There is something happening in our industry. Across the UK, independent retailers are investing, innovating and risk-taking like never before. In the background there are many reasons for store owners to worry about the future – margins, consolidation, legislation and more – yet there are so many retailers who seem compelled by this to be more ambitious for their businesses.  

In RN, we’ve been reporting on this trend as it has developed. Aman and Joga Uppal demolished and rebuilt their family business, creating the space for One Stop Mount Nod, an award-winning modern convenience store. Then there was the huge £300,000 rebuild of Premier Whitstone Village Stores undertaken by Dan Cock at the start of 2016. Meanwhile, Siva Thievanayagan has given his Nisa in Peterborough the “wow” factor after a major investment, while Mehmet Guzel has rapidly built his Simply Fresh empire, adapting his trendy urban local shop model for new neighbourhoods and transport hubs. 

It seems that every week, RN is able to report on another top convenience business owner investing in their future in the most extraordinary of ways. And there is a fact that connects almost every one of these projects: they are going on in partnership with one of the UK’s growing number of symbol and franchise groups. 

For this week’s special focus on symbol and fascia groups, RN has spoken to top retailers and industry figures to identify five must-follow rules for any retailer embarking on their own transformational journey.  

Know your customer base
Hidden behind the dramatic, inspiring projects that retailers have undertaken with their symbol partners is, in every case, a deeper knowledge of the customers a retailer plans to serve with their new range, refitted store or store site. 

“I know my shop and my location – when it’s busy, what sells,” says Siva Thievanayagan, whose Nisa store in Peterborough underwent a major refit in 2016. “For example, I knew if I opened another entrance I would get more footfall in.” 

So Siva decided to build a new 3,000sq ft store, transforming his 1,100sq ft business with its 10 staff into a progressive, modern convenience store employing a team of 40.  

“It was a gamble to put so much money in but it was worth it at the end of the day,” he says. 

With its deli counter and chilled range, Siva’s store would be a model shop wherever it was located, but even when Siva was looking around for inspiration, his customers were very much in his mind. 

“I needed to know what would work with my customers and I went on a study tour and took a look at Ireland and Scotland to find out,” he says.

While symbol groups can and do provide modelling help for retailers looking to learn more about the customers they serve (or will soon serve, when it comes to new stores), John Kinney, sales director at Today’s says the hands-on pricing insight that groups can provide to capitalise on this knowledge is more limited than it once was. 

“We used to be able to help retailers, looking at their demographic, to set the right prices for their stores but thanks to pricemarking that that’s now gone so now we’re having to look at ranges they stock and their layout instead,” Mr Kinney says. 

With many retailers choosing to make more drastic changes to their stores as a result of customer feedback, this change in approach from symbol groups themselves is well timed.

Find your partner early
Store owners who are looking to introduce a new range or to refit their shop may well have a symbol or franchise partner already in place. Many retailers use a major change in the running of their store as an excuse to look for a new partner. The consensus among retailers and the wider industry seems to be that this needs to be done sooner rather than later. 

Although brothers Joga and Aman Uppal were overseeing the final stages of their store’s rebuild when they spoke to franchise group One Stop for the first time, they still provided an entirely blank canvas. And this enabled One Stop to provide a guide, and financial support, through the changes. 

“One Stop provides £50,000 to any retailer when they sign up and for a lot of stores this might just go on new shelving or fridges, but our store was new so we ended up needing to put quite a lot of money in ourselves to make it work. 

“They were able to find quotes for everything through their own connections and we could see in each quote how much One Stop was putting towards it and how much we were. It was very transparent,” says Aman. 

Working with Londis early also helped Anish Parekh and his father negotiate when it came to turning his traditional post office into a store with a full convenience offer. Using their own money to fund the refit, father and son ensured they gain additional flexibility, allowing them to grow the convenience side of their business at a pace which suited them. “We didn’t have a minimum buy each week as we didn’t get any upfront investment – we were investing in our store anyway. This meant we were able to grow incrementally.” 

You have to sell yourself 
Symbol groups and fascias know that standards in the grocery market are rising as quickly as customer expectations. It means that there is also an increased expectation from these companies that retailers will meet those standards and be a worthy recipient of any investment they make. 

