Retailers Kishor and Pat Patel invited managers, suppliers and customers to Westminster to highlight the importance of local shops. Sarah Britton reports

ith the economy arguably in its worst state since the 1950s, many businesses have fallen by the wayside, and even the survivors feel they have little to smile about. But last month Nisa retailers Kishor and Pat Patel refused to let the downturn dampen their spirits when they celebrated the 25th anniversary of their convenience retail group Houghton Trading by treating suppliers, store managers and customers to a tour of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.

The get-together wasn’t just an excuse to pop a few Champagne corks, though. Kishor had clear business objectives before the event. “One of the main aims is to build a better relationship with local MPs. Not just for us, but for the sector. When other MPs see how we’ve worked with Hemel Hempstead MP Mike Penning, they might be inspired to work more closely with their local stores,” he told Convenience Store.

He also hoped to further cement his relationships with suppliers. “It demonstrates how you can add value to the supplier and work with them beyond just selling products.” The extent of the store group’s relationship with its suppliers is demonstrated by the fact several stepped forward to assist with the event’s funding, he said.

Another key message that Kishor wanted to get across was the bigger picture of the convenience store’s place in society. “Of course, we want to thank everyone for supporting us, but the business aspect of the Westminster event is that we want to reflect on how far we’ve come and look at our future. Everyone here - customers, store managers, accountants and suppliers - play a part in our business. By having them all together, it shows people that it’s more than just a local store.”

He told attendees: “The difference between a good company and an average company is how it evaluates and values everyone who comes into contact with it.”

Association of Convenience Stores chief executive James Lowman elaborated: “When you speak to Kishor’s managers, they feel it is their business. They’re passionate and that’s because of the way it is managed from the top.”

He also observed that Houghton Trading’s connections with local decision-makers had helped the store to progress. “Kishor and his team are civil leaders. They know their local councillors, planning officers and so on. They are leading the community and influencing decisions for the area. It would be great to have more retailers like that.”

Nisa chief executive Neil Turton noted that Houghton Trading had also developed close links with community groups, which is what differentiates it from its multiple competitors. “The Making a Difference - Locally charity has been very active at Houghton Trading. No one’s used it better than they have,” he said. “To sum up the difference between a proper local business and a fake local business, at the end of the day the profits of fake local businesses are taken away from the area, whereas Houghton Trading keeps it within the community.”

The company’s engagement with locals was also commended by MP Penning, who helped to plan the trip. “What other business would invite customers to an event? Tesco wouldn’t,” he said. “I’ve been to hundreds of these events, but I’ve never heard of customers being treated the same as the CEOs!”

Nisa Local Toddington customer Anne Smart was full of praise for the business. “I’ve had a lovely day. Our local store does so much community work. The under-15s football team is supported the music and drama clubs are given prizes and gifts the local church is given refreshments and the local schools are helped. It would be easier to say what the store doesn’t do, rather than what it does!”

Hemel Hempstead customer Jacqueline Brooks was equally enthusiastic. “Although it’s really busy, the staff in the shop always make time to speak to their customers,” she told C-Store. “We had a Tesco Express open up nearby, but it’s so good at the Nisa Local, I don’t go elsewhere.”

Following the event, Kishor’s stores were buzzing with talk of the day out. But it doesn’t stop there for Kishor. “We’ve had a press release written up and the trip will be reported in our newsletter and in the local press,” he said. “If you do something, but then don’t talk about it, then no one knows what you’ve achieved. The key thing is for it to be communicated.”

Here’s to the next 25 years. ■