There’s more to responsible retailing than preventing under-age sales, as Gaelle Walker learned when she visited the Sunstar Group

Let’s be honest, while they play a vital functional and aesthetic role, in-store ceilings aren’t the most thrilling of subjects. Unless, of course, you’re talking to Syed Husain, operations manager of London’s Sunstar Group, whose innovative take on ceiling decorations is definitely worth a natter.

Lift your peepers skyward at his Costcutter store on Tower Bridge Road in London and you’ll be greeted not by a bare white expanse, but by hundreds of shifty-looking eyes staring back down at you. The store’s ceiling functions as something of a hall of shame, displaying the myriad collection of counterfeit driving licences that staff confiscate from underage punters each year. “We keep them up there as a deterrent, but also as a point of reference for staff,” explains Syed as he leafs through the most recent batch. “Some of them are clearly fakes, but others are incredibly convincing so staff constantly have to be on their toes,” he adds.

Well, they’re certainly that. In fact, a rigorous under-age sales training programme and an in-store test purchasing scheme with serious penalties for staff who fail, ensure that staff at each of Sunstar’s 21 London stores are nothing if on the ball. “We have a system of till prompts, but under-age sales training is still refreshed for each staff member every single month,” continues Syed. “Concrete and consistent training enables staff to recognise when a situation is not quite right, and gives them the confidence to confront it and deal with it. It’s just something that as a business we refuse to get wrong.”

Staff who do fail the Serve Legal test purchases, and this is rare, are penalised. Wages are docked and the money used to treat the rest of the team. “There has to be a penalty for failure,” Syed says. “Without that they would not respect the law, and if the store was caught out for real, the whole business would suffer. It’s about reputation. We’ve got a great one and I won’t let that change.”

This “great reputation” is rooted in the fact that Sunstar was also one of the first retailers to move from the familiar Challenge 21 scheme to a Challenge 25 policy at the start of 2009; a brave move for such a busy central London store and one which has such a diverse customer base of local residents, harried commuters, and foreign tourists.

Responsible Retailer of the Year Award

Winner responsibile retailer CRA

Winner: Sunstar Group, London

The Sunstar Group beat many others to claim the prestigious Responsible Retailer of The Year Award at this year’s Convenience Retail Awards. Award sponsor Imperial Tobacco said: “We were impressed that Syed was one of the first retailers to start running a Challenge 25 scheme, and after meeting him, we feel that being a responsible retailer and helping his local community is incredibly important to him - and integral to his business.” Imperial was also impressed with how Syed’s ethos had been passed onto and fully embraced by his team of local staff who pull together and create a family feel.

“We did have problems at first,” says Syed. “Despite all the explanatory signage, people just didn’t like being asked for ID, whether they had it or not.” And three years on, while Challenge 25 has become much more widely accepted, there are still those shoppers who refuse to comply - 
a fact which is quite clearly demonstrated by a crack in the store’s front window pane. “Last night we refused to sell alcohol to a young man who had no ID,” explains Syed. “He became quite abusive, and I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that this morning we arrived to find that this damage had been done,” Syed says.

The risks associated with such a hardline approach has also driven Syed to ensure that there are always at least two members of staff behind the counter. “Having two people does act as a deterrent and also makes the staff feel more comfortable,” he says. “Preserving our reputation is vital, but it’s about so much more than that - being responsible helps the entire community. As retailers, I strongly believe that we have a duty to stop under-age drinking and restrict the binge-drinking culture that is blighting our communities, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” Syed adds. It’s an aim which has also prompted him to stop selling all high-strength lagers and ciders.

And as visitors to any of the Sunstar stores also quickly realise, being a responsible retailer extends way beyond age-restricted goods. Educating Londoners, and their young, of the benefits of a healthy diet and lifestyle also form a key part of the group’s business strategy, and central to this is Syed’s commitment to the Change4Life healthy eating campaign. In addition to offering a broad range of fresh fruit and vegetables, the group has worked hard to build links with some of the primary schools local to its stores.

Syed also strives to recruit local people to staff the stores wherever possible, a fact which not only helps to keep money within the community, but which he says also gives the team a sense of ownership and commitment. “This creates the sense of the age-old ‘corner shop’ family that shoppers appreciate.

“Providing our customers with the warmest levels of service and a pleasant in-store atmosphere is at the heart of our focus on responsible retailing. If people know us and like us, they won’t attempt to try it on.”

In addition to local schools, Syed also works closely with police, trading standards and a range of community groups and charities to identify challenges and make changes for the better. The group’s desire to improve communities extends far beyond the streets of London, though, and even reaches the ochre pathways of Pakistan.

As a member of the charitable PTS foundation, the Sunstar Group has helped to raise funds towards the building of new homes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, after the area was devastated by the monsoon floods of 2011.

“As a retailer I feel responsible 
for the communities that I am connected to. For me, it’s about being more than just a simple shopkeeper - I want to make a difference,” Syed concludes. “I’d encourage all other c-store retailers out there to take a step back and really think about the impact that their stores are or are not having on the communities around them and to make a few simple changes for the better. Together we can really make things happen.”