Giving members of staff control over specific categories can be a mutually beneficial process. Aidan Fortune speaks to retailers who are encouraging staff to take more responsibility.

Even the best retailers will admit that running a convenience store is an extremely demanding job, requiring a hundred and one different tasks to be done throughout the course of a day. So instead of trying to personally manage every area of responsibility themselves, a number of retailers are instead realising the benefits of delegating.

Giving staff members control over certain aspects of the business not only frees up a retailer to concentrate their time where it is needed most, but also gives their staff the opportunity to take ownership of a particular area, enabling them to gain a better insight into the workings of the store, igniting their passion, and encouraging them to use their initiative to take the business forward.

Gregory Cochrane, manager of Spar Binnian Fresh Foods in Kilkeel, County Down, is a strong advocate of this practice and is keen to expand it to more sections. He explains why it works for him: “The job of a retailer has become far too complex for one person to manage on their own while attempting to grow the store. It’s near impossible with the traditional management structure, so you need people to micro-manage certain categories and areas of the store.”

He believes that this structure provides him with all the important information from each area, in a form he can digest more easily. “Doing this means I can let them ‘own’ an area of the store and they can relay what I need to know in a quick catch-up, rather than me having to delve into the details,” says Gregory. “There are so many jobs to be done that you need to delegate responsibility wherever possible.”

His category managers take complete control of their section, being responsible for stock control, merchandising and promotions in that area. “They run the whole category and they’re responsible for its sales figures,” he says. “If they want to change the range by adding new products, or getting rid of some, that’s up to them. They have to take responsibility for their decisions, though.”

Gregory says that fresh food is a good category to start with when looking to introduce a manager. “There are some big, tangible wins to be had in fresh,” he says. “Since creating a fresh foods champion, our waste has reduced to the lowest in the company. Fresh offers the opportunity for a staff member to weed out poor-selling lines more regularly, which is clear progress. I would advise other retailers to start with this category and progress it as people get more comfortable with it.”

Lawrence Hunt & Co has given specific staff at each of its 27 stores responsibility for fresh food. They in turn report to fresh category manager Andrea Baybutt, who spends her time moving from store to store, making sure the entire fresh produce area is up to scratch.

She believes this structure can really benefit sales. “Even the top stores need attention and can be improved upon, and it’s helpful to have a focus on a particular category because the managers of these stores are often quite busy,” she says. “I’ll visit most stores over the course of the week, but having someone in there every day making sure that it’s being kept on top of is important, especially with such a lucrative category.

“These staff members ensure that the area is merchandised properly, fully stocked and that orders are ready to go out when they need to. It’s a big responsibility for an individual, but staff members often enjoy this and want to do well in the role.”

Michael Shiels, manager of Scotmid Warrender in Edinburgh, is also enthusiastic about the benefits of having category heads. He currently has two members of staff who look after the bakery category. “It’s such a specialised area of the store and in high demand that we need to have people who will manage and take pride in the area,” he says. “The two members of staff are trained for all areas of the store, but they focus on the bakery category as it needs constant attention.”

Michael trusts these members of staff to manage the section themselves and selects those whom he knows will thrive on the extra responsibility. “I couldn’t have just anyone working on this area they have to be responsible and trustworthy,” he says. “If it was someone who doesn’t turn up on time or cuts corners, then there’s no point in having them.”

The set-up for the bakery section works so well that Michael is considering extending it to other areas in the store. “We have a large fruit and vegetable section that would really benefit from someone taking ownership of it,” he adds. “It’s something that we’ll be looking at for other categories.”

Gregory believes that the practice has helped his staff members grow as employees, too. “It gets staff members involved in the store and the overall business,” says Gregory. “I popped into the store on a Sunday and I found the two guys who manage the fresh category in there on their day off, making sure their order was correct for the next day. They weren’t doing it to earn extra money they were there because they take responsibility for the section. They know that they’ll receive the benefits if it goes well.”

Andrea agrees that having someone responsible for a particular category helps get staff more involved in the business. “It makes them more aware of what the store’s goals are and how taking responsibility is important for the growth of the business,” she says.

Michael has also witnessed how giving staff ownership encourages them to take an interest in the bigger picture. “Pride plays a big part of it and since they’ve taken over the bakery category the staff members have really blossomed. They’re actively seeking the sales figures, asking for more space for their category, and constantly looking at ways of improving it. They’re certainly not being passive about it and are looking to get more involved.

“The category generates sales of £3,000 per week so it’s an important one for the store and it’s also one that customers demand high quality in.”

Making staff category champions helps retailers to scope out potential managers, too, adds Gregory. “These roles aren’t for everyone. There are some people who don’t think they want the responsibility,” he says. “It’s up to you how much you want to pursue the matter, though, as you may know that they’ll be good at it even if they don’t think they will be.”

Word of Gregory’s ethos has spread and means those looking to progress their career have applied to his store because of it. “We had one guy who applied to the store for work as he had heard about how the team structure worked and that there was opportunity for progression,” he reveals.

Independent Symbol Sector winner in the 2012 Sales Assistant Awards, Angus Pidgley, is one staff member who is keen to progress within convenience. “I was always interested in the store, but to actually have a hand in what goes on and what stock is being ordered really gets you engaged,” says Angus, who manages the chilled section at Knight’s Budgens in Hassocks, West Sussex. “I know how busy the manager is, so to focus on one area and allow him to not worry about it is great.”

Full of pride

As part of his management of the chilled section, Angus works with more than 15 suppliers and on average sends off five orders a day. The section is a vital one for the store, needing constant upkeep. “Managing the section keeps me very busy throughout the day, but it’s very satisfying when the sales figures come in and they’re up on the previous week,” he says.

“There’s a lot to keep on top of, but it’s more than that. I’m always looking to grow the category and improve sales. It’s a matter of pride for me that the section is doing well and that customers are responding to it.”

Angus says that while he is happy managing the chilled section for now, the responsibility has given him a taste for management in the future. “It’s been excellent experience and shows that I can take responsibility,” he says. “Managing a store or even running my own is definitely something I would consider in the future.” •

behind the scenes

While progress in product categories can be easily measured in sales, there are other areas of the store that can benefit from someone taking ownership that don’t necessarily show up in the weekly takings.

Gregory Cochrane, manager of Spar Binnian Fresh Foods in Kilkeel, County Down, has energy and staffing ‘champions’. “Our energy champion is in charge of reducing our energy output,” he explains. “It can be as simple as ensuring that lights are turned off at the end of the day, but our employee goes further and looks at when we do our baking for food to go so that it’s not at peak times, or checking that the forecourt lights don’t come on any earlier then they have to at night.”

Gregory and his team have seen huge savings as a result of their efforts. “Our energy consumption has reduced by 10% over the past year, which is a phenomenal saving for us,” he says. “Myself and the energy manager have a quick sit-down every month to make sure everything is going okay and she’ll outline her progress since the last meeting and her goals moving forward.”

Another area that always requires extra care is work in the community. Simon Sims of Chelmsford Star Co-op in Essex (below), who won the 2012 Sales Assistant of the Year Community Hero Award, ensures that the business gets involved in the local community by organising raffles, making up prize hampers and working with the elderly.

“Working with the community is key for independents, but it’s something that needs time to ensure it’s done properly,” he says. “It is rewarding, though, as not only is the work helping the store to integrate with the community, it’s also benefitting those who live in the area.”