At first glance, my short visit to Zanzibar, off the coast of Africa, provided little insight for the UK convenience retailer. But observing the wholesale and retail environment, where most of the competition was with hawkers and stall holders, illustrates how markets work.

If there are modern convenience chain stores on the island, then I completely missed them. The best examples of well-laid-out and merchandised shops were pharmacies. But, as in India, stock is kept behind the counter and out of temptation.

Similarly, if there is a shopping mall or supermarket on the island, I did not see it. The one cash and carry/supermarket that I visited was very small and packed to the roof with goods.

Outside of Stone Town and Zanzibar City, the rural shops were small and focused on snacks, food for now and beverages. Interestingly, this is where shops in the UK are headed.

However, local people are not time-pressed and there is not much-added value apart from stocking major brands. The local Coca-Cola bottler has done a good job of reaching the smallest of shops.

For example, when my wife and I walked up a track from a beach, we were surprised to find a village shop. The owner greeted us in cheery English and offered to sell us soda. We declined. However, as we walked on, he caught up with us and offered to sell us boat trips.

As a conservative society, alcohol is not much available outside tourist bars and hotels. Tobacco distribution was wider and point-of-sale advertising up-to-date and attractive.

The big crop in Zanzibar is cloves and it has a reputation of being a spice island, so we were regularly offered the opportunity to buy a collection of spices packaged up in the shape of a boat or an animal. At the initial prices on offer, it would have been cheaper to purchase the spices in the UK.

The main market in Stone Town attracts a good number of tourists, which may account for the very many spice merchants operating there. Otherwise, it combined meat, fish and vegetable markets in a compact space and was packed with people buying. At mid-morning, there was still an active auction of fish to buyers for retail and foodservice outlets. The lack of refrigeration suggests a market where people are buying fresh every day, with a mixture of wholesale and retail buyers.

Across the road in Zanzibar City, there was a local market for clothing and jewellery with a number of hawkers selling cut fruit and snacks. It was busy and dusty.

But everywhere trading was organised around customer experience. The sellers smiled and greeted you with great warmth. They showed what they had to sell. And then they moved into a price quote. After a couple of days, it was clear that there was not an unlimited number of things to buy. And by saying no, the price was quickly halved.

Reviewing the visit, it is clear that self-service is a vital part of the retail offer. If you cannot trust your shoppers to select products for themselves, then you will struggle to create a shopping experience.

It is also clear that you need to have some products that are different to stand out from your competition. Otherwise you move almost immediately into a price battle with your competitors.

And finally, no matter how wonderful a big smile and a warm greeting is, it does not guarantee you repeat business, because everyone else can match it. The people working in the tourist industry in Zanzibar do a wonderful job of making people feel welcome. But in a competitive world, that is not enough to guarantee success. Similarly, good local shops need to deliver more than just
a friendly point of contact.