Winning with kindness

“I don’t use in-store theatre in my shop,” says Sophie Towers, from Spar Hillingdon in Burnley, Lancashire. “It isolates certain customers or can upset people with hidden disabilities such as autism and dementia.”

This considered approach is just one example of how Sophie always keeps community and staff needs a priority, ensuring her business is offering something the multiples and discounters can’t. 

“It’s easy to overlook people who have disabilities, such as sensory processing disorders,” she continues. “For them, things like bright lights, loud music or even strong smells can be really overwhelming and perhaps trigger an episode. I’m autistic myself, so it’s something I’ve experienced personally in other shops.”

Sophie Towers of Hillingdon Spar

This drive to make a comfortable shopping experience is paying off. “Carers are willing to bring in severely autistic people, or people suffering with dementia,” she says. “We try to keep the shop as calm and welcoming as possible.”

Towers took over the site in 2013, converting it from a pub into a convenience store. Starting with just half of the pub premises, in 2015 they expanded, and took on the whole building.

The store serves what Sophie describes as a “real mix” of customers. Located in a residential area of Burnley, it sits between sections of social housing, as well as more affluent areas. Sophie doesn’t see this diverse demographic as an obstacle, though, and through activities such as campaigning to have a defibrillator installed, she strives to constantly show just how important a local shop can be to a community. 

“We’re lucky to serve such a mix of customers,” she says. “We have the same people coming in regularly, and we’ve built a strong rapport with a lot of our customers. With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we’re seeing even more people realise how important a community store can be.” 

What I do well

Getting the best from her staff is a big focus for Sophie. 

“Some of our employees are teenagers, others are in their 50s,” she says. “They have different levels of experience, so I always aim to avoid overcomplicating things for them. You don’t want to overwhelm them, especially if they’ve only just started working for you.”

She does this through having strong, clear processes in place around the shop. 

“If a customer requests a product, we have a book behind the counter where
my staff write it down, then we can check if it’s something people keep asking for. It’s
a simple system, but it means it doesn’t get overlooked,” she explains. 

“We also have checklists of jobs such as cleaning or checking temperatures, so we can keep track of what we’ve done each day. My belief is that the more complicated you make a task, the less likely it is to get done.”

The challenges I face

As an independent with multiples nearby, competing on price and range is a constant battle for Sophie and her team.

“Just because you’re a local shop, it doesn’t mean you should overcharge people,” Sophie argues. “We always want to be as competitive on price as we can be. We shop around different cash and carries, looking for the products that are on special offer so we can be as cheap as possible.” 

“We also use Spar daily value, which means we can get a core set of lines price-matched to the supermarkets.” 

Playing to a convenience store’s strengths is also key when price matching isn’t an option. For Sophie, the shopping experience is crucial.

“Shopping at a discounter isn’t the most pleasant experience. People accept a convenience store is a lot nicer so don’t mind sometimes paying a little extra,” she explains.

Where my biggest profits come from

“On all lines, we always stock a cheaper own brand and a branded option,” Sophie explains. “That means customers can make their choice. On wines and gins, we have the recognised brand names, along with Spar own label and usually some premium choices. We monitor what is selling so we know when to change the range.”

Getting strong customer feedback is also crucial to helping with ranging decisions, says Sophie. 

“A lot of the time you can tell when customers are looking for something,” she says. “That’s when we ask them what they are looking for. If a lot of people are asking for a product, we’ll get it in and then monitor how it performs over a few weeks.” 

How I stay competitive

“Since we’ve been here, we’ve been slowly making changes around the store,” says Sophie. “We always follow the latest trends and try and be hot with getting the latest products in.

“At the moment, US confectionery and drinks are doing well for us,” she continues. 

Finding new ways to meet community needs is also pivotal for the shop’s point of difference, and for that reason they recently got a defibrillator fitted.

“We were initially fundraising for it, but then we successfully applied to a local scheme. Apparently we were the only shop that applied for one,” she reveals. “So, we’ve used the money we raised to put towards training and maintaining it. Our customers have responded really well to us having the defibrillator. We’ve also done basic training for it with our local ambulance service.”

What I‘m working on now

An ongoing project for Sophie has been expanding the store’s Facebook presence

“I don’t post as regularly as I should, as I’m not a regular Facebook user personally, but it’s something we’re trying to improve on,” she says.

“We use it to post pictures of new products and promotions. We also post in local groups as well, to raise awareness.”

With recent events surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, social media has helped build connections with customers old and new.

“We’ve posted in local groups about the products that we have available,” she says. “And we use it to update our customers on deliveries. So many people have found out about our shop through Facebook recently. We had one post shared more than 400 times. People are telling us they didn’t know we were here until they saw a Facebook post.”


HOW Spar Hillingdon… is becoming accessible

Spar Hillingdon exterior

Make it a team effort

Sophie makes keeping the store accessible to people with disabilities a team effort, ensuring everyone is on the lookout for issues such as keeping aisles clear for those in wheelchairs. “All my staff are involved,” she says.

Keep an open mind

Sophie explains that being conscious of disabilities, both visible and invisible, is key. “There are lots of resources and guidance online that can be very helpful,” she says.

Provide a calming environment

“We strive to keep the store as calm and welcoming as possible,” Sophie explains. “It helps reduce anxiety in customers who are at risk with those kinds of issues. That’s why music isn’t too loud and the lights are low.”

Speak to the carers

“We make a point of getting to know the carers of customers who have disabilities. We speak to them about what people’s needs are, and we exchange numbers with them. We let them know they can call in advance, so we can make sure the store is ready.”

Be conscious of different senses

“Strong smells can be a trigger for some people, so we avoid using air fresheners that are too strong. Meanwhile, things that make people jump can also be dangerous for people with heart conditions, so we try to avoid all of these things in our shop.”


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