It’s difficult enough during a normal year for retailers to disengage from the day-to-day challenges of running a store and think ahead about how they can improve sales, staff morale and processes. Throw a coronavirus pandemic into the mix, and all the associated troubles of product availability, an influx of new customers and the concerns around their well-being as well as that of staff have made it all the harder to think about long-term shop development.

Nevertheless, finding the time to do so is crucial in a rapidly evolving retail landscape, and putting your shop in the wider national convenience context can happen in several different ways.

With the lifting of restrictions, in-person industry events are making their way back into the calendar, offering retailers a chance to meet face-to-face with industry leaders and fellow shopkeepers, and discuss challenges and opportunities facing the sector. “Before the pandemic, we attended the Nisa Expo religiously. It’s got everything there,” says Ronak Patel, who runs a Budgens and a Nisa in Cambridge. Look out for trade events from your wholesalers, symbol groups and even betterRetailing’s publisher, Newtrade Media.

If it’s too much to take time off and travel to an event, make sure you’re plugged in to what’s going on through regular contact with other retailers. “I’m a big advocate of talking to other retailers,” says Aman Uppal, of One Stop Mount Nod in Coventry. “We’re all in the same boat after all, whether we’re discussing business or not. We see the world in the same way.”

Perhaps the ultimate way of assessing your store’s strengths and weaknesses is through a refit, which will invariably require expense and at least a partial store closure, and therefore a full commitment to the changes you want to make. Instead of small changes, a full-blown refit might be the impetus you need to look at the bigger picture.

Learn from the big brands

For Aman Uppal, who runs One Stop Mount Nod in Coventry, the bigger picture comes from paying close attention to what suppliers and the brands he has to sell are doing when marketing their products to consumers.

“I’m committed to my job and find it hard to switch off from day-to-day business. But I am always looking at products and brands to see what they’re doing, as well as other stores – and in this way I see the bigger picture,” he says.

“I’m very much a creative person and I look closely at the way brands market their products and take little nuggets of knowledge from this. I look at the messages brands have been putting on social media.” This then feeds into Uppal’s own in-store and social media marketing, keeping it fresh rather than rote signage and posts. He also regularly talks to other retailers and is part of the Independent Achievers Academy.

Fellow retailers are your friends

Ronak Patel, owner of two stores in Cambridge, reviews his shops’ sales data monthly and is part of several retailer WhatsApp groups. “We see what’s going on locally, look at Facebook to see what other local people are doing and what’s worked well and how we can introduce it to our store.”

His Nisa Cherry Hinton store’s latest innovations, Tango Ice Blast and F’real milkshake machines, came about from discussions with other retailers, who convinced him they would be a worthwhile investment.

“It came from feedback from retailers. When I looked at it, I thought it was a hefty price point. I didn’t think it would sell, but a lot of retailers have said it’s the best decision they’ve made this year and has probably paid for itself,” he says. He is now working with his Nisa business development manager on how best to accommodate the machines.

Let ideas come to you

Jey Sivapalan, of One Stop Convenience (Go Local) in Derby, lets ideas for his store’s development come to him through trade press and the internet. “I learn a lot from industry publications. I keep in touch with relevant social media accounts and have online subscriptions to various convenience retail magazines. I keep up to date with the latest research and read about the business side on a regular basis – all of which I then pass on to my staff,” he says.

When it came to his store’s recent refit, Sivapalan also gladly leant on feedback from all sides to speed up the process. “I learn from other retailers as well, for example at cash and carry outlets. This and customer feedback fed into our plans. We find that our regular customers appreciate when we take their views on board, particularly after the pandemic,” he says. Without this feedback, Sivapalan’s refit would have taken longer.

Think in terms of trends

Kopi Kalanathan, who runs eight shops across York and Doncaster, has found hopping from trend to trend to be a useful way of bolstering sales that hasn’t changed his shops’ overall complexion. It means being attuned to social media trends, which can die down almost as quickly as they flare up.

“Certain product trends that customers request can have a short shelf life but do big business,” he says. “For example, the reversible octopus toys have been popular. We sold up to 20,000 pieces across a three-month period in my Costcutter store in Kirk Sandall, Doncaster, all because children were going mad for them after seeing the trend on TikTok. Some children were spending £50 on them.”

Seeking out products that customers have also directly asked for is another way of engendering customer goodwill, as well as honing research and communication skills.

Read more of our store profiles where we visit independent convenience retailers to showcase their fresh ideas and unique insights