miss jumping on and off planes at ridiculous hours of the day!”