The helpline page ‘went live’ on September 8, 1995 and has appeared in every issue, every fortnight, ever since. I may not know, even now, how to run a c-store, but on your behalf I regularly try on lots of the hats that you are forced to wear in your various roles of employer, health & safety officer, tax collector, banker, policeman and ‘public servant’. Not one of them is easy or fits very well. Some of the job is hard slog on this side of the keyboard too, like interpreting the turgid email releases I get from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the DTI (still regularly informing us that red tape is going down, down, down…nearly gone!).
Some of the problems you throw at me are perplexing, especially those that pitch retailer against retailer or involve supplier problems where both parties are supposed to be on the same side but where communications have badly broken down. But these are usually relieved by lighter notes and quotes I get from people who just want to share them. And then of course, there is what I like to think of as the ‘creative’ side of the job – retelling the tales and reporting on those enterprising activities popularly known as scams. I handle around 1,500 calls a year advising and listening to readers of both Convenience Store magazine and, since January 2000, its sister paper Forecourt Trader. I have filled 70 pretty fat reporter’s notebooks, interleaved with your letters, faxes, emails, photocopied research material and so on. I get writer’s cramp on a regular basis but, happily, I never get writer’s block.

As I have said before, the one thing this column has guaranteed is job satisfaction. I get an embarrassing amount of flattering comments. I know that, in some cases, I have saved you money and sleepless nights, but for others, I’ve only had to listen. Being an independent is an isolated business at times and I know that you all appreciate the invaluable forum that Convenience Store represents. Jac writes: do not ask for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.

But in a good way. I thought I would bring you some ring-a-ding news from my local high street where the traders are ‘ringing time’ on shoplifters. Literally. The local baker from Kistrucks came up with the idea at a business partnership meeting. He had just suffered a couple of break-ins and had also fallen victim to conmen. His solution was handbells, cheap supplies of which he is sourcing from a website.

Chris Tomkins, the retailer behind this brainchild, says: “The point about a bell is that it’s public as soon as you ring it. If you’ve got a problem with one shop, it takes 45 minutes to talk to 20 people on a mobile phone, but a bell can be heard by 500 people within 30 seconds.” He came by the idea in a somewhat spurious fashion as he admitted that, a few years back, the local butcher (ah, well remembered, and sadly missed) used to ring a bell when the traffic wardens appeared. All illegally-parked cars would miraculously disappear!

I am indebted for the above story to my local newspaper which ran the piece in July. Even better, they followed it up in August to report that the local police had sanctioned the system of a variety of handbell rings, signifying different crimes.

When you marry this idea with retail outlets playing classical music to dissuade yobs from hanging about outside, well, it all gets a bit lyrical on top of criminal. What next? Retailing: The Musical? Jac asks: would this be a good way of cleaning up a bit extra?

I’m often contacted about ‘new and different’ ways retailers might excite the interest of their flagging customers. Recently, business guru Duncan Bannatyne advised in this magazine that dry cleaning might be a useful addition to one’s mix. This prompted an email from Pritpal Mangat in Tunbridge Wells, who thought this service just might work. But where do you find the dry cleaners? It’s not that easy. Sketchley’s, the Mister Big in dry cleaning, told me some time ago that it’s not interested in expanding its stain-removal and crease-imposing empire, as we are all too casual these days. If you wish to offer this service, then you need to source a local dry cleaner who will take the stuff off you after you’ve collected it from your customers. Remember this: you’re the agent/middle-man. Make sure you work your costs out accordingly.