Everywhere you look in the Dike & Son 15,000sq ft store there's a reminder that this is no ordinary faceless supermarket but a family-run business with a local heart. It might be far bigger than your average local c-store, but its values are no different - to serve the community with a friendly smile.
The Dike family has been trading in Stalbridge, Dorset since 1851 - a fact that is proudly stated on their fascia and throughout the store - but in November last year, they moved from their old premises on the main road through the small town to the colossal purpose-built outlet behind it.
Today, fifth generation Andy Dike runs the store with manager Adam Vincent and mother Deirdre, but the development was very much the vision of his late father William, who sadly passed away just months before it opened. Adam joined the business just over a year ago after meeting William through his fiancé, and it fell to him and Andy to make William's vision a reality.
"The new supermarket is the result of William's determination," says Adam. "It was five years in the
planning after much thought on William's part. He died last August after a battle with cancer and never got to see the store. It's been very emotional."
The old store on the main road was converted from a row of three cottages. William decided to knock down the end cottage and build a road in its place to lead up to the brand new store, which was built on the family's land that had
previously been home to a bakery.
The store is dual-branded with the Dike & Son name and Nisa Extra, but it's the family name that's most prominent. "We wanted to come across as a co-branded store," explains Adam. "We wanted Dike & Son to have its own identity. It's important that independents stand their ground and attack."
Their line of attack is to focus on the family heritage and local
influence. "William really prided himself on knowing all the customers, and Andy wants to live up to that," says Adam. "Now we're much bigger, we're pulling people from further afield, and half of Andy's day is spent talking to our customers."
About 20-30% of the store's stock is locally sourced, and the in-store William's Farmhouse Café sells everything from hot meals made by a local supplier to cream teas that come with Dike's own strawberry jam. The Dike & Son own-label range spans products such as jams, pasta sauces, sweets and even a bitter named after Andy's dad - William's Tipple. Furthermore, the butchery counter is run by a local butcher, Jon Thorners.
The strategy appears to be that if they can do it local, they will, and Adam is clearly proud of that fact. Even one of the category graphics was taken by a local photographer and features a local lady's cows, and she also happens to supply the store with potatoes. "That's another local tie-in," says Adam. "How easy would it have been to pay for stock photo-imaging?"
Another facet that sets Dike & Son apart from big-chain superstores is the attention to detail, which proves they really know their customers and local community. TV screens in store advertise local events as well as Dike & Son promotions, and you'd be unlikely find a multiple putting a horse tether outside one of their stores just because a handful of customers prefer to ride rather than walk or drive.
"We have more similarities with a c-store than a supermarket," says Adam. "Although we're much bigger, convenience is still important because, being rurally based, not everyone is coming by car. Our only similarity with a supermarket is the size. A c-store, for me, is being local and knowing your customers, because that's what builds the relationship with the local people. The big boys use 'locally sourced' very loosely, but what we call local is generally within 20 miles, although we do stock a bit from further afield as well. Some of our suppliers shop in here, too."
Two huge photographs of past Dike & Son teams adorn the café walls - one taken in 1935 and another thought to have been taken in the mid-90s - and a couple of members of staff in the latter picture are still working there today. In fact, the workforce is a bit of a family affair, like the ownership. One member of staff has been working for Dike's for 39 years, and his wife and son also work at the store.
The store is set to support Nisa's Making a Difference Locally charity, which helps stores donate to worthwhile causes locally and improve standards and facilities within their communities. However, Dike's already has a community retailing ethos, having involved the local school in the store build by asking pupils to make a time capsule to be buried at the front of the shop.
"We asked them to write about their thoughts for the future," says Adam. "We included a newspaper, and letters from the staff. The intitiative involved the community and was brilliant for PR."
Dike & Son is not alone in being a big store with local values - Musgrave's disposal of its corporate stores has given scores of entrepreneurial
retailers the chance to take on a big store and inject some much-needed independent spirit.
Guy Warner, who runs three large Budgens stores, as well as two
forecourts, is one of them. His stores are a 3,000sq ft new-build in Broadway, a 6,500sq ft store in Bidford-on-Avon, and 10,000sq ft in Moreton-in-Marsh. All three are branded Warner's Budgens, and the latter two were acquired as part of Musgrave's divestment of its corporate stores.
"We've made the journey the supermarkets have made from food to petrol in reverse," says Guy. "In the past five to seven years we found we had developed a skill set we didn't necessarily intend to develop, and then started to look at the opportunities. We felt we could run a bigger, standalone store if the right opportunity came up."
