Store manager Gary Bilbrough and his team have bent over backwards to integrate themselves into the local community. Their efforts have been rewarded with a loyal customer base and the title Community Retailer of the Year at the Convenience Retail Awards 2014
Whether he’s spray-painted gold to play the Angel Gabriel in a walking nativity; suited and booted in his role as Parish councillor; or rosy cheeked and bearded as the Rotary Club Santa Claus – if you live in the Bedfordshire village of Toddington, the chances are you’ll have come across Nisa Local store manager Gary Bilbrough as he embarks on his many extra-curricular activities.
“I just love getting involved in community events, and the publicity for the store is a bonus,” says Gary. It’s precisely this attitude that has earned the store the Community Retailer of the Year title at the Convenience Retail Awards 2014.
The store, which is one of six owned by Kishor Patel, funds all manner of local causes, from football kits for the local school team and an annual outing for the over-75s Recycled Teenagers Group, to a new Scout hut and a hearing loop at the local Tads Theatre. But being a community store isn’t just about handing over money, it’s about engaging with local people. And nowhere does it better than Nisa Local Toddington.
Nisa Local Toddington, Bedfordshire
Store size: 1,200sq ft
Customer base: elderly residents, young families
Weekly turnover: £28,500, excluding services
Community engagement: Supports Parkfield Middle School football team’s social events and funds their kits; funds an annual outing for the elderly; gave the local theatre group £800 to install a hearing loop; supports the local Bedfordshire’s Got Talent competition and local churches’ Messy Church for youngsters; donated £500 for a new Scout hut; ran a maths lesson in-store for lower ability pupils; and hosts an annual Christmas party for elderly
“We have regular meetings every quarter and staff come forward with ideas for charity fundraisers,” says Gary. “An ex-member of staff was diagnosed with breast cancer so we all took part in a ‘wear it pink’ day to raise funds for Breast Cancer Campaign.” The store also held a Macmillan coffee morning with tea, coffee and homemade cakes made by deputy manager Sue and supervisor Dan.
Many of the store’s ideas for helping the community also come straight from the customers. Gary has plenty of experience in talking with locals thanks to his experience as a councillor. “I’ve been a Parish councillor for five years,” says Gary. “The store is like a surgery – people come in to discuss parking and so on and I can respond straight away.”
His open manner makes him extremely approachable and he is always thinking of ways in which the store can help people. After speaking with the organisers of the local Messy Church kids’ group, and the folk at Tads Theatre, Gary realised he could help them both save money by sourcing their supplies. “We supply various things for Messy Church at cost price and we support the bar in the local Tads Theatre,” says Gary. “They used to buy product on offer in Tesco, but now we give it to them at cost price instead. It costs me nothing and it enables them to make money.”
It is simple favours like these that have won the store so many loyal customers. An informal chat with a farmer about the price of pig food led to the store donating waste bread and vegetables to be used as feed. “Allied used to collect our bread returns, but now we give them to the pigs,” says Gary. “The food would just go to waste, so it’s great for it to be used for something decent.” The farmer is so pleased that he has promised to provide the store with a hog roast by way of thanks.
Another conversation with a local maths teacher (and customer) led Gary to come up with the idea of hosting an interactive maths lesson in store to inspire lower-achieving students. This involved nine kids learning about stock control, operating the till and having to budget for a day’s-worth of healthy food for a family of four on £20. “It’s fine having a computer and a calculator, but here they actually get to use these skills in the real world,” says Gary. “It gets them away from desks and gives them the stimulus they need. The staff enjoy having the kids here, too.”
And the event has certainly resulted in rewards for the store. “It helps to build loyalty,” says Gary. “All the kids’ parents came in and thanked us and we are set to run the event again soon. I have a really good link with the local schools.”
At Christmas, Parkfield and St George’s school choirs sang outside the store for several hours with Gary dressed as Santa, and they collected £300 for Crisis at Christmas. One of the local residents, whose wife is a regular customer, was unable to attend as he is housebound, so Gary took the choir to him. “Mr Smart lives just behind the store. He loves music, but is housebound, so we got the choir to come to his house and sing especially for him. He loved it so much he even joined in!”
The store also hosts a Christmas party for elderly customers every year. More than 80 people attended the last one and tucked into a Christmas buffet with all the trimmings.
All of the store’s staff volunteered to help out for an hour or so on the day, and Gary, Sue, and supervisor Liz spend the whole day there. But what’s really clever is how they managed to integrate so many community groups in the event. “I got some of the schoolkids from Parkfield to dress in a nativity scene and the school choir sang traditional carols and wartime songs, which the old people loved, while a couple of hearing impaired girls did signing.”
The local Reverend said grace and the Police Crown Commissioner came as a special guest, while the theatre group helped out, giving a free gala performance.
Gary also invited suppliers to support the event so all the schoolkids went home with a selection box, courtesy of Cadbury. Meanwhile, staff were able to put together goody bags with PG Tips mugs, Fosters glasses, Kingsmill bread and Homeware Essentials scarves for the old folk.
But Gary didn’t stop there, he also wanted to include other local traders in the event. “I went round all the local businesses for the first time to ask for raffle prizes. The raffle was free and the businesses handed out the prizes personally, so it helped them to raise awareness of their trade.”
Gary explains that the more he gets local groups working together, the better it is for the store. “I’m trying to knit the community groups together. Toddington is pretty much a self-sufficient village and the more we encourage that the better it is for me in-store. We see a lot of loyalty because of the community work. People come here to do their weekly shop to support us rather than the supermarkets.”
Community Retailer of the Year
Nisa Local Toddington stood out as the judges’ choice for Community Retailer of the Year at the Convenience Retail Awards last month. One said: “Gary Bilbrough is a shining example of community spirit. We were particularly impressed by the way he has instilled community involvement into every facet of the store, and ensures his staff are also fully involved at all stages, from inception to implementation. For a shop of this size, the range of activities undertaken is quite remarkable.”
Store owner Kishor Patel is extremely proud of the store’s achievement. “Gary and his team know virtually all their customers by name and see themselves as the catalyst for knitting the community together. We’re thrilled and proud to receive this accolade.”