Atrip to Weymouth, a small town wrapped around a headland sticking out from the Dorset coast, can be quite a trek. But while it is the end of the journey for the many tourists and recreational sailors who visit each year, it is the start of a very different journey for retailer Steve Bassett and the
Steve and his wife Vicky run two stores in Weymouth - one on the seafront for the tourists, one in the town for the locals - anTesWhat the d they are the willing guinea pigs for the next step-change in Londis' development, as the town store marks the debut of an experimental look and focus for the symbol group.
"The whole project is a journey, and we're not claiming that we're anywhere near finished," says Londis sales director Garry Craft. "We'll be in the experimental stage for at least the rest of the year, but it is
This particular journey started in earnest last September when a new store development committee, including five retailers, was set up. The aim was to define new levels of professionalism for the group and also to see how some of the
initiatives that had worked elsewhere for Musgrave could be applied to Londis stores.
"By getting retailers involved, we very quickly get into the nitty-gritty," says Craft. "Over the years a lot of retailers have tried things, and we can use this experience to try these out in the pilot store."
Craft explains that the group is striving for a greater degree of consistency and clarity, which would then make it easier for stores in the group to make clear statements about what they stand for.
"We've done a lot of research, and consumers are telling us that the things that independents do well should come to the fore," says Craft.
"We want the independence to come out. Shoppers go to stores largely because of the retailers themselves, so we want them to use their individuality."
Every new store will have an
identifier - usually the retailer's name, although in Steve's case the store is already widely known as Abbotsbury Road Post Office - to go alongside the Londis fascia. A personal message from the retailer will be displayed prominently inside.
"We don't need to put 'local' on our stores - everyone knows that they are," says Craft. "But we have to have a ring of professionalism and common standards. And these have to be defined in such a way that the retailer's personality can come through."
Craft rolls his eyes when I suggest it could be called 'New Londis', so I won't labour the point, but as well as a new-look fascia, the brand has four key strands: the store environment such as fixtures and fittings; the products and services offered; the behaviour of retailers and their staff; and how the first three elements are communicated to shoppers.
"Changing fascias without
changing content is pointless," explains Craft. "These four elements make up the brand, and all four have to be delivered at the same time - if it's only three it's a failure."
Each of these strands is being addressed at the Weymouth store, which has a new layout and internal and external graphics, and a revamped product offer including an extensive food to go section.
"We've identified three product categories that we will be famous for across the estate - beers, wines & spirits; bakery; and, where space permits, food to go," explains Craft.
"Retailers need to give them enough space, then we need to give them access to the right range and then it's all about the staff and their product knowledge. In these three categories the whole thing has to come to life."
In practice, this means working on good ranges and prices for wine and beer as well as bake-off, and putting the squeeze on packaged grocery ranges. "It's not because we don't like them, it's just the way the market is going," says Craft. "By and large, people are not coming to our stores for a big shop, so we don't need all that grocery and non-food."
Training is a vital element of Londis' new professionalism and it will be available to retailers in many forms. First, there will be a full brand induction for new stores, outlining what the group is trying to do, and how the retailer fits in. Second, customer service will be targeted via a mystery shopper programme.
Launched seven months ago, Londis' mystery shopper scheme has until now been entirely voluntary, but Craft sees it being an essential part of the new approach. "I don't see how you can run a good store without knowing what shoppers think," he says. "You can think of it as an early warning of future
The third aspect of the training programme is in the all-important area of product knowledge - which is crucial if c-stores are to deliver professionalism at a local level. Here Londis will look to expand its already established courses on wine, fruit & veg and food to go.
"We need our people to be able to talk about the products they sell," says Craft. "We know we can't send all our staff to classrooms, so we need to look at different ways of delivering training."
The pilot will quickly embrace more than just Steve's store, with Craft hoping to start work on 12-15 outlets, covering a range of shapes, sizes, styles and geographical locations by the end of this year.
Four general formats have been identified: Urban Neighbourhood, which is strong on food for later with a daily fresh offering; Rural Neighbourhood, which provides more of a main shop for residents; Central - for urban centres with a strong focus on food for now; and Essentials, which are space-restricted outlets of less than 700 sq ft.
A forecourt solution will also be developed, although it is not yet clear whether this will be a separate fifth format, or simply a variation of the other two.
Londis' last major store development exercise, the Genesis format, is still performing well, but it doesn't go far enough to match Londis' new ambitions.
"Those retailers who invested in Genesis last year have seen sales increases of 20%, so although it's still working, time has moved on and the imagery needs to evolve,"
Craft is keen to stress that he will not be issuing ultimatums to retailers, or force them to embrace the new brand immediately. "We need to build a business case for all this. Every retailer has their own capital investment plan, but if we can build a strong case, hopefully they'll come with us."
So that's the theory - how is it working in practice? According to Steve Bassett, very well indeed.
Steve's 2,200 sq ft Weymouth store has undergone a complete revamp and is now organised by missions, making it almost two shops in one: a snack store and an evening store.
When you enter, you are immediately greeted by fresh produce on the right and bakery on the left, with the food to go counter in full view in front of you.
"It's a statement - it's saying 'I do food'," says Steve. "It's as much about what I'm saying as what I'm actually selling."
Customers' eyes are then drawn to what Steve calls his 'road warrior' section, full of sandwiches, grab-and-go chilled snacks, soft drinks
The food to go section was previously just pastries, but now the store has a solution for every appetite - fresh sandwiches, pizzas, roast chicken, curries, potato twisters, hot coffee, doughnuts and freshly prepared fruit smoothies.
"The thing about food to go is that you have to be passionate about it. Two days a fortnight it's my turn to work in that section - Tesco and the like can't match that passion."
Steve is a fan of technology and innovation and, as someone who knows his sales almost to the last decimal place at any moment, he makes an ideal guinea pig for the venture.
"I was due a refit anyway and a Tesco Express has recently opened nearby, so I was prepared to give it a go," he explains.
His store closed for nine days for the building work, which was carried out by Uno, and emerged at the end with completely new fixtures and fittings, floor and ceiling, as well as the exciting fresh features. But in order to make room for the new concept a lot of familiar lines had to go.
"I was sitting there thinking 'This is too much," recalls Steve. "But I knew that I could always bring products back later. However, customers are saying they can find everything they need.
"Overall, customers are loving it - spend is up by 25p per person. The store is the same size as it was, but everyone says it's bigger." So for Steve's store, and indeed the entire Londis network, it is very much a case of watch this space.
The new Londis brand at a glance:
Environment - fixtures, fittings and merchandising
Products and services - what you offer in your store
Behaviour - how retailers and their staff interact with customers
Communication - how the story of the other three elements is told