Dan Cock, an independent convenience retailer from Whitstone, east Cornwall, has dramatically refurbished his store to broaden its appeal among customers and boost its profitability.

We asked Dan to give us his top tips for standing out from the crowd and preparing a convenience store for the future

1. Be a destination

There’s no pub in the village and Dan knew it was something that people in the area really wanted. It prompted him to launch a bar as part of his foodservice concept.

“Personalisation is so important – whether you’re in an urban or rural location it makes no difference, you have to personalise your service to your customers,” he said.

“People here are used to driving a long way for everything, so I don’t have a captive audience. I still have to be a destination.

“All I kept hearing was about making your store a destination. A few years ago there was talk about making your store a destination with in-store services, but you need to do a bit more than that now.

2. Build strong local relationships

There’s a 30-35% uplift in business in the summer at Whitstone Village Stores, so Dan and the team work closely with local caravan parks to promote the shop with leaflets and offers in their guest packs.

The new shop also appeals to local groups looking for a small space to meet. Dan said the local council group and toddler group have already enquired about using his lounge space to meet regularly. “It’s win-win – for us and the community,” he said.

3. Get the most from technology

Offer free wifi, but get something in return. Dan’s customers can log on to his wifi for free, but they do need to check into the shop on Facebook. This helps promote the shop to a wider audience. “People are conditioned to having to give away some data,” he said.

And don’t just use technology to promote offers, he added. As well as using his in-store media screens to show promotions, Dan uses them, as well as Facebook, get regular feedback from shoppers and shape what he does. 

4. Get your customers to shape your store

When Dan went to check out a new Co-op nearby, he spotted one of his customers shopping there and took the opportunity to ask him what the appeal of the Co-op was.

“I found out that he shopped there for its fresh food and longer opening hours, so I brought that back to our shop straight away to work out how we could compete with that,” Dan said.

“Find out what your competition is doing and do something different. That’s how we came up with the idea for the carvery – nobody locally was doing it.”

5. Get local produce in

“Local produce is really important to us because it’s important to our customers,” said Dan.

“The Co-op tries to do local, but it can’t do it as well as an independent can.”

Dan recommended working with local suppliers to bring in more promotions. Through Booker he offers customers three bottles for £5 on national ales, so he negotiated a deal with his local ale supplier to bring their products into the same deal, allowing shoppers to mix and match.

6. Take food to go to the next level

Dan has had huge success with his carvery on Sundays. As well as eating in, customers can ‘bring a plate’, so they can get their roast dinner to go – it has proved really popular and the number of shoppers getting a takeaway roast dinner is increasing each week. “Food to go is taking on a whole new meaning for us,” said Dan.

A big benefit of moving into foodservice is that food waste has decreased for the shop. “I’m not as nervous about increasing our fresh order as we can use it in the café if we can’t sell it in the shop,” he added.

7. Use other retailers as inspiration

“I go to all the trade shows and read all the trade press and have taken inspiration from all the stores I’ve visited or read about,” said Dan.

“I’ve taken little bits from their stores and translated it for my customers. We’re in a great position in this industry to share best practice.”

Dan doesn’t just take inspiration from independent stores. He discovered that Tesco pulls in great sales from barbecue displays in its foyers, so he now has charcoal just inside the door.

8. Take the opportunity of a refit to correct snags

Whitstone Village Stores has always had issues with the wind blowing strongly through the entrance, so Dan used the refit to address the issue – he moved the entrance and created a foyer that protects the shop and customers.

He also used the opportunity to improve the appeal of the shop to passing trade. “We now have a clear window policy on our fascia, so people can see in, and media screens help promote the great range we have inside.”

A refit, he said, gives retailers a chance to really consider what they’re stocking, remove lines that they stock just because they’ve always stocked them and gain insight into new products or categories that will bring in more money.

9. Work out what you’re famous for and make the most of it

“We knew we were famous for our pasties, so we made a really big thing of it,” said Dan. As soon as shoppers walk in they see the great range of pasties available.

Dan has also used the community’s history and link to agriculture to bring in ‘trinkets’ that customers love. These include an Ambrosia milk churn, which originally belonged to Dan’s grandfather. “Artisan crates for fresh produce give us a farm shop feel and allows us to upsell,” he said.

10. Clearly segment your store

“All good stores these days are clearly zoned,” he said.

The shop is easy to navigate and alcohol, in particular, has been given its own section and extended, opening it up to more promotions and giving the category a more premium feel. “ Opening up the area means our customers now take us seriously as an off-licence,” said Dan.

Bringing spirits out from behind the counter and on to the shop floor has also increased sales by 40%, he added.

The L-shaped counter, which spans both the shop and café areas makes it easy for shoppers to navigate the shop.

11. Find out which growth areas you should tap into

Dan has increased chilled space by around 12metres, which has opened up the range and availability he can offer.

He has trimmed back core grocery and expanded his free-from and protein ranges. “I never thought I’d be able to sell a Snickers Protein bar for £1.89, but they go,” he said. “Anyone not doing free-from and protein is missing a trick – the categories are going places.

“Independents have the ability to change their range overnight. Our ability to react to change is key.”

12. Get staff involved

“Sometimes it’s hard to keep staff motivated, but we kept them involved in the refit and they embraced it – they even made suggestions on a new uniform,” Dan said.

All staff are trained to serve in the shop and café, which helps to keep wage costs down.