If you want to know how your business is doing, ask your customers. That's what the HIM convenience tracking programme does, conducting interviews outside 25,000 convenience stores around the country to find out what customers thought of their shopping experience.
This year, when the results were collated and revealed to a roomful of suited and booted retail bigwigs at the HIM awards ceremony, it was the Scottish chain David Sands that topped both the Best Overall Retailer and Best Community Retailer polls. With only 29 stores, Sands is dwarfed by many of the convenience symbol groups surveyed by HIM, but it's clearly doing something very right indeed and C-Store dutifully hit the high road to find out what makes the best so good.
The first clue is easily spotted above the door of the group's stores. "Your Friendly Local Store" is as much a company philosophy as it is a strapline, as 'local' and 'friendly' are two words you could use to describe every single member of staff you meet. Take Margaret Drummond, manager of the bustling, laughter-filled Cardenden store. Born and raised in the town, she's been with the company for 17 years and with no exaggeration greets every single customer like a member of the family. It's company policy wherever possible to appoint managers who live locally, and in C-Store's 30-minute chat with her, about 28 minutes are spent chatting, smiling, waving and joking with the regulars.
In between, she reveals the pastoral aspect of the manager's job. "I'm always on the floor and chatting, and that's encouraged," she says. "If I have to sit down for an hour with a customer who's recently lost her husband, I can do it. Things like that make all the difference when Tesco came to town our customers stayed loyal because they knew we would look out for them."
This spirit comes from the very top, with chief executive David Sands recently highlighting the importance of customer service in the company's staff magazine. "We must never forget that one of the main reasons customers choose to shop in our stores is the friendly service we provide," he wrote. "Does anyone believe that we cannot beat all our competitors for friendly service?"
Investing in good people means you need to hang on to them, and Sands encourages loyalty through long-service awards and Christmas bonuses. A very generous award for Employee of the Year saw this year's winner, Grace Smith of the Kennoway store, given £1,000 towards the holiday of her choice plus an additional two weeks' paid holiday.
Senior management plays its part in customer service, too. Both David and his father Lindsay, along with chief operating officer Ewen Chisholm, are regularly to be found on the shopfloor, greeting shoppers, thanking them for their custom, and personally dealing with any complaints. After 150 years as a family retail business in Kinross-shire, the Sands are still not taking the community's support for granted.
It's not just the customers who are loyal. As well as Margaret, two other staff at Cardenden have been there for more than 10 years, and it's the policy of recruiting local people on the strength of their personality, rather than retail experience, coupled with a strong commitment to staff training, that really pays dividends.
An in-house mystery shopper programme is part of the ongoing training, and those who do well get a personal thank-you visit from group chairman Lindsay Sands. For those looking to forge a career in retail, there's a trainee manager programme where each participant is personally mentored by a member of the senior management team.
That's the 'friendly' side taken care of - now for the local. Ewen Chisholm says 70% of Sands' customers live within a quarter-mile of their local store, and it's hard not to believe he hasn't primed the customer who comes up to C-Store in the brand new store in the Linburn Road residential area of Dunfermline and says: "These prices are not bad. It's worth the extra 10p not to take the bus into town." You can't pay for an endorsement like that. Ewen says that 23% of the store's stock is locally produced. "People will pay more for quality local food," he says. "It creates interest and makes us different. Our food to go, fresh and own label ranges set us aside from other c-stores. With a good range and some excitement in stores, we've no need to go head-to-head on price."
A key feature of the new outlet is its food to go offer, which includes its own 'Deliciously David Sands' brand of freshly made sandwiches, salad bowls, fruit pots and ready meals. The offer also focuses heavily on bakery, with a serve-over counter manned by long-term partner, Dunfermline-based Stephens Bakers. "Customers expect Stephens when they come in our stores," Ewen says, and the pies, pastries and morning rolls are a huge hit with locals.
The new store even allows room for customers to sit and enjoy their food at a row of seats at a counter, and it was a customer who pointed out that although the hot coffee was a good deal, they weren't offering tea. That was very quickly put right.
"Building this place from scratch has given us the opportunity to be more flexible and create a store that is centred around food to go," Chisholm says. "85% of the people who come through the door head straight for the hot food counter, and after just a few weeks' trading and despite a very low-key opening with no publicity, we're already hitting figures we didn't expect to reach until Christmas."
While all the stores sell the staples like news and magazines and cigarettes, Chisholm says it's the 'interest points', especially food to go and fresh, which keep the customers coming in. How these develop in future is in the hands of the locals themselves, he adds. "We're a community retailer we're commercial, but we know that we will always make more money if we listen to what the customers want."