If a week is a long time in politics, what does that make a year in retailing? Answers on a postcard please. Putting aside disputes over when the new millennium began or will begin, as years go, 2000 has seemed an apocryphal one. Floods, fuel crises and the tussle over who will run the biggest brand in the country (the National Lottery) have provided fertile fodder for the headline writers and anything ranging from uncertainty to misery for the rest of us. It wasn't an easy year even for big retailers ­ Marks & Spencer is still struggling with its image and Sainsbury's big drop in profits are two issues that spring to mind immediately. For the independent grocer there was an even greater tangle of red tape to wrestle with and a continuing drain on profits, thanks to the healthy smuggling industry and the matchless buying power of the multiples. Some form of "millennium bug" dogged The Dome and other would-be national treasures, but at least our computers have proved resistant to any pandemic disease and continue in their temperamental way to help us run our businesses. E-tailing has boomed but proved costly for many who felt obliged to jump aboard a bandwagon hurtling down an unsure path. Grocery these days seems to be far less about food and more about services as retailers turn into bankers and mobile phone accessory salespeople. Food itself has turned into "meal solutions" and must be either chilled out or fast and hot if it's going to sell well. If you are going to thrive rather than survive in retailing, you cannot ignore these trends. Successful retailing today demands that your goods are wide-ranging, competitive and represent value-for-money. Your store's image must be street-smart to hammer your brand home. At the same time you need to show that you typify care in the community. You are the heart of the neighbourhood. Oh yes, and you need to do this for longer hours than anyone should ever be expected to work. How do you manage it? Well, here's help with the way forward Perhaps you are already on top of the trends and a dab hand at accentuating the positive so that your customers appreciate what sterling service you provide and reward you with their loyalty and increasing spends in-store. If that ideal doesn't apply, then it might be time to take stock of your business. In retailing you cannot start the new year with a new slate, but a short list of business resolutions could pay dividends. - Have a proper look at your premises and decide what needs to be done to its image and range to keep your old customers coming and to attract new ones - Can you afford a refit? Can you afford not to? - How skilled are you? And how trained are your staff? If you think you "could do better" check out what support is available. Start by contacting Business Links which are local partnerships bringing together the business support services of the DTI, training and enterprise councils, chambers of commerce, enterprise agencies, local authorities and other local bodies. Ring the signpost number ­ 0845 756 7765 ­ for the number of your closest Business Link. - Write a business plan. It will help identify your strengths and weaknesses and define your objectives. If you want to raise finance to improve your premises, your bank manager will expect to see a plan. - Consider your buying options. Are you spending too much time away from your premises in search of cash and carry bargains? Or are you spending too much money through a group which isn't supporting you in the way you expected? - Get computerised. As a business tool it cannot be ignored. A store that doesn't have scanning is lacking in business information. And you don't know how much is being pinched from you either. - Choose your staff carefully and treat them well. They are your best asset. - Now shout about it. Promote your new, improved business. Ads in the local paper are cost effective and leaflet drops work well. We're now heading down the home straight as far as peak season selling goes. Don't forget to publicise your opening hours (certainly Sainsbury and Tesco are publicising theirs, including their browsing times which allow them to bend the six-hour Sunday trading laws). If they could, the multiples would open later on Sundays too although this doesn't strike me as cost-effective on a Christmas Eve. There can't be that many customers out late to do a big shop. Any high street on a Christmas Eve (whenever it falls) after 4pm will strike you by its tranquillity. It really is just about the only evening left in the year when most people just want to be at home. So it follows that, for last-minute purchases, all they really want is their local c-store ­ so you'd better have it all ready: the cakes and ale, a few fancy toiletries and lots of part-baked bread. As you get busier you may overlook things such as an upsurge in phonecard demand for long-distance calls. And an area to promote is the National Lottery. Encourage your regular customers to buy the £5 Big Tickets well in advance of the New Year's Eve draw. Christmas is also the peak season for thieves. I wonder how many shopkeepers could honestly say that none of their customers or staff had ever stolen anything from them. Not one in the land I suspect. So, keep careful watch by night ­ and I wish you a peaceful and prosperous season of good cheer. {{GROCER CLUB }}