It’s easy to ignore the back office – out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes – but if you’re not keeping on top of the comings and goings of products in storage, ensuring that stock is being rotated so that goods don’t pass their sell-by date, and generally keeping the area as clean and tidy as the rest of your store, problems and losses will start to mount up pretty quickly.

The coronavirus pandemic made everyone’s lives more challenging, but, as recent issues of RN have shown, the growing problem of delivery-driver shortages could well make back-of-house management even more difficult. Meten Lakhani, from St Mary’s Supermarket in Southampton, gets a delivery six days a week, but still holds back enough stock to cover him for two or three days just in case there is a breakdown on deliveries. “If the lorry has broken down and you’re not holding enough stock, then you’ve got nothing on the shelves and you’re stuffed. You’ve got to keep control because you haven’t got time to rush to the cash and carry every time there’s an emergency.”

That being said, having too much stock in the back room can also present its own challenges, whether it’s keeping tabs on what stock arrived and when, or even realising you are dedicating too much of your store’s square footage to storage rather than selling space.

“In our Sheffield store, we have hardly any back stock,” says David Sellers, who runs three Nisa stores in Sheffield, Leeds and Hull. “We have half a dozen shelves in back stock because it’s a big enough store so you can have a bit of a gap on the shelves.

“I have more back-shop space in Hull, but I don’t like having it, because it’s not making money when it’s in there. In such a cashflow-intense business and with not massive margins, why would you want £5,000-worth of stock at the back? It’s very inefficient.”

Know what you’re stocking

It is critical to keep your back room well-ordered if you are to keep an eye on outgoings and identify potential problems in good time. With five deliveries a week at each store, for Nisa retailer David Sellers, stock control is one of the most important parts of running his business.

As soon as something arrives, he and his team work to get things ordered manually as soon as possible. By doing it regularly, he is able to use time more efficiently.

“We stock-take high-value things such as spirits and cigarettes every week and we split the rest of the store into two sections that we do every two weeks,” he says.

“It keeps everything ticking along well without gaps that are too big. If you don’t know what stock you’ve got in, how on earth can you know the quality of what you’re selling? It means you can identify problems straight away.”

Stockpilling can lead to wastage

With a shortage of delivery drivers, the relationship between wholesalers and retailers has become more challenging. Reduced deliveries can lead to retailers trying to buy more for each delivery, which places more stress on wholesalers.

Arif Ahmed, of Ahmed Newsagent in Coventry, has called on wholesalers to go that extra mile to help retailers maintain footfall, especially with a busy summer already upon us. He has no desire to stockpile goods. “If I keep too much stock, I don’t know where I am,” he says.

“When you stockpile, you don’t know when it will go off. You can put it somewhere and forget about it. I like it to be on the shelves as it arrives. “We had a lot of short-dated stuff in the pandemic. I don’t know why wholesalers don’t reduce the price on these products so we can pass that on to customers.”

Overcoming pandemic problems

Another considerable problem during the pandemic was the handling of deliveries in a safe way. Delivery drivers weren’t allowed into Samantha Coldbeck’s Wharfedale Premier in Hull, which was fine during warmer weather, but more challenging in the rain with six deliveries a week.

“Even today, we’re having pallets dropped off at the door and the drivers just leaving. Everyone has had to work harder and do a more physical job to get everything in. We had to choose the safest way to bring things into the back offices – making sure there weren’t more than two people back there at one time, and no more than one person in one aisle. And everyone was wearing masks as well.”

Coldbeck communicated the standards she expected – in terms of safety and organisation – using posters. “It’s about making sure the back room is as organised as the shop.”

Bulk buying can save you money

Ronak Patel is in the fairly unique position of having a 3,000sq ft storage warehouse, which came from cutting down the shop floor space of his Budgens Arbury store in Cambridge considerably. With so much space to use, he isn’t worried about it filling up, but he keeps on top of it all the same.

“Stock control is a big thing to concentrate on, otherwise you get into a right muddle. We physically check everything in the warehouse two or three times a week. When the deliveries come in, we try to position it where it needs to go in the first place, the forklift’s just in case we need to move it or something happens afterwards,” he says.

It means he can buy more bulk pallet deals at cheaper prices, not only for the Budgens, but also for his two nearby Nisa stores. “Because we’ve got so much space, we’ll pre-allocate stock into different piles for each shop.”

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