The convenience sector comprises a vast array of truly community-centric independent retailers. However, there is a Budgens store in Stoneleigh, near Epsom in the heart of Surrey commuter belt, which has taken the concept of community aid to a new and utterly inspiring level.

Since the start of this year store owner Kanna Jeyamugunthan and his local marketing manager Dee Dee Hildreth have successfully held more than 40 local events, helping to change the face and fortunes of the community and the local causes that matter to its residents. From refurbishing public toilets (an issue of pressing concern for the area’s elderly residents), to supplying the local school with new goal posts and, of course, sponsoring all manner of sports days and fetes, they really have done it all.

On the day that Convenience Store visited they were unveiling a new scheme to raise money for the neonatal unit at nearby Epsom hospital. “Government money tends to go on equipment and there’s hardly anything to improve facilities. With our new Happy Babies scheme we aim to raise money to refurbish the lounge where parents of sick babies spend so much time,” explains Dee Dee. “We plan to get them a new microwave, fridge and hopefully some nice cushions to make their surroundings more pleasant. They’re not huge things, but they will make a difference to tired and distressed mums and dads.”

As part of the scheme the store is asking local mums to send in pictures of their ‘happy babies’ plus £1. The competition to find the happiest baby picture will be judged by local nurses and the winner will get a prize. All profits made are match-funded by the store.

“Yes, it does all take a large amount of time and energy, but it really is worth every drop because we are rewarded with unrivalled customer loyalty,” explain the duo. Adds Kanna: “It also helps to create a wonderful working atmosphere as the staff know they are employed somewhere that is making a real and measurable difference to people’s lives. In fact, we are now so well known in the community that people come straight to us when they need help because they know we will do everything we can to assist them.”

And their efforts have not gone unnoticed in the industry either. The store won the coveted Budgens Essentials Store Of The Year Award at the annual conference in April.

On the day that the judges visited, the store was presenting a £300 cheque, courtesy of a Christmas hamper raffle, to a director of Age Concern.

“It was a total coincidence, but it must have impressed the judges,” laughs Kanna. “However, there’s no way I could have achieved all this without Dee Dee’s help and, of course, the team.”

Amazingly, given all they have achieved, Kanna only appointed Dee Dee in January 2009. “She works for me two days a week so it’s unbelievable how much she has done for the store and its image. There’s no way I could have done anything like that on my own. I’ve got so much to do already with the day-to-day running of the store, particularly now that there is so much red tape involved.”

However, the mountains of bureaucracy look like mere foothills when compared with the hoops that have to be jumped through when hosting a Mayor’s visit, and this is where Dee Dee comes into her own.

“In addition to supplying the Mayor’s office with a complete list of who will be attending on the day, we also have to ensure that we have the correct drink ready for him or her (it’s a mayoress in Stoneleigh) and ensure that a large space is reserved for the Bentley outside the store. And the staff must be fully briefed in the correct way to greet and speak to her,” grins Dee Dee.

It’s not just the local residents who are benefiting from the store’s services to the community. While the subject of police often emerges as a sore point for some retailers, this is not the case in Kanna’s store. Giving over some of his office space for police meetings and offering the occasional tea and biscuit means a strong rapport has been formed.

“The local officers drop in most days for a chat or to use the meeting room, which is great for us,” explains Kanna. “If there’s anything I am worried about I can talk to them about it, it’s very reassuring.”

That two uniformed police officers are now part of the store furniture is a major deterrent to any would-be shoplifters, too.

The close working relationship also came in handy when Kanna applied to extend the hours on his alcohol licence. “Because the police know us to be honest, responsible retailers extending it was no problem,” adds Kanna.

Something for everyone

Thanks to a mini refit in 2008 the store has a substantial beers, wines and spirits section with a weird and wonderful array of local and big brand items. However, Kanna is most proud of the refurbished chilled lunch section, which has helped the store’s weekly turnover to rocket to more than £50,000 a week. (It was £34,000 when he bought the store in 2006, so that’s a considerable achievement.)

“I do follow planograms, but I don’t stick to them rigidly,” explains Kanna. “I think it’s important to retain enough flexibility to respond to local demands.” As such, Kanna stocks a wide range of local products, from bread and jams to eggs and, somewhat unusually, also a fair bit of Irish produce.

“There are quite a few Irish families living in and around Stoneleigh so I try to stock some classic Irish brands for them, too,” he says. The range has its own specific Taste Of Ireland point of sale, and on St Patrick’s Day Kanna even provided a Baileys tasting bar.

In addition to the Irish contingent, the store’s customer base is made up of three groups, all with different needs. “First thing in the morning the store is awash with our elderly customers, most of whom pop in every day. By lunchtime it’s the mums and babies, and in the evening it’s the office workers. It means that we must keep adapting our offer throughout the day to ensure that all the key items needed by each specific group are available, and possibly even on promotion.”

When Convenience Store visits the store is ringing with the shrieks of children and their mums who all descend on the chilled kids’ food-to-go section.

store profile

Budgens, Stoneleigh, Epsom 

Size: 3,000sq ft 

Opening hours: Mon-Sat 6am-10pm, Sunday 7am-8pm 

Staff: 35
Additional services: Home delivery for the elderly and disabled, off-licence, free ATM

These three waves of shoppers have also led Kanna to implement some pretty stringent working practices so the store looks as perfect at 6pm for the gnocchi-grabbing office workers as it was at 10am for the quiche-quaffing elderly. “To ensure that it works we have three set times in the day for facing up,” explains Kanna. “No matter what the staff are doing, at 8am, 2pm and 5pm they all stop and focus on ensuring the shelves look good.” And just one look at the impeccably merchandised ethnic foods section, where gleaming jars stand on parade, shows that it’s paying dividends.

In a few months’ time Kanna plans to give the store another mini makeover, which will include replacing the old dark green Budgens fascia above the door with the fresher-looking new one. “However, we will be incredibly careful to preserve the current store’s village feel,” he assures me. “A brush-up is important, but our customers don’t want a totally flash new interior; they like the homely feel of the store. It would be a real mistake to change that.”

And as for her next project, Dee Dee’s already hard at work helping the local council improve its Meals on Wheels service, which is run using goods from the store, as well as promoting the store’s own home delivery service for disabled and elderly people.

As C-Store leaves she’s already on the phone to the local church telling them that yes, they can borrow the store’s inflatable football goal for a fete, and later on that afternoon she’s planning to pop down to the next-door Children’s Trust store to present them with the £53.89 raised this month by the store’s Pennies for Plastic Bags scheme.

Clearly, not everyone can have a Dee Dee in their store, but even just a sprinkling of Budgens Stoneleigh’s go-get-it attitude could go a long way towards creating some real magic.