So if you’re not ready to meet the requirements of a modern fresh and chilled-heavy convenience store, don’t expect the unwavering support from a fascia group. 

“There’s always the fear that if you throw hot food and too much fresh and chilled into a retailer’s store it will never work for them because they don’t have the expertise to execute it and customers don’t have the trust in it,” says John Kinney at Today’s. “Often we talk to retailers who have some very ambitious plans but don’t have the expertise to execute them.” 

“If you’re not willing to invest in training up your staff, if you’re not willing to invest in the waste that’s part and parcel of operating fresh foods then you don’t appreciate the requirements of running this kind of store,” Mr Kinney says. 

It’s not just Today’s who feel this way. Filshill’s KeyStore symbol may not be one of the largest or most established symbols in the country, but its retail sales director Craig Brown is clear that only a certain standard of retailer will be able to access the group. “We want to work with progressive retailers who are open to new ideas and working in partnership with us to get the best out of the new format. These retailers know that they need to put a lot of effort and investment into KeyStore More – it’s that sort of commitment that will make it a success,” he says.

Luckily, he sees a new generation of retailers who are keen “to do things a bit differently” and in KeyStore’s terms this means using technology, from social media to in-store sales data, to adapt shops to retailers’ needs. 

The question you need to ask yourself is whether your business would be one which meets the standards both Mr Kinney and Mr Brown are looking for. 

 

Be ready to keep adapting
Retail – as every store owner knows – never stands still. Siva Thievanayagan knew it would take time to develop the right food to go range and was ready to adapt quickly as opportunities became apparent.

“I spoke to retailers who do food to go and thought about what we could do in the evening and slowly put it together, trying out different things to see what worked. For the past three months that’s meant doing Chinese food and Thai food in the evening,” Siva says. 

“We were baking bread but stopped cooking food from around 4pm. Now, from 5pm, we’re selling a range of foods made by a local Thai lady as a food to go dinner. We started off selling £500 per week. Last week we tried doing the meals for lunchtimes on a couple of days and we made £60 of Thai food each day.”

Finding profitable new opportunities within your store’s operation can be even simpler, however. Harj Gill started to develop a process of regularly conducting range reviews with his franchise group, Select & Save. “We started three years ago and we now do this with Select & Save twice a year. We examine six weeks of sales data to see what our bestsellers are and which products are our slowest sellers. We then highlight those slow-selling lines on the shop floor with a permanent marker and this tells us not to order any more of the same product,” says Harj. 

Doing this helped identify a number of products which became top sellers in the store. “We also introduced the £1 pack of Broken Biscuits as part of Select & Save’s range review. We sell about 15 packs a day and they’re one of our bestsellers in the snacks category,” Harj says.

Keep your relationship going 
Maintaining great relationships which enable any aftercare and support needed, is essential. Most symbol groups know this and will not walk away after a project is completed. Particularly if a store is new to that group:

“It’s not an overnight, easy process, there’s always lots of teething problems,” says Janet Unthorpe, a business development manager Spar. “With a change of brand it is always difficult but we give a lot of time to our new accounts to make sure they get what they need. 

“We have a team that can help develop food to go and we also have a team that can work together on hot food and baking. It takes retailers some getting used to the amount of support and visits that Spar provides,” she says. 

But even award-winning retailers appreciate step-by-step guidance when it comes to making major changes to their businesses. Aman Uppal of One Stop Mount Nod in Coventry, was an immediate fan of the support he was given. “When you join One Stop they provide you with a launch support manager who will visit and work with you in-store for a week, paid for by One Stop. They make sure you understand the best practice ways of doing things, that you know the ordering systems and things like that. That’s really unique to One Stop,” says Aman. 

Indeed, so impressed with the One Stop offer was Aman that he says it was worth more than the promised £50,000 investment which comes with working with the group.  

“When we joined One Stop we didn’t just look at the £50,000 and join because of that. It was the methods of operating that we decided if we want to become multisite retailers or develop the store that these would be good partners,” Aman says.

Increasingly, it seems, retailers of all kinds are looking for partners who can meet such ambitious goals. 

 

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