Natalie Lightfoot’s Solo Convenience in Baillieston, Glasgow, was the winner of a £50,000 incentive promotion by C-Store and Londis last year. Here’s how the money was spent

The first time I met Natalie Lightfoot at her store in Baillieston, Glasgow, I was impressed by her strong work ethic, friendly outlook and her determination to give the best possible service to each and every customer that came into the shop. These attributes made her a standout winner of the incentive competition C-Store and Londis created last year, meaning that the store switched from a cash and carry supply to become a Londis member, with £50,000 to spend on store improvements thrown in.

It’s not often that I am able to give someone 50 grand, so I was looking forward to returning to see how it had been spent. As it turned out, it stretched quite a long way: new refrigeration cabinets, plus heating and air conditioning; a raised ceiling; new shelving; new windows and graphics and, of course, a store fascia; plus some much-needed building repairs.

At 800sq ft, the shop is tiny, and long and thin in aspect. I remembered from my initial visit that shoppers would basically walk up one aisle and back down the other. Following the refit it is no bigger in size, but shoppers are able to browse much more easily. The aisles are wider and the shelves are narrower, albeit with a taller profile.

Categories have been remerchandised, and the soft drinks and alcohol range looks stronger in smarter new chillers. The chilled food range, which includes local butchery lines as well as more mainstream brands, also benefits from an improved presentation.

All in all, the environment is better for customers and Natalie is, in her own words, “much happier”.

Business has not been plain sailing, though. Since the relaunch in February this year, the store has been broken into and burgled twice. The thieves, almost certainly part of a professional gang behind a spate of tobacco burglaries across Glasgow, struck twice within two weeks. Not only did they take all the cigarette stock on both occasions, they also smashed and bent the extra security reinforcements that Natalie had added after the first break-in.

As anyone who has been burgled will know, one of the key challenges is to restock quickly so that the business doesn’t lose sales and customers. To do it once is difficult enough, but to do it twice would have overstretched many small stores. Fortunately, one of the benefits of symbol group membership is scale, so Londis was able to offer extended credit to Natalie to get the store back up and running again as quickly as possible. “I would have lost so many customers if I didn’t restock quickly, and if I didn’t get the support from Londis that I did get, I might have thrown in the towel at that point,” says Natalie.

“It affects you, things like this. We are all human beings after all, but you have to develop a thick skin. But I am now more determined than ever to make this store a success.”

With this unfortunate history, Natalie is reluctant to disclose the store’s turnover for publication, but I can say that it has increased by 10% since the refit.

The key difference, Natalie says, is the support she now gets.

“The cash and carry was good in terms of stock and service, but you don’t get any support, really. If you have problems with returns and so on there aren’t any channels of communication you can use.

“Plus I was getting one main delivery a week; now it’s three times a week and that makes life so much easier. With one large delivery it was physically exhausting to deal with, and we would also lose sales through out of stocks as time went on. I’m more reliable to customers now, and the whole thing feels more professional.”

Family feel

But Solo hasn’t lost its family feel, and Natalie and the team’s commitment to serving customers is undimmed. For the nine days while the refit work was carried out, the store traded from the tiny stock room as a pop-up shop, and was only out of action for half-an-hour while the electricians switched the supply over.

The staff were involved in the whole project and all still work in the shop, while Natalie’s young daughter makes regular appearances in the store and on its active social media accounts, and Natalie’s husband helps out behind the scenes as well.

Natalie, originally from Bedford, has worked in retail since she was 15, and has married and settled down in Scotland - her brother also has a shop four doors down the street. And she has fully grasped the specific requirements of the area.

“What works down south doesn’t necessarily work here. National planograms are no good to us, really, so we work with a lot of suppliers on getting the right offer. There are very different products and a different culture here. I learned quickly that when people ask for ginger, they mean Irn-Bru.”

And the cultural niceties are worth knowing. In a part of the world where colours matter, she insisted on having the white conservation Londis fascia for the shop instead of the usual green, which could have been seen as aligning the business with a particular football team.

“Around here there are more Celtic supporters than Rangers, but if you give someone a green cigarette lighter instead of a blue one you get a lot of grief. When you ask what colour, they normally say ‘any colour but blue, or green’.”

For Natalie, it’s all about customer service. “Customers expect more from you, and I think they should,” she says. “I think the store is better managed now. I have better tools I can use, and I can make changes quicker. The head office is doing all this work and I can access it for free.”

With a lot of local competition (a large Morrisons and a Lidl just round the corner, to name but two) she opts for pricemarked packs on most categories, and with the refit freeing up space for more lines, she can run more offers, too.

Natalie has set herself a turnover target to reach by Christmas, and is on track. And Booker’s Spend & Save is also giving her the opportunity to earn a rebate on purchases, something she has never been able to benefit from before.

“Now Londis is part of Booker, we are already beginning to see how the prices are more in line with Booker cash and carry prices, so there are considerably more deals and I can choose the ones I want.”

And, as another benefit of group membership, she gets considerable support - and daily banter - from other Londis retailers, via a thriving WhatsApp group. “The support is great, but none of us want to be exactly the same. I can still be me, and be independent.”

And that, I can say with complete confidence, will never change.

Quenching thirsts

Catch the commuters

Solo Convenience is open from 6am every day, and the busiest times are first thing in the morning as locals pick up drinks and sandwiches before travelling west into Glasgow city centre.

As part of the refit, a Bevtrac solution for soft drinks was installed, helping stock control, merchandising and creating a more professional presentation - which is important as it is the arguably the most important category. Alcohol is in smarter chillers, too.

The new store plan also made room for a Tchibo coffee machine, and a twin Slush Puppie unit. On the day C-Store visits, Glasgow was enjoying a unexpected heatwave and so slush was outselling coffee.