With the ever-present threat of the multiples and potential changes to legislation piling on the pressure, there’s no denying that c-stores have it tough. But one couple that aren’t about to let red tape ravage their carefully crafted business are Linda and Dennis Williams, joint owners of Broadway Convenience Store in Edinburgh. Listening to their gentle Scottish lilts, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that Linda and Dennis are a soft touch, but when it comes to defending their rights, they will do anything and everything to get their voices heard. “We’ve always been active in standing our ground,” says Dennis. “A few years ago when Tesco opened a store nearby I was at the public inquiry for a week and even gave a presentation to explain the negative effect it would have on the area.” Although the couple were unsuccessful on that occasion, they quickly found other ways to ensure that their store didn’t get left behind when the multiples landed – and land they did. “We’ve got Morrisons, Tesco and Asda within a mile of our store, but many people still choose to come here,” says Dennis. The couple also claim that their move to Premier a decade ago is at the root of their success. “Joining Premier was a real turning point for our business,” says Dennis. “I had a vision that things had to change when I was reading a magazine article about symbol groups. We’d been living in the past a bit, and with supermarkets springing up all over the place, I knew the shop had to move with the times.” Dennis explains that Premier’s promise to ‘makeover, not takeover’ was appealing, and being part of a symbol group certainly gave the store a more professional image. “Our disciplines changed and we started to use epos,” he says. “It’s a vital tool and it’s still important to our business now. We looked at soft drinks recently, thinking that Coke would be our best-seller, but the epos figures revealed it was actually Irn-Bru. That’s what’s great about epos – there are no ifs or buts – it’s just straightforward facts.” The store’s appearance has also changed over the years. “In days gone by there was just one chiller,” says Dennis. “Now we have a beer chiller, two food chillers and two soft drinks chillers.” And while many c-stores have cut back their groceries range to make way for fresh produce, Dennis and Linda have found that grocery is still surprisingly popular at Broadway. Linda explains that this is because the store still has many destination shoppers. “We have a great many customers who do all their shopping here,” she points out. “It seems that people are still willing to make the trade off between cost and a more personal service.” The couple hold their relationship with their customers extremely dear, and Linda believes that talking to customers is an essential part of being a good retailer. She says: “You might not be discussing weighty matters, but you’re exchanging the time of day and maybe once or twice a week you have a long conversation with someone. People confide in you and tell you their problems, and you can offer advice.”
Social skils
“The most important people who come through the door are your customers – no customers, no business,” Dennis adds. But you can’t pick up social skills from a book, he says. “There are some customers you can have a laugh and a joke with, and others who you have to be a bit more careful with. You can’t learn this from a manual; you pick it up as you go along. “People always think that we have an easy job because we’re just taking money over the till, but that’s a small part of the bigger picture.” The couple’s dedication to their customers goes beyond the day-to-day running of the store, and Linda and Dennis take an active role in the community, particularly through the My Shop is Your Shop (MSYS) campaign, which encourages c-stores to celebrate their place in society. “We’ve been heavily involved in MSYS – we won the FWD gold medal for our efforts last year,” says Dennis. Not surprisingly, the couple have entered the competition again this year. During National Independents’ Week, Dennis invited contacts at Scottish & Newcastle to run a tasting session with Scrumpy Jack cider, and organised a performance of the local school’s jazz band. “An event like this takes months to set up,” says Linda. “But it’s rewarding and the staff enjoy it,” Dennis chips in. “Next year I’ll get one of our suppliers to sponsor the event and pay for it. They get fantastic PR so everyone’s a winner.” When he hasn’t got his c-store hat on, Dennis has his hands full with all sorts of fundraising events. “I’m chairman of the local community centre, which is close to my heart. Through it I’ve built up a relationship with people in the area,” he says. “I do a kids’ disco on Friday night; I’ve done a pantomime, a fireworks night and a magic show – I’m a real organiser.”
On the campaign trail
The Williams’ community work means the couple have had plenty of media interest. And they’re keen to use this to draw attention to the causes they fight for. “My wife and I voice our opinions very strongly because we’re enthusiastic and really care about our business,” says Dennis. The couple have not taken kindly to the latest proposals to ban the display of tobacco. “It’s scandalous,” says Dennis. “Putting cigarettes under the counter makes it seem like a black market practice. I could see the point if it was going to cut the sales of cigarettes, but we’ve seen from other countries that this hasn’t happened.” Linda adds: “People know what cigarettes they want, but they don’t necessarily know the price, so it’s going to be a long process explaining how much each pack costs.” She is equally unconvinced that it will help people to quit smoking and is concerned that independents will be hit hard by the added expense of having to re-home cigarettes under the counter. “The cost will be disproportionate for a lot of small shops and it’ll be the last straw for them,” she says. The couple are not ready to back down yet, having lobbied Scottish Parliament member David McLetchie on the issue and written to chancellor Alistair Darling. “We just have to make as much noise as possible and hope that somebody somewhere takes notice,” says Linda. “It’s a community store and it should be treasured.” Another area in which Linda and Dennis are particularly keen to get their point across is regarding changes in alcohol licensing north of the border. “It costs £250 per person for a licence to sell alcohol,” says Linda. “The government is still debating the rules, but some chief constables are saying that there needs to be a licence-holder on the premises at all times. If that’s the case, then we’ll need four licences, so that’s £1,000 straight up.” An architect’s drawing showing where the appropriate exits are and the areas where alcohol is to be sold will cost between £200 and £300. “Plus our solicitor wants £1,500 to fill in the application form, but I think we’ll have a bash at that ourselves,” she says. When faced with so many challenges, and with a busy shop to run, it would be easy to step back and leave the campaigning to pressure groups. But Linda and Dennis refuse to be beaten. “Red tape is ripping the heart out of communities, but I’ll fight my corner,” Dennis says. “I always try to do my best.” What more can you ask?
Fact file
Store: Broadway Convenience Store (Premier), 10 Oxgangs Broadway, Edinburgh Store size: 2,000sq ft Employees: one full-time, nine part-time Services: PayPoint, home delivery service Achievements: MSYS retailer of the year 2007 (FWD gold medal winner).