Andrew Thornton made national headlines last November when he introduced 1,800 plastic-free lines in his Budgens Belsize Park store in London. With sales up by 4% and staff more engaged than ever, he explains to Chris Dillon and the Independent Retailer Owners Forum how he managed to empower his staff to adapt faster than the supermarkets

I believe running a business with a heart is the best way to help it grow. Millennials don’t want to work for companies that are just about profit, they want to do something meaningful with their lives,” Andrew Thornton says. 

Thornton was an overnight national success last year when he decided to radically change the offering in his Budgens store by bringing in plastic-free lines, but it was a move that was actually more than seven years in the making. 

Thornton’s Budgens has a central purpose: ‘We are the community supermarket that really cares’, which shapes the behaviour that is expected from staff. “We started looking at how we unlock our staff’s potential, but we couldn’t measure it. I went searching for different tools and came across the ‘human potential model’,” he says.

“This was measured with an online survey, which all our staff completed two years ago, and we scored highly on ‘commitment to a higher cause’.”

Cut-Plastic-out.pngThen staff were asked where they would like to develop, and ‘self-
leadership’ repeatedly came up. From that moment, the way the business was run began to change. 

After the store’s long-standing manager decided to retire, Thornton replaced him with a head coach role and a team leader, tasked with encouraging people to focus on what they do best and lead themselves.

“We did this exercise where staff members draw a line halfway down an A3 sheet of paper and write all the things they love doing and the things they’re good at doing, and then underneath list all the things they spend their working day doing,” Thornton says. 

“The trick is then to match those things and get everybody doing what they like. You think there’s going to be a whole pile of tasks left over, but that never happens because everyone is different.” 

The tool allowed the team to quantify their human potential and give it a score as a store. By comparing their sales with another Budgens in London with comparative footfall, they found that Thornton’s Budgens’ staff potential after all of these exercises was 8% higher and sales were up 10%. 

“We then set about developing our values – we call them heartsets rather than mindsets. We had all of our staff involved in creating them and they are statements like: ‘I am mindful’ and ‘we acknowledge and appreciate’. Everyone in our self-leadership has committed to acknowledging the work of a colleague three times a day,” he explains. 

It was with this purpose and these self-leadership exercises in mind that the team embarked on their biggest challenge – making the store known for being plastic-free. 

“In the UK, only 9% of plastic is recycled, so even if you are separating your plastic, most of it doesn’t get used. We felt it was our obligation to do something radically different and prove to the bigger retailers that you could do something,” he says.

On 1 September 2018, the store teamed up with A Plastic Planet, a London-based social enterprise that campaigns for supermarkets to introduce a plastic-free aisle. The team aimed for 1,500 lines, but launched on 8 November with 1,800.

We had so many customers telling us it was fantastic and they rewarded us – sales went up by 6% initially and have been up by 4% ever since

“I don’t think we could have done it without the work we had done as a team on developing our purpose and focusing on self-leadership. I’ve never seen a team so committed to anything as they were. We had single mums working in the store until 10pm who had to be kicked out and told to go home,” he says. 

The run-up was kept quiet from customers and lines came in gradually and disappeared if they didn’t work. It was a lot of trial and error – sales of cheese initially went down because it was wrapped in wax paper so shoppers couldn’t see the product, and bread went stale. It was only when the store signs went up that staff spoke to shoppers about what was happening.

“We had so many customers telling us it was fantastic and they rewarded us – sales went up by 6% initially and have been up by 4% ever since,” he says. 

“That’s for two reasons: existing customers are doing more of their shopping here and new customers are coming from further away – there’s one woman who visits uson a bus every week to do a plastic-free shop.”

Thornton now plans to reach 3,000 lines and be fully plastic-free by 2022, a goal he admits can only be done with the help of the big manufacturers. “Customers have said they don’t believe the big
supermarkets or their pledges that are many years in the future. Customers want action. 

“Companies that have a meaningful purpose do better financially. Everything that I’ve done with Thornton’s Budgens, which is good for society and the planet, has been good for business, too.” 

TB-Plastic-Free-Zones-2.png

Want more RN interviews? We talk to Nisa CEO Ken Towle