When you make a mistake it is easy to worry, but why not take it as an opportunity to learn? From supermarkets to airlines, errors made by all manner of businesses have never been so precious.
Tom Gockelen-Kozlowski reports

In an era when top convenience retailers are building reputations for innovation, mistakes and missteps are inevitable.

When larger retailers innovate, these errors will be caught, recorded and shared around an estate of potentially thousands of stores. But is the same true for independents? Probably not.

RN therefore cast the net wide and asked the question few retailers would wish to be asked: what’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in retail? Our aim: to find out what some of the best store owners have learned from some of the decisions they most regretted at the time.

As Albert Einstein once said: “If you’ve never failed you’ve never tried anything new.”

Read on and discover what you can learn from RN readers’ mistakes.

My mistake: not taking staff theft seriously enough


Arjan Mehr, Londis, Bracknell, Berkshire

It sounds trivial but it’s not. It can happen with cash and with high-value items such as tobacco and has been something I’ve had to focus on. We’re all chasing margins and staff theft can seriously damage your costs.

What I learned: You have to have an audit trail
If you check stock and cash regularly, things show up immediately. We’ve also put in rules such as staff cannot serve relatives because collusion can take longer to show up.

My mistake: not supporting local suppliers


Kate Clark, Sean’s News, Upton-upon-Severn, Worcestershire

When we introduced our ice cream counter, I decided to stock a really great ice cream manufacturer called Marshfield who I worked with previously. I invested in their chiller, PoS and everything, but my sales weren’t as good as they should have been.

What I learned: You have to support the most local produce
After that year we swapped to Bennett’s ice cream, from just a few miles away, and have now worked with them for eight years. Tourists come back again and again because they want local ice cream. Since we introduced it, we’ve continually seen sales grow by 10%.

My mistake: not going big enough on food to go


Linda Williams, Broadway Premier, Oxgangs, Edinburgh

We’d tried food to go twice before, with Bake ‘n’ Bite and Cuisine de France and we also had a Nescafé coffee machine, but it didn’t work either time. The limited range we were offering meant customers got bored after a few weeks. The next time we decided to try again, we chose to work with our symbol group.

What I learned: We developed our own Premier Deli concept
I can now offer salads to people who aren’t that hungry, sausage rolls to people who want something hot, or a full meal deal to people who are really hungry. Investing in a decent food to go offer has taken this from being a £100-a-week part of our business to a £1,500 part.

My mistake: losing out on three years’ slush sales


Dean Holborn, Holborn’s, Redhill, Surrey

For three years, we avoided getting a slush machine because they were expensive and I thought they would be a flash in the pan. My family had had one in the 1980s but it had died a death, and that put me off too. But after we eventually got one, we made £10,000 from it in the first year, so you could say we lost £30,000 in sales in those other years.

What I learned: I need to pay more attention if things are appearing in magazines
This experience has made me realise I need to pay more attention if things are appearing in magazines and a trend is performing well elsewhere.

My mistake: trying to compete with the discounters at Easter


Kamal Sisodia, WHSmith Local, Coalville, Leicestershire

This year, I’ve reduced my Easter egg order because I ended up having to reduce a lot of them after Easter Sunday. I’d focused on mid-range eggs like KitKat Chunky and Snickers which supermarkets and nearby discounters had big deals on. The one exception was our luxury eggs like Guylian and Lindt which sold really well. This year, that’s what we’re focusing on.

What I learned: There are so many shops like Wilko and Poundland nearby
It’s impossible to compete with them. Instead, we’ve become the place where people come for “something a little special”. We’ve introduced premium spirits and stationery to capitalise on this too.

My mistake: not assigning staff-specific roles


Adam Hogwood, Budgens of Broadstairs, Broadstairs, Kent

It’s very easy not to give people operational responsibility and simply be happy if the work gets done somehow. But staff generally have favourite jobs they will prioritise, so other things got missed. Stock rotation was always a big thing for us, for example – if stock isn’t rotated, you get wastage and orders get messed up.

What I learned: Give staff assigned roles
It means they are responsible for their own sections now. If anything gets missed, I know who is accountable and that means every necessary task gets done.

My mistake: spreading myself too thinly


Mital Morar, Store!, central Manchester

When I was growing my last business my attention was split two ways. Retail is what I know and I wanted to focus on that, but I was also really passionate about foodservice and our store had a restaurant upstairs. It had to be one or the other – doing both was killing me. My family were really surprised, but when someone offered to buy the business I accepted and took six months off before opening my new retail-only store.

What I learned: I need time to look at the business
The cashflow, the loose ends – everything running a shop involves needs attention. It’s fine to introduce a coffee shop or food to go, but you also need to delegate responsibility to people you can trust to free yourself to work on your business.

My mistake: not offering consistent customer service


Kashif Nadeem, Premier Blackadder’s Minimart, Greenlaw, Borders

When I first started working in the business after leaving school I could be hot-headed, but you can’t afford to be like that because if you’re rude to one customer they’ll end up telling 10 others what you said. Particularly in the era of social media, it’s easy to complain about bad service publicly and suddenly everybody knows about it. Years later, my business is at the heart of the community.

What I learned: If you don’t get on with one customer, you don’t get on with everyone 
So sometimes you just have to hold your tongue in this business.

My mistake: going for a high-priced shopfitter


Ferhan Ashiq, Levenhall Stores, Musselburgh, East Lothian

With my last store we used one of the most premium shopfitters in Scotland and their service was excellent throughout. I only used them because I was confident we would quickly see a return
on investment. Even so, they were bringing in equipment and fixtures I know I could have bought at a 20% discount if I’d bought them myself. There’s no need to spend that money if you’re willing to do a little more work yourself.

What I learned: Ask yourself if paying a premium is worth it
In my other shop we’re about to do another refit. I’m buying the equipment and using a less expensive shopfitter.

My mistake: not reading the fine print


Dee Sedani, One Stop, Matlock, Derbyshire

I’ve been caught out a few times after not reading supplier contracts carefully enough. In one situation, I worked with a coffee machine supplier and what we had agreed initially and what was in the contract were two different things. That meant we weren’t getting the profit per cup we were expecting and were dealing with different minimum cup sales.

What I learned: I now take the time to read through everything carefully
Just because you trust a handshake or are dealing with a trusted brand doesn’t mean things can’t go wrong.

My mistake: not ensuring your staff earn their wages


Dave Hiscutt, Londis, Weymouth, Dorset

We didn’t always have as good a control of our wage bill as we do now. We worked from rotas, for example, but we wouldn’t analyse hourly sales and compare this to when staff are on shift. We didn’t think about the mix of staff we had in, either. This was some time ago, but the changes we made then are even more important now because of the National Living Wage.

What I learned: We started to forecast our sales and wage spend and compare them to each other
Analysing the business is so important to make sure you profit. Our business runs a lot better today as a result.

My mistake: buying pricey spirits by the case


Jack Matthews, Bradley’s Supermarket, Quorn, Leicestershire

When we started to look at our gins range a few years ago we were stocking an okay range of eight gins, but buying in cases meant there were half-opened cases all over the stockroom. By buying single bottles we’ve been able to grow our range to 30 and reduce our stock holding. If we were going to stock that range by buying full cases we would be tying up thousands of pounds in stock.

What I learned: Buying single gin bottles worked so well we now look for other areas where this can work too
For example, our fruit and veg supplier will be flexible and sell us 20 grapefruits for a week, whereas if we bought a full case of 48 our wastage would be very high.