Some of the buzzwords that flutter around the retail sector have become so common that their meaning has been obscured, if not lost completely. Words such as 'sustainability', 'environment' and the catch-all term 'green' what do they really mean?

In Hassocks in West Sussex, David Knight has thought a lot about this one. Where others might be content to pay lip-service to customers' demands that their store support local suppliers and reduce its carbon emissions, he's made sure that his really delivers on both.

Still in his early 30s, David has been in retail a long time, picking up a broad education along the way. "I started with Tesco after a retail management degree, but realised I'd rather be a big fish in a small pond," he tells C-Store. "I worked as a graduate trainee at Budgens' parent company Musgrave's head office and began to understand what it means to be independent."

It was during a spell in divestment selling off Budgens company stores to indies that David made it known he'd like to buy one himself. "They said I was too young, but I knew I was ready. I felt like I understood cash flow and margin. I was persistent, and probably upset people, but I slowly wore down all the arguments."

That persistence is what brought David to Hassocks in 2007 and led, two years later, to the official opening of the revamped Knight's Budgens.

The town is small, affluent and picturesque, best known for the two windmills, Jack and Jill, which stand on the South Downs above it. This is good growing country, laced with farms, orchards, hop fields and vineyards and only seven miles from the sea, so there's plenty of excellent local vegetables, dairy products, beer, cider and fish close to hand.

In the loop
Those of us who don't know a lot about how refrigeration works could probably mumble something about fans, drains, motors and gas. What's unique about the fresh and chilled aisle in David Knight's store is that it has none of these things. All that circulates in the long rows of cabinets is air, while all the complicated gubbins sit outside. There's two advantages to this. First, according to the supplier Simply Air, there are 60% fewer moving parts so there's less to go wrong, and what there is stands off the shopfloor so you'll never have a leak or a cabinet failure. With no evaporator in the base, you get room for an extra shelf, too. Second and this is the really clever bit the system uses air from outside the store to provide cooling. So on a cold day, and there are a few of those, even in Sussex, it uses far less electricity to keep the chilled stock safe. If it drops to freezing outside, the kit simply acts as a fan, drawing the air in. Obviously it's not quite that simple, but Simply Air suggests a saving in maintenance costs of about 30% and an energy efficiency gain of 4060%. Although it's likely to involve a more significant capital investment than some other equipment available, and is most suitable for large stores, savings of that magnitude ought to mean a huge reduction in power bills and a payback time that's enticingly short.
David's interpretation of sustainability is that it's his job to give these suppliers a route to market and a fair deal, so they thrive and the unique character of the area is preserved. "The food supply chain is contracting," he says. "By supporting these smaller companies and farmers, we're helping to keep it more diverse, and offering customers more choice."

The refurbished store makes much of its localness, with walls covered in black-and-white images of the Downs, Jack and Jill and historic Hassocks itself. It's a huge point of difference from the run-of-the-windmill supermarket down the road.

At first sight it seems like half the store is given over to local lines, as they're in almost every aisle and heavily flagged up with chalkboards naming the supplier and the village it's from, but David insists that 95% of his stock comes through Budgens' distribution chain. It helps that a number of the local lines are listed anyway, some of them as a result of several Sussex Budgens retailers banding together to agree to stock them.

"We have a full-time member of staff who looks after the local suppliers," David reveals. "It's important to maintain that relationship, and work together rather than dictate to them. We share sales data with them why not? It benefits both of us."

He explains how he took on one local producer who had worked with another local store and operated on half the previous retailer's margin. "It's not an aggressive business, it's about offering customers a choice it's a philosophy of sustainability, not about being greedy. Sure, we all moan about Tesco, but that doesn't mean we want to become them. I want to go to bed at night knowing I've done the right thing."

There's a family feel to the store which extends from the name above the door it's 'Knight's Budgens of Hassocks' on the fascia, emphasising both the retailer's name and the community's. Staff are encouraged to refer to it simply as Knight's. "We push the family aspect to the team," David says, adding that staff retention is excellent. David himself is on the sales floor five days a week, smartly dressed and approaching customers to ask what they need from their store. "I've learned how to listen to them," he says.

The next project is to introduce an occasional market stall outside the store (it's set back from the road and has a protective awning). With fruit and veg, olives and cheeses sold from a traditional barrow, it's a classic bit of old-style retail theatre.

But behind the front-of-house smile hides a self-confessed 'data junkie'. "Fluffy stuff is lovely, but you've got to back it up with figures," David says. "I love the theatre of a deli counter, for example, and the tradition, but I'm systems-driven. I'm always giving the merchandising team a hard time, asking them to justify what's on the shelves."

What that means is that everything is scanned and the back office systems are required to produce constant reports margin, range, best and worst performers. Having a boss whose motto is 'data is power' means that section heads have to be ready to answer some tricky questions. There's no arguing with the man who has all the figures in his hand.

Best of both worlds

David worked hard in setting up the store refurbishment and sourcing the best equipment on offer. There's an environmental aspect to this reducing carbon emissions might be the part that impresses the locals, but just as important is cutting power costs.

That's why he looked into energy-efficient lighting and came up with a system that not only uses 45% less power than the previous set-up, but also came courtesy of an interest-free loan from the Carbon Trust.

shop profile
Knight's Budgens of Hassocks Size: 4,500sq ft Staff: 55 Turnover: £85,000
As for refrigeration a huge cost here, as in every c-store David has set up a deal to be the testbed for a promising system (see panel) that even in these early days looks like it could revolutionise the way stores chill, and slash both the store's environmental impact and its power bills. Visitors from some big-name supermarket chains are already buzzing around his fresh and chilled aisles.

And perhaps they should have a look around the rest of the store while they're there. There's a lot they could learn.

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