Gaelle Walker met up with independent retailer David Bridge to find out his plans for surviving tough times

David Bridge has a fight on his hands. Last June Tesco applied for permission to build an Express store just a loaf’s throw away from his Here to Please You convenience store in Westhaughton, Bolton. Needless to say, David wasn’t happy about it. Concerned that the development would have a negative impact on his store and on the surrounding community, he organised a 340-name petition against the plans and sent it to Bolton Council. And for a time it looked as though his campaigning had paid off. 

But it hadn’t. The council approved Tesco’s plans and, a couple of months later, work on the new Express store began.

“I was gutted when the plans were approved, but I knew that being down wouldn’t help,” he says. “What I needed to do was make some radical changes to my store to compete.” So David got the builders in.

The 20-year-old store, which he had bought from his mother 15 years ago, had to be all but gutted to make way for a bigger, brighter and more welcoming interior. 

By converting the stock room into selling space, the store was made 30% larger, enabling David to sell a much broader range of products including a new fruit and vegetable section and locally produced ales. 

He also had a rather novel idea to replace a stockroom. Rather than spend thousands of pounds on building a new one, David bought two large cargo containers which he positioned at the back of the store. The eight-metre wide and 10-metre long containers set him back just £1,500 and do the job perfectly. 

David managed to keep on trading throughout the refit, which included tearing up the old carpet “that ladies kept getting their heels caught in” and laying a smart new vinyl floor. The counter was also moved from directly in front of the door to a sideways position along the left-hand wall. He also invested more than £3,000 in a CCTV system because the new layout created a few blind spots which could appeal to shoplifters.

But shoplifters weren’t the only people David had to keep an eye on during the work. “The suits from Tesco were always sneaking around watching what changes I was making and taking pictures of my prices on their camera phones,” he says. 

A few days after David’s refit was complete, Tesco opened its doors. Trade has dipped slightly since the opening, but despite his initial disappointment David remains optimistic.

“I’m determined to keep on investing,” he says. “I’m going to look at advertising, which is something that I’ve never done before.”

The refit has enabled David to install two new large chillers at the back of his store and he’s having fun “playing with the space” and deciding what new products he should stock. “Luckily for me, the Tesco store doesn’t have a chilled beer offer so I’m planning to focus heavily on that,” he says.

He has also increased his range of traditional sweets which he sells in large glass jars. “The kids love looking at all the jars and they remind adults of the shops of their youth. I’m just trying to offer something that shoppers can’t find in Tesco,” he says. 

But Tesco isn’t the only problem that David is having to square up to at the moment. The current economic climate is prompting shoppers to rein in their spending, meaning that offering value for money has never been so important.

“The price of groceries is a big issue for people at the moment, so I am working hard to help my customers by keeping prices as low as possible. I’m now buying a large amount of pricemarked products, and I’m cheaper than Tesco for many of my spirits,” David says.

And the frugal shopper is not the only side-effect that the credit crunch is having on business. David now has all of his tobacco products delivered from the cash and carry to his store, rather than taking them in his van, for fear of being robbed.

I’ve heard about quite a few retailers who have been followed home from the cash and carry and robbed for their cigarettes, so I’m not taking any chances,” he says.

Another area that David isn’t taking any chances with is underage sales. He recently won a load of support from the local community when he installed innovative new finger-scanning technology to verify the age of local youths who attempt to buy cigarettes and alcohol.

“Underage sales is something that I have always taken very seriously. I already enforce a Challenge 21 scheme, but this new technology goes one step further,” he says. “At the moment you need to do everything you can to prove that you are a responsible retailer.” 

However, underage sales could be the least of David’s worries should government plans to put all tobacco products under the counter become reality this autumn. “Groceries used to be sold behind a counter in the old days and it all changed because it wasn’t practical,” moans David. “I’m not worried about losing sales as a result of the display ban because all retailers will be on a level footing; it’s the disruption and inconvenience that bothers me.”

So with the competition from Tesco, the slowdown in consumer spending, threat from thieves and possible restrictions on the display of tobacco products to contend with, it’s fair to say that David’s got a few testing months ahead of him.

“Being a retailer is tough, but it can also be incredibly rewarding when things go right,” he says. “The key is to remain positive and to adapt along with the market. If things get harder I might consider broadening my alcohol range so that I’m more like an off licence with a convenience offer. You just have to roll with the punches and try to make the best of it.”