St Mary’s Supermarket in Southampton cherrypicks success
For Meten Lakhani, from St Mary’s Supermarket in Southampton, staying on trend is vital, reports Daryl Worthington
Premier St Mary’s Supermarket
110 St Mary’s Road, Southampton, SO14 0AN
Premier St Mary’s Supermarket in Southampton has been around for 40 years, but that doesn’t stop the store from constantly pushing to improve.
“My parents set up a small post office here in 1980,” says Meten Lakhani, who now runs the store with his mum and his wife. “Since then we’ve had a number of refits, the post office has gone and the business has grown into a 2,800sq ft store.”
Keeping the right balance between expansion and strong customer relationships has been vital.
“We’re the size of a Tesco Metro, but it’s crucial we find the time to keep that rapport going with our customers. There are people who’ve been shopping here for years and it’s important to speak to them and find out what they think about the store.”
St Mary’s Supermarket customer base is a diverse one – the city centre store is close to the university, as well as offices, schools and much more. “It’s a mix between transient trade who have forgotten their toothbrushes and regulars,” reveals Meten.
Students are a big part of their customer base, especially during term time, but this presents its own challenges. “I’d say the busiest time for us is between September and January, when the new students arrive and they’re settling in,” he explains.
“So, we really need to get the most out of that time, but it’s a challenge as students’ tastes change every year. We use the trade press to get an idea of the big trends, but when it comes to students you need to keep an eye out for what they’re asking for and what they’re buying.”
According to Meten, getting the store to the level it’s at now is the result of working with his family and staff to evolve the business.
“You have to change with the times without losing those key convenience store characteristics,” he says. “We’re a family business and always have been, and I’m so proud of how my family and staff have pulled together and worked hard to keep us growing.”
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“We’re a Premier store, so we used to just get all our deliveries from one wholesaler,” says Meten. “Now we’re using Booker, Booker Direct and Bestway, as well as some smaller suppliers for certain products.”
This has given the store strong availability, and a diverse range. Just as importantly, it helps them compete with multiples on price.
“We cherry pick where we’ll get products from,” says Meten. “We’re always checking to see where we can get the best deals. Working with so many wholesalers is a steep learning curve, but you have to do these things to be competitive.”
Building a strong range also needs good customer insight. “We have a product suggestion book by the tills,” says Meten. “Customers can use it to request products they think we should be stocking in our shop. I got the idea from a Bestway depot and it’s proven really popular.”
“There used to be eight shops in our area that sold newspapers, now we’re the only one still doing news and mags,” says Meten.
He’s convinced that the difference between his shop and those others is the fact that his has grown into a convenient, one-stop location.
“We still have three-to-four metres of news racking. I think it’s important to offer that for older customers,” Meten explains.
“Ultimately, it’s all about convenience. We’ve made three extensions to the shop in the past 10 years to increase the range we can stock in store. That’s what customers want. When they come in to get a newspaper, they also need to be able to get milk, bread and frozen food in the same place.”
Meten continues: “Convenience is all about having a good range at a decent price. If you don’t have stuff on the shelves, you won’t get the turnover.”
Like many retailers, Meten finds retaining and developing staff a big challenge.
“When you get good employees, it’s important they have an incentive to stay with you,” he says.
He’s found a number of different ways to motivate his staff and keep them loyal to his business.
“We pay all of our staff above the minimum wage,” says Meten. “This makes them more productive. If you look at the big picture, you might be paying individual staff members a little more, but the increase in productivity means you may be able to employ one fewer staff member per shift – that makes a big difference.”
Of course, offering a higher wage isn’t the only motivation that Meten offers his staff.
“We try to give the employees who’ve been with us a while some extra training and some new responsibilities. It makes them feel more valued, and helps spread the work around.”
“Stationery is one of our bestsellers – we have the university near us, but also offices as well, so it’s important for a lot of our customers,” says Meten. “We have a four-metre section dedicated to it. It is a distress purchase for a lot of people, and that means we don’t have to worry about being too competitive on price.”
Meten and his family have found that, in general, students will tend to follow the latest trends, but anticipating those trends is far from easy.
“Every year there’s something new – last year it was pink gin and free-from,” he says. “It’s hard to predict. At the start of each academic year, students will come in and you’ll see what kinds of things they’re buying a lot of.”
“Students have unusual tastes, though,” he continues. “For instance, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream seems to be popular every year, and all year round as well.”
One big recent change at St Mary’s Supermarket has been a switch towards stocking more free-from products.
“It all comes from customer demand,” says Meten. “Someone wrote in the customer suggestion book that they wanted us to stock an Alpro product. We started doing one Alpro line, but it grew really quickly and now we’re stocking most of the range.”
The growth in free-from isn’t just seen in dairy replacements, either.
“Gluten-free is another area that’s growing in popularity for us,” says Meten. “We’ve got free-from in ranges across our store – from gluten-free alcohol to vegan ice creams. It’s really popular with students, and I think when we carry out our next refit we’ll look to create a dedicated free-from section.”
This step into free-from ranges has helped contribute to a growth in average basket spend, from £6.83 to £7.
“Like any business, to be successful in convenience you have to keep moving with the trends and changing your store,” says Meten.
With this in mind, Meten and his family are considering building a fresh food-to-go offer for the store.
“We can sell up to £1,000 of ready-made sandwiches a week, so we’re confident there’s demand for hot food and drink to go. We’re looking into a bakery section, as well as adding a dessert bar and ice cream.”
The store is also unafraid to encompass more hi-tech solutions. “I’m working with an app designer to see if it’d be viable to make one for the store – this is what customers expect nowadays, so we need to be considering it,” Meten explains.
“We did consider a delivery app,” he continues. “However, they charge too much. That’s why we’re looking at doing it ourselves.”
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