Winning Unilever’s Partners for Growth mentoring competition gave one East London retailer an action plan to turn around his store’s fortunes. C-Store caught up with him

When Sanmugalingam Pirapakaran (aka Perry) contacted Unilever’s Partners for Growth Retailer Advisory Panel, he had been at his wits’ end. “At the end of 2011 I wanted to give up,” he recalls. “There was always crime in the area and people fighting. I was actually arrested and put in a prison cell for defending myself on one occasion, before the police realised their mistake.”

Perry had also been the victim of theft when someone stole £1,500 in a cash & carry car park.

He didn’t throw in the towel, though, and instead won the chance for a panel of retail experts to come to assess his store and devise an action plan to help improve the business and his confidence.

Last September retailer Dean Holborn, from Redhill, Surrey, who heads up the project, met with Perry, supervisor Kartheepan Sriramamoorthy, Mace head of symbol Rory Brick and Unilever’s Kimberly Green and Tom Hazelden to discuss the proposed changes.

The panel’s recommendations spanned those that would require some investment and take some time, to quick and simple ideas that wouldn’t cost a penny. Perry was awarded £1,500 from Unilever to invest in store improvements.

The project has proved exactly the boost that Perry needed to get his store back on track. Despite having been through tough times, Perry and his staff have thrown themselves into the transformation.

“This is a great opportunity,” he says. “It’s been hard changing everything round, but I’m enjoying the challenge. Now I’m always thinking ‘What can I do? What can I improve?’.

“I’m currently turning over £12,000-£13,500 a week, but I want to increase this to £15,000 by the end of the year.” •

LESS IS MORE

Less is more

One of the panel’s top concerns was the sheer amount of produce at the store, both on shelf and in stock. Towering shelves were piled high with goods, and extra stock was then stored on top. There was also enough remaining stock to fill a shipping container out back. “It’s not always about going down to the cash & carry and getting a good deal,” Dean told Perry. “Instead, it’s better not to tie up money in things that aren’t selling. You should only have two weeks-worth of stockholding, but your store is doing £13,500 turnover and your stockholding is £55,000.”

Perry conceded that he had got into the habit of stocking up on products without having a plan for how to sell them. But he has taken Dean’s advice on board. “I’ve been buying a lot less product. For example, I reduced my crisp order from about £270 a week to £66.”

He has also been busy rationalising his ranges. “I’ve got rid of a lot of slow-selling lines. Within pet care I no longer stock as many dog bones and cat litters. I’ve got rid of several brands altogether, and halved the number of lines of particular flavours of pet food. For example, I now have two lines of chicken Pedigree Chum instead of four.”

Within soft drinks, Perry previously had 22 different impulse carton lines. He is now running a ‘two for £1’ deal to sell through lines. While he was initially wary that stocking fewer lines could have resulted in disappointed customers, he was pleasantly surprised. “Even though I reduce lines, people will still buy the products. They didn’t need as much variety as I’d been offering them.”

ALL CHANGE

Pot noodles and coffee

The panel was eager to help Perry transform the store from largely an impulse destination to a combination of impulse and top-up to encourage customers to spend more on their shopping trips. One way to achieve this is by increasing basket sitings. Previously, baskets were kept outside the shopfront, but now there is another stack positioned within the store. “Now that we are second-siting baskets by the alcohol fixture, we’re seeing people come in without a basket and pick one up once they have too much to carry,” says Perry.

Another product that is being trialled in a new spot is newspapers. Perry is experimenting by putting a few copies on the counter. While it is too early to tell yet, the panel was convinced that having them nearer the counter would bring benefits.

Perry is seeing the results of making better use of the Nescafé coffee machine at the store entrance. It had been next to an ice cream machine but Unilever suggested replacing the ice cream machine with a Pot Noodle display. “I’ve done this and am running a deal where customers can fill their Pot Noodle with hot water from the coffee machine and grab an instant snack for £1.50,” says Perry.

The store’s promotional bay has been moved and is now on the gondola end at the entrance of the store. This space was previously used for hanging clip-strips of crisps and the promotional display was further back in the store near the alcohol display. “No one really noticed it, but now people see straight away that we have deals on and are stopping to browse.”

CREATING SPACE

alcohol

With the store measuring just a few hundred square feet, the panel felt that Perry needed to make it feel as spacious as possible. One of the big changes was to remove the top shelves from each of the store’s aisles. “I’ve heard good things from customers since removing the top line of shelving,” says Perry. “People can now see across the whole store, which makes it seem more open.”

It used to be the case that there were gaps on shelves, but Perry has now explained to staff the importance of facing up. “The store is looking much better as a result,” he says. “I’ve talked to staff and explained how we want the business to improve. They’re really supportive.”

In addition to removing shelving, Perry was advised to remove an entire fixture. Household cleaning and laundry goods were initially displayed on one side of an island, in front of the alcohol section, while the back of the island was used as a makeshift office area. The panel pointed out that the island blocked alcohol from shoppers’ eyeline and made the category difficult to locate. Perry and his staff spent four hours removing the fixture and re-distributing the products elsewhere in the store. They also moved the office area to behind the counter and re-laid the alcohol fixture to create clearly defined areas of red, white and rosé wines, as well as ensuring a logical flow from cost effective to more premium wines.

“Without the extra fixture blocking the alcohol section, customers can now find what they are looking for much quicker,” says Perry. “I’m now in the process of colour coding the alcohol area red to differentiate it.”

REACHING OUT

MP

Being part of the community is an important role that every convenience store needs to fulfil. Perry has already helped out local community groups in the past, making a generous donation to a summer street party. The panel is keen for Perry to continue to work closely with community groups, but felt that he was missing a trick by not making contact with the local authorities.

Before he took part in the mentoring programme, Perry hadn’t had any contact with local politicians. “This is a real opportunity to build a relationship with your MP,” said Dean. “You need to get him down to your store.”

With help from his mentors, Perry got in touch with his local MP Stephen Timms and invited him to the store. Timms spent 45 minutes being shown around, which gave Perry time to discuss the challenges he faces as a retailer, and his plans for improving the store.

The MP’s presence also made for a good photo opportunity, and photos of Perry, Timms and Unilever Partners for Growth Controller Tom Hazelden posing with a cheque Perry was awarded by Unilever for £1,500 soon found their way to the local paper, the Newham Recorder.

Perry also got in touch with the local council and managed to get parking restrictions outside the store removed.

Further down the line, Perry will be working on building a positive relationship with the local police so that they can have a more ‘casual’ presence in the store, rather than appearing only when there is trouble. The panel believes that this will help to reduce crime in the store