Leaving independence for a symbol group is a big step, but Simon Biddle has no regrets about his move to Simply Fresh.

Having been a successful unaffiliated retailer for more than 20 years, Simon Biddle was one of the last retailers C-Store expected to join a symbol group. But he insists that joining fledgling group Simply Fresh is the right move for his business in Redditch, Worcestershire.

“It’s something we’ve always thought about doing, but have never done, and we finally decided late last year that we would join a group,” says Simon. “It’s the right decision to help grow the business and keep it thriving. We now have the support of a group and that will help us move forward.”

But has he found it difficult to move from being unaffiliated to being part of something bigger after such a long time? Simon has to think for a minute: “We had an issue with the online ordering system which meant that I didn’t get a delivery one week - that was quite annoying as the shelves were looking empty,” he explains. “But that’s been the only problem so far. It’s great to have the support of a group behind you. It gives you a little bit of extra security.”

He is full of praise for Simply Fresh and its originality and hands-on approach. “If company reps are passing by, they’ll drop in and help merchandise the store,” says Simon. “They’re also willing to talk with their retailers rather than dictate to them, which I found other groups were doing. One rep of a group once suggested that I get rid of fruit and vegetables! Needless to say, I decided I wouldn’t sign with them.”

It’s not all one-way traffic, though. Simply Fresh group director Kash Khera says signing up a retailer like Simon is a big coup for him, too. “It’s imperative for us to have retailers like Simon on board,” says Kash. “If a retailer of Simon’s calibre wants to be part of Simply Fresh then we’re obviously doing something right. Nobody wants to be the first to take the plunge, but now we can show off Simon and the store as being part of Simply Fresh.”

Shop profile
Simply Fresh at Biddles, Redditch, Worcestershire
Size: 1,200sq ft
Staff: 8
Opening hours: Monday-Saturday 7am-6.30pm; Sunday 9am-4.30pm
Additional services: home-made snacks, off-licence, ATM

Once Simon had signed on the dotted line, it became clear the store needed a makeover as well as a new direction. “It had been a long time since we did any major renovation; we had just been doing bits and pieces on it ourselves, so we felt it was the perfect time to do a proper refit,” he says.

Simon and the Simply Fresh team worked hard to create the right image for the store, and came up with signage showcasing the 100 years of trading that Simon, his father and grandfather have accumulated in Redditch. They also started from scratch on the inside. With a budget of £70,000, they installed new flooring, shelving and ceilings, as well as a new CCTV system and counter area. The store measures just under 1,200sq ft and not an inch has been wasted.

The store’s focus before the refit was fresh fruit and vegetables, and while that is still a major part, Simon has introduced more grocery lines to provide a better balance to the business. He cut back on the space given to fruit and vegetables by almost two-thirds, but surprisingly sales in the category are increasing.

“I’ve been amazed,” says Simon. “Fruit and veg has always been the lynchpin of the business and I was concerned that it might damage sales if I cut back on it, but now that the section has been streamlined, sales have gone up!”
Simon also worked with Simply Fresh on renovating his alcohol section. Since the store is smaller than the traditional Simply Fresh outlet, the team created a more discreet version of their alcohol section. Rather than the lowered ceiling-effect used in the rest of the group, the ceiling and floor have been designed to create a distinct area without making the space seem too claustrophobic.

Watch this space

Despite the new look, Simon’s plans for the store haven’t finished just yet. “We’ll be getting a free-to-use ATM in, which I think will do really well; all the others in the area have fees so it’ll bring a few more customers to us,” he says.

He’s looking to extend his hours from 6.30pm until 9pm in order to capitalise on the later trade. “It’s a quiet area, but there is enough turnover of customers to keep us busy in the evenings,” he says. “As we’re on a main road, it means people can now stop off on the way home from work.”
Another point of difference of Simon’s store is his home-cooked products. His chillers are full of Biddle’s pies, sandwiches, ready meals and snacks that go down a treat with the customers. Despite signing up with a group, he has no plans to cut back on his own label offerings.

“People go out of their way to come to us for our sandwiches and snacks,” he says. “We sell a huge number of sandwiches everyday, probably more than a store in this area should do! There are no factories near us, no universities, but we still have a massive demand for them so we must be doing something right.”

Since signing with Simply Fresh, Simon has started stocking Nisa’s Heritage range of products and has topped up his home-made lines with a few SKUs from this selection. “They’re a nice fit together as it offers something for everyone,” he says. “If people want to have a home-cooked product we have plenty for them, and if they’re in a hurry and just want something they can heat in the microwave, there’s a choice of Heritage ready meals and pizzas.”

He also plans to install a bakery area. “That’ll be done in the next couple of months, once we get fully settled and have everything the way we want it,” explains Simon. “It’ll be another point of difference for us, as there will be nothing like this anywhere else in the area.”

Although Simply Fresh works with Cuisine de France on a Brüsters food-to-go offering, Simon and Kash are looking to adopt a more traditional approach. “It’ll be something that Simply Fresh will offer itself, and it will have a more local convenience feel,” says Kash. “Consumers want a home-made offering, so in certain stores we’ll have a Simply Fresh food-to-go offering that provides this.”

Disappointed customers are one thing that Simon certainly doesn’t have to worry about. During the time C-Store spends at Biddles, there is a constant flow of customers with baskets full to the brim and plenty of compliments about the new look.

“Bigger range”, “much brighter” and “makes me want to shop here more often” are all comments from happy shoppers in the store. Simon seems to know each of them by name and asks everyone how they are, offering a personal touch that only a community retailer can provide.
“The response to the new-look store has been great so far,” he says. “There’s always going to be one or two who complain about things, but we can’t suit everyone and for the most part people have welcomed the change.”

Compliments from customers are one thing, but what do the numbers say? “Turnover has increased by 20% already and it’s only been a few weeks since we’ve had the refit,” Simon points out. “It can only get better as well.”

Proving that change can be good, Simon is confident his move to symbol group retailer will help ensure his store prospers well into the future.

“With the support of our symbol group and the new-look store, I think the business can only grow bigger and better!”