That it did, and Broadway became Guy's first non-forecourt store and his first foray into supermarket-type retailing. He then embarked on two more larger stores. "With the right structure in the business, and the right wholesale partner, the independent retailer doesn't have to fear a larger store," he says. "The fundamental thing is that the structure is right because there's so many disciplines in a big store.
"You need a robust management team and to be able to delegate tasks, and in a bigger store you've got to have the right product range to be credible and be taken seriously. You need to have the right wholesale partner and Budgens was able to offer us a supermarket range. Some c-store wholesalers would struggle to do that."
Playing to the store's independent ownership was a key strategy for Guy in branding them Warner's Budgens. "It's been a firm plan to get across that this is an independently owned store, and Budgens has been keen for independents to do that because it gives us a unique selling point. If we go head to head with Tesco, we're going to struggle, so we recognise where we can be unique, and that's through our independent ownership, local sourcing and involvement in the community. You've got to keep that message of independence going because it could get overlooked if you don't."
He says it's not that independent convenience retailers are getting braver, but that they've been given the opportunity to branch out into bigger premises. "Musgrave has given independents the opportunity to own big stores. We've not had the opportunity to even know about properties before. By the time a deal with Tesco had been made, we'd have only just found out about it.
"I think the Budgens divestment will become a catalyst to more retailers being bold enough to look for new stores and for existing retailers to grow. Warner's Budgens was quite a big gamble because we were really taking a punt on the fact that we could run a bigger store. Now we've got the confidence to look for more opportunities."
Customer reaction to the fact that they're independently owned has been great, adds Guy. "There's a huge appetite from consumers to be shopping in less generic places, but they still want value and a sharp shopping experience. Delivering value is down to the wholesale relationship. Because of the volume of product, you have the ability to be a little bit more sober on the margins you need because you've got more sales going through.
"Our forecourt shops are not priced the same as the supermarkets. The product range makes them a different type of business. If we adopted supermarket pricing, our forecourt stores wouldn't be as financially viable. With large stores, you can become a destination shopping place, and if you want to be taken seriously, you've got to be competitive and offer value."
Giving something back
Big, independent stores are less of a newer phenomenon in Northern Ireland, where lack of competition from the multiples in the past has left the market more open for entrepreneurs to operate larger stores. But Adrian Lecky, who runs Vivoxtra in Castlederg, County Tyrone and won the top prize at Convenience Store's Convenience Retail Awards this year, says that while his family's business is big in size, its values have much more in common with a small store.
"Our philosophy is we're a local family running a local store for local people, employing local people and using a lot of local suppliers," says Adrian. "A lot of the multiples try to say they're sourcing locally but they're just paying lip service to that; we're actually doing it.
"The only way we're different from a small store is that we've expanded the range to include stuff you wouldn't normally find in a convenience store such as an instore bakery and butchery. The range is much more comprehensive now. The first one or two years was quite a steep learning curve for us, though. In the small store, we didn't have epos so none of the staff had experience of that, and with a bigger range, we're dealing with more outside suppliers, which takes up more time. But with support from a good wholesaler - John Henderson - we've got over the most difficult part now."
The Leckys moved from a 1,500sq ft store into a 5,500sq ft new-build four years ago, which has enabled them to grow their business, increasing footfall fourfold. "With the smaller store we found it hard to grow the business, so as a family we had to make a big decision - it was a big investment to build the large store. Now we've been able to grow the business and try new ideas - we weren't able to do that before. We've also added 50 car parking spaces and that really does help. We're pulling people from a far wider catchment."
With the multiples now making big inroads in Northern Ireland, Adrian says they count themselves fortunate that their nearest multiple competitor is 12 miles away. "I'm concerned that may change because some of the smaller towns have seen them enter. Tesco Local is now in Portstewart, which is quite a small town. They seem to be getting closer and closer. I think the UK multiples have stayed away from Northern Ireland because of the Troubles, so independents have been strong here for a number of years. I think that Northern Ireland folk like to support local people more as well."
And while the local people support them, the Leckys return that support with various projects within the local community. Their latest is a cash for schools scheme with two local primary schools, which is just about to launch. Customers will be able to pick up a saver card and for every £10 they spend in-store, they will get their card stamped. When the card is complete, the schools will be able to cash them in.
As Adrian says: "It's all about giving back to the local community." It's true, and you'd be rather hard pushed to find your average multiple doing that.