Last week, the Independent Achievers Academy brought together hundreds of top retailers and influential industry figures into one room. The RN team brings out some of the best ideas and insights for your store

The annual IAA Gala Dinner recognises great retailers for their work, dressed in cocktail dresses and black tie. And yet, even here, it is great business ideas and inspiration that is at the heart of everything that happens. 

While Sahar Hashemi, OBE, the co-founder of Coffee Republic, kicked things off by sharing her story with the assembled guests, each store owner who was recognised also had their own story of retail excellence to share. 

RN has been there at every step during this year’s IAA programme and, as one year ends, we feel it’s right to end the year with a last look at some of the great things we’ve learned about retailing thanks to the businesses that have been involved with the Academy this year. 

How Overall Best Shop owner Mo Razzaq inspired us in 2018

The evening culminated in Mo Razzaq’s store being named the IAA’s Overall Best Shop for 2018. While the judges found a consistently high level around every area of Mo’s store, here’s some fantastic moments of inspiration RN has covered over the past 12 months.

1. Mo’s own black card 

Top celebrities such as Ed Sheeran love Nando’s and are rumoured to have been rewarded for their vocal fandom with a ‘black card’ that gives them access to as much free Nando’s as anybody could want. This year, Mo has introduced his own black card-style Privilege Club for his most loyal customers, giving them access to exclusive deals and using their data to improve the insight he gets about his store. 

2. Power points

This year, Mo has introduced a breakfast bar into his business where customers can sit and enjoy their food. While there, they can see the latest in-store deals thanks to his digital screens. On top of this, however, are free mobile and laptop charging points, which means customers can come in and work or chat – and, of course, spend even longer inside his store. Mo describes the free charging points as “a way of saying thank you” to his shoppers. 

3. A new delivery app

Mo has been battling declining footfall and had to come up with some ingenious solutions. One is his new delivery app, which was launched this year. “We were surprised – our average basket spend doubled to £16.49,” Mo says. Part of the reason for this, he says, is that shoppers began to use the app for more groceries, helping to transform his business into a modern convenience store.

4. Time for pudding 

Mo has also introduced Roxy’s Dessert Bar with bespoke T-shirts and branding. “It looks like a franchise but it’s ours,” Mo says. The team made it a success with leafleting and a digital and advertising campaign before the store even opened, another example of Mo’s ingenuity.

Keynote speaker: Sahar Hashemi

Sahar Hashemi, OBE speaking 
at the IAA Gala Dinner

Coffee Republic was the first company to bring New York-style coffee to the UK in the mid-1990s, and behind the business was a story of one woman’s moment of inspiration on a trip to the Big Apple in her early 20s. 

“I arrived in New York and was really jet-lagged,” Hashemi says. “I decided to go for a walk and began to smell this amazing coffee.”

She had just been introduced to the emerging trend for gourmet-style coffee in the US – cafés where it was possible to get skinny or soya milk, cappuccinos or lattes, all served within an appealing cardboard cup, which was quickly becoming a fashion statement in the city. 

“America had a really bad reputation for coffee at the time,” Hashemi tells the IAA before the ceremony gets started. 

After realising that nothing like this existed in the UK at the time, she then realised that this would make a brilliant business idea. Working with her brother – an investment banker in London – she went about researching, and then building, the Coffee Republic chain. 

In the year ahead, despite obstacles, drawbacks and moments of doubt – the siblings created Britain’s first coffee shop chain. Below are some of the lessons she has for independent retailers everywhere.

Rejection is okay: “You have to accept rejection. You have to try new ideas,” says Hashemi. She uses the example of the process of getting a bank loan for her business. “We went to 19 bank managers and each one said, ‘This is Britain, we drink tea.’” The final, successful, bank manager looked like the least likely and yet helped Hashemi and her brother start Coffee Republic.  

Be patient: Hashemi says this process of getting credit is reminiscent of another 1990s success story – that of JK Rowling and the Harry Potter series. And both the books and Coffee Republic were hailed, at the time, as sudden arrivals on the scene. Hashemi knows better: “It takes 15 years to be an overnight success,” she says. 

Be clueless: Hashemi says being clueless can be valuable when considering big ideas for a business. It removes a defeatist mindset and the fear of asking questions. “Remember the importance of being clueless,” is one her top rules – allowing her to keep the energy and open-mindedness of when she was first a customer walking around New York.  

Work hard: The process of starting the business meant being resourceful and committing to the project completely: “You have to bring 100% of yourself to work,” Hashemi says. “Bring your heart, your head and your personality to work,” she adds – something that was particularly important as her main rival was Starbucks, a brand that pioneered corporate quirkiness.

Trust yourself: Hashemi doesn’t like doubts and recommends retailers “delete them”. Particularly (but not solely) for female entrepreneurs, uncertainties and a lack of belief can be hardwired into how business people think, but Hashemi has a piece of good news for worriers: “Leap and the safety net will appear.”