Gaelle Walker explores a small store that’s working in harmony with other local firms to give customers just what they want
Take a right turn out of Waterloo Station and the first road on your right will find you standing at the tip of Lower Marsh, a bustling street bursting with a vibrant mix of independently owned and multiple shops to tempt all tastes. And standing proudly about halfway down Lower Marsh is the jewel in its crown: Greensmiths, an independently owned store with a difference, both inside and out.
Thanks to its bold green frontage and 200-year heritage, the building is impressive, but it’s inside that is most exciting. In addition to a wide range of staple convenience products, from bin liners to bog rolls as well as the usual chilled suspects, the store features five concessions managed and run by other local businesses. There’s a Ginger Pig butcher’s counter an artisan bread counter from The Old Post Office bakery in Clapham Solstice greengrocers from Covent Garden Market a wine cave, run by the Waterloo Wine company and hot drinks to go from Antica Coffee.
Greensmiths, London Waterloo
Established: December 2008
Size: 2,500sq ft
Opening hours: Monday-Friday 8am-8pm Sat 8am-6pm
Services: café, hot food and drinks to go, gift vouchers, butcher’s counter
There’s also a kitchen, where large glass windows allow shoppers to watch the store’s fresh ingredients transformed into sandwiches, pies and cakes to take away, or eat in its own upstairs café.
The local businesses don’t pay to rent their spaces, they simply donate an agreed percentage of their annual turnover to Greensmiths.
“Doing it that way ensures that there’s a desire to work together for the good of the business as a whole,” explains store owner and former property developer Chris Smith, who oversees the running of the business as well as sourcing and managing all of the store’s general stock and staff.
“Fortunately, we all have a fantastic relationship. It’s far better to do it that way. We all strive to be as good as possible.”
This cohesive attitude is clearly felt throughout the store, which with one checkout area and a comprehensive training programme for all staff members, offers a seamless shopping experience for its customers, a mix of busy local office and shopworkers and local residents.
“The store provides shoppers with the feel of a traditional market, going from one store to another, but all under one roof. It’s something that the supermarkets, particularly Morrisons, do quite well and I wanted to replicate that idea, but in a much more genuine way,” explains Chris.
“Service is another of our key points of difference. It’s of the highest standard. I have lots of staff, not only because we have so much fresh produce that needs constant care and attention, but because I want them to be accessible to shoppers at all times.
“This is a foodie shop, and as such my staff need to be interested in food and drink so that they can talk confidently and enthusiastically about products and recipes with customers. They don’t need to know everything - we don’t want to be intimidating - but that enthusiasm for the subject and approachability has to be there. That’s one of the things I love about this business, there’s always something new to learn or try, and buying in innovative new products plays a key part in that.”
Chris believes it’s something other retailers should realise. “All businesses should ensure that their range perfectly matches the needs and desires of their shoppers. The people who come here are interested in food and in eating - we don’t do Pot Noodles or cheap frozen pizzas here.”
However, that’s not to say that Greensmiths doesn’t offer good value for money, Chris insists. “We’ve recently started selling half bottles of wine and as most of our fresh produce is bought individually, rather than in large pre-packed bags, shoppers can purchase exactly what they need. We also try to have a budget, mid-price and premium item for each product category. For example, when it comes to strawberry jam we have three different types, from Hartley’s at £1.60 to Bonne Maman at £2.50 and, at the top end, Strawberry Days from England Preserves at £3.75.”
The shop, which was used as a gentlemen’s outfitters from 1920 until quite recently, is split over three levels. Wine, cheese and store cupboard staples are on the lower ground floor fresh and chilled produce plus bakery, confectionery and till points are on the ground floor and the café is on the first floor. Dotted around the store are reminders of its previous life a huge chest of drawers used to display gentlemen’s underwear, but is now used for fresh seasonal fruit and vegetables, while a large antique dressing mirror adds to the feeling of light and space by the tills. However, it is in the café where the building’s original features are most obvious, such as the large lantern skylights and exposed brickwork.
As well as large blackboards featuring the day’s specials (all produced using ingredients from the store), the exposed brick walls also house a large screen which displays real -time information about the store’s energy-saving solutions.
“Being environmentally friendly is becoming increasingly important to shoppers, but done well it can also save us money,” adds Chris. “We recently started charging 10p for carrier bags, but we reward those shoppers who bring their own with a 3p discount off their shopping for each bag they re-use.”
Large skylights in the café reduce the need for bright electric lighting, and all lamps are low energy. “We have also fitted solar photovoltaic panels on the roof to provide most of our hot water needs,” adds Chris. The panels were fitted by local company Solarcentury, which is also based in Lower Marsh street.
“We are keen to support as many other local businesses as possible with this store. It’s important that local businesses recognise the value of working together in order to create vibrant shopping areas that will attract lots of people.”
This can be easier said than done, though, as Chris reports: “Retailers tend to be quite suspicious of each other. It’s crazy because, at the end of the day, if you haven’t got customers in the street you’ve not got anything to compete over!”
Fortunately, Lower Marsh’s other retailers agree, demonstrated by the fact that a great many, including Greensmiths, are gearing up for Skillsmart Retail’s Independents’ Day. The celebration of independence and diversity will see participating stores encourage members of the public to buy at least one thing from their local independent shop on July 4. Chris is also part of a team trying to revive Lower Marsh’s Saturday street market.
And that’s not the only thing the street has to look forward to. Its proximity to Waterloo Station, a key Olympic transport hub, means that in the coming weeks the street will receive a makeover with new lighting and paving.
“The Olympics will be a boon, but it will also make organising deliveries much harder, and I expect that we’ll have to manage them all overnight,” adds Chris.
In addition to a couple of key national delivered wholesalers who supply the store’s general stock, Chris works with an army of small local producers including a micro-brewery in Tower Bridge and a jam maker near London Bridge. “Most of these deliver direct to me, and sometimes I pick up from them, so obviously this will be much more challenging,” he adds.
Looking even further to the future, Chris hopes to introduce recipe cards to boost the growing trend for scratch cooking, which he says is common among his customers.
“Cheese is another area that I would like to develop,” he adds. “We’ve only got a small selection of artisan cheeses at the moment, and I’d like to do a little more. I wouldn’t put in a vast counter or anything, though. While choice is vital, too much of it can be confusing. You can create choice in a small space by rotating stock - it also keeps it exciting for the shopper, but only as long as you maintain those same high standards.”
Currently, the store opens from Monday to Saturday, but that may change. “At the moment the street is quiet on a Sunday so the demand isn’t really there. However, I’d open in a heartbeat if demand called for it,” he says.
With everything Greensmiths has going on, we’re sure it won’t be long before they’re queuing down the street all week long.