The competitive playing field is tough, but independent retailers can score big by realising that they’re all on the same team. Independent retailers Rav Garcha and Guy Warner talk tactics with Gaelle Walker

Survival of the fittest, dog eat dog. We’re all familiar with these expressions of social Darwinism, but in today’s hyper-competitive retailing environment it’s fair to say that they’re being bandied about much more regularly and usually the name Tesco isn’t far behind.

But as many C-Store readers will readily attest, these days the competitive landscape extends beyond the major multiples. As the convenience opportunity continues to grow, many c-store retailers are now wrestling for sales against cafés, off-licences, sandwich bars, even some florists and pubs and, unfortunately, each other.

With margins tighter than space in a London tube train and every sale counting, some retailers are starting to view their neighbouring convenience stores as foes rather than friends.

In fact, in a recent interview with an independent c-store retailer we were a little shocked to hear of his plans to close down a nearby store by introducing a new category which would deliberately steal his rival’s sales.

Now we know that times are hard, but we can’t help but feel that attitudes such as this are less than helpful to the sector’s general health and wellbeing.

Sipping tea with C-Store in the cosy back office confines of his Nisa Local store in Broadway, Gloucestershire, independent retailer Rav Garcha agrees.

“It’s a great shame when two independent retailers feel the need to compete against each other, either by matching their ranges or promoting the same products in the same week. Neither of them are truly winning. They are probably just damaging themselves, which is crazy in the current climate,” says Rav, who with the help of his family and staff runs four successful stores across the Midlands.

“They should instead try to come to some sort of agreement, and if they really can’t, then the key is to try to promote their own unique strengths.”

And Rav should know. Because just a Gloucestershire stone’s throw away from his 1,700sq ft store sits the multi-awardwinning Warner’s Budgens store, owned by Guy Warner. The two stores could be bitter rivals, competing against each other to glean the custom of Broadway’s residents and significant tourist trade. But they aren’t.

A solid business relationship built on mutual respect and a shared desire to draw trade in to the local area means that the two stores co-exist in perfect union, complementing each other by offering different solutions.

The fact that both Rav and Guy are huge Manchester United fans also helps ensure a certain ‘entente cordiale’ between the pair, who have also become good friends.

The pair meet up regularly to chat football and footfall, exchanging tips, news and market gossip. On the day of our photoshoot the pair were gossiping about the latest news they had heard about the impending tobacco display ban, and which solutions might be used by larger stores which are due to comply with legislation by April 2011.

“We also talk about suppliers which ones to work with and which to avoid. We share experiences and ideas which have worked well in our stores,” says Guy. “For example, I’m currently running an ‘Any three for £10’ promotion on fresh meat in my store, which is proving really popular with shoppers. At the end of the day it’s in our interest to ensure that as independent retailers we are all performing to the best of our abilities, as by doing so we are improving the health and reputation of the convenience store industry.”

Rav shares Guy’s view. “We’re both ambitious independent retailers, but we aren’t competing against each other. We have the same incentive, which is to keep trade within Broadway and away from the out-of-town multiple retailers, and we do it by offering people different things and playing up to our own unique strengths,” adds Rav, whose promotionally driven store offers the perfect top-up solution to Broadway’s busy but price-conscious residents.

Having grown up in an off-licence, one of Rav’s strengths is his vast and interesting alcohol range. “I have a huge amount of knowledge about the wine category and stock an impressive range as a result. My staff are also really well trained and able to offer advice on taste and food pairings, which is a unique selling point.”

Rav urges other retailers to take a leaf out of his book and highlight their strengths. “Think outside the box a little. If you’re an ethnic retailer, then push your ethnicity, as gone are the days when this was a burden. It’s something to be proud of, and these days people want to know more about it. Think about laying on home-made curry nights for your customers. We hold them outside the store in the summer months and locals simply love them,” he says.

“And if you’re really not sure about what your key strengths are then just talk to your customers about what they would like from your store. As an independent retailer you have the ability to be flexible and buy in more unusual products when customers ask for them. It shows them that you value their custom and is sure to keep them coming back.”

Walking into Guy’s Broadway store, past the mouth-watering display of local strawberries, asparagus and bread and into the impressive fresh produce arena, it’s immediately clear where his strengths lie.

“We’re really big on fresh, and pride ourselves on our quality range which appeals to the area’s more elderly residents who come in to do small weekly shops,” says Guy. In fact, fresh produce accounts for more than 45% of sales in Guy’s Broadway store, which also boasts row upon row of local produce to satiate the needs of Broadway’s hungry tourist trade.

Rav and Guy, who are both Association of Convenience Stores members, also work hard to support the local community. On the morning that C-Store visited, Guy had been judging the bread-making abilities of a group of local schoolchildren while Rav and his wife had been chatting to another about ethnic foods.

“We also support the local football team and youth club via the Making A Difference Locally charity,” Rav adds. “Supporting the youth of Broadway is of key importance. The local children are not only your future customer base, but many of them will also be your future workforce so building strong relationships early is important.”

And chatting with Rav and Guy it’s apparent that the desire to raise standards by working with rather than against each other extends way beyond Broadway.

Last year Guy, who owns five stores in total, took his entire management team to Ireland in order to visit some Supervalustores and learn from them. “The owners were happy to take us round and we gleaned so many great ideas from them such as olive bars, which we have now put in to the Moreton-in-Marsh store. We’ve also been inspired to install some coffin freezers which are great for driving large volumes on meat promotions,” he says. “It was an incredibly worthwhile experience and later on this year some of the guys from Supervalu are coming over here to repeat the process. In these testing times it makes far more sense to work with each other than against each other and have a few beers along the way!”