It's a challenge finding ways to appeal to shoppers. The Robert Wiseman Neighbourhood Shop of the Year award manages to find plenty of star contenders every year The Grocer and Robert Wiseman Dairies are gearing up for the fifth year of the prestigious Neighbourhood Shop of the Year awards. This year, the competition is being extended beyond Scotland and the Borders to reflect Robert Wiseman Dairies' new distribution network in the north west of England and the Midlands. Since 1996, Robert Wiseman Dairies has been commending the community involvement, friendliness, cleanliness, pricing competitiveness, and quality of business of independent retailers, and this year's competition will be "even more of the same, please". The quality of independents is illustrated by the geographical spread of the winners since the competition's inception. Aberdeen took the honours in the first year with joint winners from Montrose and Edinburgh in the second year. A Fife entry scooped the award in the third year and current holder of the title is Botterill's Superspar in Glasgow. Sandy Wilkie, sales and marketing director at Robert Wiseman Dairies, says: "The Neighbourhood Shop of the Year Award is the award independent retailers want to win, for the simple reason they are nominated by their own customers. The selection process is really important because it means only those retailers who are making a real and lasting impression on their customers will be in the running." Finding new ways of appealing to local shoppers is a challenge especially as the convenience market, so ably handled by independents, continues to expand. As well as keeping a careful eye on what their competitors are doing, more and more independents are becoming even more professional in their product offering to local customers. Creating points of difference such as food zones and food to go' sections are high on the agenda for many independent retailers, as is increasing the servicing offering. It is this ability to offer broad appeal to convenience shoppers, while maintaining close personal customer contact, that has historically proved to be a successful formula for finalists. Wilkie explains: "The shops that are ahead of the rest are those that are consistently putting the customer first both in terms of improving services and product offering while maintaining a personal and friendly approach and strong links with the community." The competition is already underway with over 400 Wiseman drivers circulating competition packs including posters and entry forms to all of Robert Wiseman Dairies' 7,000 customers across Scotland, the north of England and the Midlands. This year there will be five regional finals: three in Scotland, one in the Borders/North of England and one in the Midlands. As in previous years, it is expected there will be approximately 20 stores competing in each region and they will be invited to attend a lunch at which the names of the regional finalists will be announced. They will then go forward to the national finals in Glasgow on November 23. Once all the votes are in from each shop the next vital cog ­ the mystery shopper - enters the judging process. Sandy smiles: "The mystery shopper has solved a lot of heated discussions in the latter stages of the judging. If the judges have any conflicts of opinion then the mystery shopper findings influence the decision. "It's vital that part of the judging is carried out without the knowledge of the shops to ensure it is seen as true to life as possible. Therefore the mystery shopper appears unannounced and keeps his or her identity a mystery! "Friendliness of staff, range of product, competitive pricing, cleanliness and evidence of support for the community are all areas the mystery shopper is looking for." Only when the customers' nominations are in and the mystery shopper is finished, do the shops receive a visit from the final judging panel. "The really fun part for me is when the judges visit the national finalists with a video camera and meet the staff and the managers," says Sandy. "This is where we can see for ourselves what is so special about their shop that so many customers have nominated them for the award. In addition, we are looking for a feelgood factor ­ that the shop is right for the particular locality it is serving. "Every finalist is visited which means we cover the length and breadth of the country!" Wilkie concludes: "We are looking forward to seeing the 40 or 50 shops that will go through to the national finals, which will recognise them as being at the forefront of the independent retail trade." {{Z SUPPLEMENTS }}