Susie Hawkins
Simon Smith Group, Gloucestershire

Having spent her childhood helping out at the family business, Susie has plenty of experience and has been running the seven store group for a decade.

Gordon Crump
Spar Compton, Wolverhampton

After 40 years in the retailing industry, Gordon and brother Malcolm have learnt to cope with difficult issues, such as rising energy costs and shoplifting, by tackling them head on.

Harry Goraya
Rosherville Post Office, Kent

Unafraid of a challenge, Harry changed the entire structure of his business to ensure his convenience store, rather than the less stable post office trade, forms the core of his enterprise.

David Winter
Creaton Post Office, Northamptonshire

David and wife Sylvia work hard to make their customers happy. Their dedication helped their community win a Northamptonshire Village of the Year award

How concerned are you about rising business costs?

Susie: Very forecourts have come off very badly where business rates are concerned. They've effectively doubled.

Gordon: We are concerned as we had growth for 12 years in a row and then 18 months ago it levelled off.

Harry: Extremely. It is alarming that banks aren't interested in extending any form of credit and if they are then it's at extortionate interest rates.

David: It's always a concern.

In which areas of your business are costs rising the fastest?

Susie: Electricity is a big area. We have much more refrigeration these days and power is costing more.

Gordon: Electricity costs are rising fast, and staff wages are going up. Also, customer perceptions have changed. They expect promotions all the time so we're having to cut our profit margin to keep offering deals.

Harry: Energy is a big one for me.

David: The continuing increase in minimum wage is an issue.

What action are you taking to control business costs?

Susie: I installed an energy management system from Greengate in one of my outlets. I was sceptical when the company first pitched their ideas to us, but it's been very effective so I'll be looking to roll it out across my other stores.

Gordon: We've reduced staff hours where we can, and we've increased promotions as much as possible within the Spar spectrum.

Harry: I've instigated another store refit primarily focused on bringing down energy costs. We're changing all our lighting we've found that we can reduce the number of lights we use without reducing the amount of light in the store and this reduces our consumption by nearly 30%. We've also got a single door in our lobby which can be turned into two doors so that it's not letting in as much cold air when people enter or exit the store.

David: We had to let a number of our staff go last year.

Are there projects or improvements that you would like to make, but are put off because of cash flow?

Susie: We've applied for planning permission to knock down and rebuild our Daventry store. I guess we're not exactly charging ahead with that, whereas if the economic situation was better we'd be pushing a bit harder. I think the recession just makes you more cautious.

Gordon: We've had Spar look at how we can generate footfall and they've said we'll need to buy more chillers. We would have been put off by money concerns, but AF Blakemore has said that if we follow their recommendations and don't achieve the figures they predict, they'll cover the costs.

Harry: Yes. I've heard about a very good idea for energy reduction apparently, you can recycle air extracted from chillers and use it to heat your store. But I have almost 40 metres of chillers so it would work out to be too expensive.

David: I'd like to put in new lighting and flooring a complete refit even but I've always put it off because of the money.

Do you think small businesses are protected enough in the current climate?

Susie: No at the end of the day we still have to compete with the big boys. For example, when it comes to dealing with used batteries we'll have to provide a recycling facility. A big player will have economies of scale and can make money on something like that, whereas for us it's just an extra cost.

Gordon: It's a case of survival of the fittest as small businesses we're all in the same boat. At least we're fortunate with convenience stores in that people actually need food, even in a recession.

Harry: No one cares about small businesses. Local councils make out that they care, but when it comes to actually doing anything they're slow to react. Visiting small businesses is a publicity stunt for them.

David: There's a new ruling on energy whereby any business that has fewer than 10 full-time employees or consumes less than 55,000kw/h in electricity is eligible for better protection against the power companies. At least we are being catered for in that department.

Is cash flow more of a concern than profit margins for you at the moment?

Susie: Cash flow isn't a huge issue for us because we're an established business, but I can understand that it would be for a smaller, younger business. Having said that, this time of year is always tough.

Gordon: Not with us. We've just paid all the January bills, such as our income tax, so that's made us feel better about our cash flow issues.

Harry: Yes, because without cash flow you have no ability to make profit.

David: You can suffer a loss or reduced profits for a while, but if you haven't got cash flow then you'll need to find money very quickly, and with banks not lending so easily it can become a big problem. Cash flow issues are a major cause of companies falling into liquidation.

Are professionals such as banks and accountants helpful to you?

Susie: We've got a great relationship with our bank. I rang them up at the beginning of January and said that it was going to be a difficult month and they were very understanding.

Gordon: We don't borrow so we don't need to use banks, but accountants are helpful. If we have an issue they're very supportive.

Harry: The banks are willing to lend money, but they'll do you over on interest rates. It's fine to get money in the short term, but in the long term many people will struggle to pay it back.

David: Banks can be helpful, but you can't guarantee it. Our accountant has been a great help to us, though.
What can retailers do to protect cash flow?
Susie: To a certain point the recession has been good in that it's made people less blasé about spending and better at business they're chasing every penny they can get. Protecting your cash flow is a case of knowing what your business is doing, staying close to it and checking your performance constantly.

Gordon: We're always looking to improve the store and increase footfall, which will in turn protect our cash flow. People want fresh food so that's where we're expanding.

Harry: You've got to understand the demographics of your area to keep customers coming through the door. In general, the consumer is very price driven and supermarkets are very competitively priced. But don't let this get to you we just have to offer the best deals we can, in addition to organising community events such as tasting days. It's just a case of riding out the storm.

David: You need to be extremely careful make sure that you don't go overdrawn, keep on top of sending out bills on time, and chasing payments. Also, try and promote your best-sellers as much as you can.

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