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Fresh and chilled is a key area for convenience retailers to get right to drive sales and footfall. Toby Hill speaks to Norfolk retailer Sandra Taylor-Meeds to find out how she drives success
Fresh and chilled is at the centre of the revolution in convenience shopping. As traditional categories such as tobacco decline, retailers are looking for new areas to build a point of difference and make decent margins.
As customer habits shift – with people doing smaller, more frequent shops at their local stores – there is a clear opportunity for retailers to capitalise on the boom in top-up shopping.
“Fresh and chilled is central to my store,” says Sandra Taylor-Meeds, manager at Budgens of Holt in Norfolk.
But while fresh and chilled is perhaps the key to the future of convenience retail, it is also a difficult category to get right. The range of possible products is huge and shelf lives are short.
As a result, making effective ranging decisions can be challenging. “If you end up with a lot of waste, it hits your margins and you are damaging rather than improving your store,” Taylor-Meeds says.
“There is a lot to learn – my staff have all been here for more than five years, so they’re used to the sudden changes in weather and seasons that impact sales.”
Adapt your range
As well as moving with the seasons, retailers must also be quick on their feet and adapt to short-term changes in weather and events.
“You’ve got to adapt in terms of weather and keep a close eye on what is selling,” says Taylor-Meeds.
“For example, we stepped up our orders of burgers, rolls and salads – barbecue items – during the heat wave.
“But then we saw this weekend there was going to be a bit of rain, so we restrained our order, before building it up again through the hot week and weekend to come.”
This flexibility is one of the key advantages independent stores have over the multiples. It’s particularly helpful in a category like fresh and chilled.
“We have a week-to-week system where we look at what we’ve got and adjust our order according to what is selling,” says Bharti Chavda, owner of Westminster Grocery in London.
“As a small convenience store, we can’t plan and buy in bulk like a supermarket, but we can be responsive and adaptable.
“For example, we’ve stepped up our stock of cold pies and similar picnic items through the hot weather.”
Perfect your display
In few categories is presentation as important as it is in fresh and chilled. “Some simple advice: if there is anything on the shelf you wouldn’t buy, take it off,” says Goraya. “It is vital to maintain high standards – one rank product can put customers off the whole section.”
Taylor-Meeds refitted her store’s fresh and chilled section eight years ago. The changes had a revolutionary impact on sales, she says.
“We widened our fresh aisle and designed it to be more accessible, to give customers a better view of our range,” she says.
“We added header boards promoting our local suppliers, then side panels where we display cheese, butters and yoghurts.”
The presentation of fruit and vegetables is particularly important. Goraya optimised his displays by drawing on his supplier for advice.
“We get some of our fruit and vegetables from a local wholesaler, so we asked him to come in and show the staff how to best present his produce,” he says.
“Now, we have two staff members who make sure the section is always tidy and refreshed.”
Follow the rhythm of the seasons
Just like the British landscape, customers’ preferences change with the seasons. Retailers must be prepared to revolutionise their fresh and chilled range as the year progresses, Taylor-Meeds says.
“In summer, sales of picnic items like olives, sausage rolls and quiches increase,” she says. “During Wimbledon, there’s always a spike in sales of cream and strawberries.”
Then, once the weather turns, the store must adapt its range to suit the colder months.
“In winter, people are looking for easy-to-eat, warming foods,” she adds. “Fresh soups are very popular and quality pots look great on the shelf. Sales of ready meals also spike.”
Similar adjustments must be made in the case of fruit and vegetables, says Harry Goraya, owner of Nisa Local in Northfleet, Kent.
“We are selling lots of gala melons and watermelons,” he says.
“We’ve found that people are reluctant to buy a huge watermelon, but if we cut them up into smaller slices, they sell excellently. People pick them up on impulse.”
Work with suppliers
There are many benefits to using local suppliers. Customers like being able to buy from the local area. Local produce adds character to the chiller display. And building a personal relationship with a supplier provides opportunities for mutual advice and assistance.
“We have a local supplier for yoghurt and milk, as well as a local butcher who supplies us with meat,” says Taylor-Meeds. “If we’re busy on an unexpectedly sunny Saturday, and suddenly sell out of burgers, the butcher will come out and deliver late in the day.”
She also sources vegetables come from a supplier in nearby Aylsham, who grows cabbages, lettuces and leeks. “He will be up until 1am cutting leeks during Christmas, so they’re very fresh when they reach our shelves,” Taylor-Meeds says. She also works with a nearby fruit farm, sourcing strawberries, gooseberries and raspberries. “People are willing to pay a premium when the season starts, which really boosts our margins,” she says.
This quality local produce is useful for marketing the store, too. “We advertise in the store that we use local suppliers, displaying a photo of them working with their produce,” she says. “And we also advertise in the local paper every fortnight, and will often include a local supplier as part of that.”