Four Champions discuss the benefits of talking to like-minded individuals and sharing ideas to take their businesses forward

Chris Mitchener
Swan Street Stores, Kingsclere, Hampshire
When Chris isn’t running the store, he spends much of his time helping other stores in his role as a licensing practitioner

Steve Bassett
Londis, Weymouth, Dorset
Steve has embraced modern technology and set up a Facebook page for his store, which he uses to communicate with customers on a regular basis

Mark Johnson
Celebrations off-licence, Stockport, Cheshire
Forward-thinking Mark creates his own POS material by laminating product photos along with the store’s logo for a professional finish

Andrew Porter
Creighton’s of Finaghy (Eurospar), Belfast, Northern Ireland
A Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association board member, Andrew is well aware of the challenges retailers face

Why is it important to talk to your peers?

Chris: It’s important for cross-pollination of ideas and awareness of new opportunities.

Steve: Primarily, it’s hearing new ideas and the confidence that you’re doing the right thing.

Mark: You can bounce ideas off of one another and get a different perspective on things.

Andrew: As I’m part of Northern Ireland Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) I regularly meet up with other members. It’s a great opportunity to share views on business crime and discuss legislation. But the best reason for talking to peers is to discuss ideas, trends and issues.

How often do you talk to your peers?

Chris: In my role as a licensing practitioner I speak to businesses every day, but I also speak to other peer groups once a week.

Steve: As I sit on the Londis national council I speak with peers three or four times a week.

Mark: All the time in different environments wherever you go you end up chatting to people.

Andrew: On a formal basis I have meetings twice a year with the Henderson group and other members. Informally, I’ll speak to people every week, ringing and arranging to visit stores.

Under what circumstances do you talk to your peers?

Chris: As well as visiting customers, I’m also heavily involved with trade associations where I meet plenty of useful contacts.

Steve: I meet up with about 15 like-minded retailers three times a year on a curry night, but I also talk, email and visit others.

Mark: I’ll often get talking to someone at the cash & carry. I’m also considering joining breakfast clubs in my local area to meet up with other businessmen.

Andrew: Sometimes I’ll phone someone because they have a new product in and I’ll arrange to visit them for a couple of hours.

Are trade exhibitions or more formal gatherings useful for networking?

Chris: Trade shows can be useful it depends what comes up.

Steve: They can be, but you tend to be quite busy at trade shows. I sometimes agree to meet up with a retailer and we go round the exhibition together so that we can float ideas around.

Mark: Sometimes, but there’s also the catch that you can get locked into deals, or that people have ulterior motives.

Andrew: Formal gatherings are on a different level there’s often something on the agenda, so it’s harder to speak one-on-one.

Are experts who don’t have a retailing background helpful?

Chris: As long as they have a good grounding in whatever they specialise in.

Steve: Let’s put it like this: if a retailer wanted to have a word with me, I’d be happy to enlighten them, whereas if a rep wants to discuss something then you have to bear in mind that they are looking to make a sale.

Mark: Yes, depending on who they are they may be able to give you unbiased opinions as they don’t have any preconceptions.

  Andrew: The only people I speak to who aren’t retailers are Henderson’s HR staff and I have found them very helpful. I certainly wouldn’t bother with a business consultant there are enough good retailers on the ground without me having to turn to outside advice.

How do you strike a balance between your peers and competition? Chris: You have to be careful what you discuss with local competition and avoid broaching difficult subjects.

Steve: I don’t have a lot to do with the retailers in my town, but if there’s a shop outside my area, I’m happy to talk. It’s really the supermarkets, rather than independents, who are our main competition.
The biggest threat to an indie is another local indie as you can get locked into a price war, so you have to be wary who you speak to.

Andrew: We’ll swap ideas and best practice with stores that aren’t in direct competition. I’m happy to discuss issues affecting the local area with the store down the road, but I wouldn’t exchange ideas with them.

What is the best idea you have picked up from speaking to your peers?

Chris: There isn’t one specific thing it’s more of an ongoing way of moving your business forward. For example, I have had lots of discussions in the past about the growth of chilled produce within c-stores.

Steve: I recently took part in a round robin of about 10 retailers where we looked at how much everyone spends on wages, and that was useful. Also, a fellow retailer has created his own fruit and veg signage and he’s let me download it. It’s much better than what I was doing before.

Mark: I think it was when I spoke to someone about the importance of communicating added value to consumers. For example, promotions don’t have to be about giving something away for free, instead you can focus on promoting the services you offer.

Andrew: My peers gave me a lot of advice when I was starting up a deli, which was really useful.

How do you draw a line between what you can and can’t discuss?

Chris: I’m happy to discuss general things and I might talk about turnover to the closest £5,000 or £10,000, but you probably wouldn’t give out exact figures about your business.

Steve: You just have to make a call with some of my closest friends I’ll discuss margins, whereas with others I’ll speak in more general terms.

Mark: There are sensitive areas that you wouldn’t divulge, such as your turnover, but if you have a good relationship with someone then you would probably discuss most other issues.

Andrew: You don’t really discuss the financial side of things. I think people are quite protective of their sales figures.

What would your advice be to retailers keen to improve communication with their peers?

Chris: Even if you’re new to the trade, you can communicate with other retailers by getting involved with trade bodies such as the Association of Convenience Stores and the National Federation of Retail Newsagents.

Steve: Join a trade association and take it from there. Alternatively, knock on another retailer’s door and see how it goes.

Mark: I would direct them to their wholesaler; I’d like to see wholesalers starting up breakfast clubs for retailers.

Andrew: If you want advice on what someone else has done try getting in touch with them. People are usually happy to oblige.