Maintaining the loyalty of his customers has been paramount to Ian Handley’s success. However, with new financial challenges, it hasn’t been easy in recent times. Joe Cooper hears about the hard work he’s been doing to stay on top

Experienced retailer Ian Handley has been in the game long enough to know he can’t rest on his laurels.

With overheads rising and strong local competition, he has had to work hard to maintain the loyalty of his customers in the Cheshire village of Northwich.

Ian’s business has been a family affair for almost 40 years, but has been through a lot of changes within the past five.

He expanded from a traditional CTN to a convenience store in 2014, doubling his store size to 900sq ft in the process, and joined Booker’s Premier Express fascia.

His latest move was to switch to Go Local in May, which Ian says has opened up several opportunities for him to create a better offer for his customers. The results? Footfall is up and basket spend, which has been steadily rising thanks to the convenience offering – from £4 in 2014 to £7 now – is increasing too.

“I switched symbols because I wanted to stand out,” Ian says. “There are three convenience stores in the village – us, a Spar and another Premier – so I wanted to offer the village something different.”

Ian had already been getting some of his stock through Parfetts, so the firm was an obvious new partner, he says. “I was finding their prices were more competitive. I got talking to an RDA and it went from there.”

Tobacco has been a particular area where Ian has been able to secure lower prices and this has meant his store can undercut a nearby Spar. “We’ve got an Imperial Tobacco gantry with a sign saying we sell at RRP. People are starting to realise this now and they’re pleasantly surprised,” he says.

RN keeps me up to date with new products. I also got the idea of a media screen from one of the retailer profiles, which is helping drive footfall

Cheaper alcohol prices, too, mean Ian’s sales volumes are rising. Customers can now pick up a four-pack of Corona for £4.99, for example, rather than £6.49.

“Wages and overheads are always going up and balancing that with getting the margins you want is not easy at all,” he says. “But we are trying to be as competitive as we can and get a good deal for our customers.”

The local competition has noticed how
Ian is stepping up his game and has responded. But Ian is up for the fight, and when Spar introduced a slush machine, he invested in a three-barrel machine to maintain a point of difference.

Newspapers and magazines have, perhaps inevitably, taken a hit in Ian’s convenience-led model. Newspaper counter sales dropped by 40% after the Spar initially cut its paper prices in response to Ian’s expansion into convenience.

He also decided to halve the shelf space allocated to magazines, and has used it to create a dedicated kids’ zone, with his traditional sweets range and slush machine placed together.

Ian’s next major challenge is to increase his fresh sales. His store is on a parade with a butcher and greengrocer nearby, and a covenant agreement means he has agreed not to sell fresh groceries or meat. But he is making headway with persuading his neighbours to let him stock their produce when his shop is open and theirs are not.

The village of Sandiway is quieter than it used to be, and with two competitors on his doorstep, Ian has his work cut out. Perhaps it is for this reason that a once-planned second store hasn’t yet materialised.

Instead, Ian and his wife Kathryn have found it is their family that has expanded, with five children in their home since they took up foster caring.

Such a move makes sense for a man whose approach to business highlights the commitment to his community and customers. It is something perhaps only a business with 40 years of history can deliver.

Despite all the changes his store has been through, Ian’s community work has remained a constant, whether that is getting bottles of prosecco for functions at the school or donating carrier bag charges to the hospice.

“We take pride in our store and its place in the community. People respect that,” he says.

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