>>independents can flourish if they listen to customers and innovate, says David Sands, MD of David Sands c-stores

Imagine a group of business people, many of whom have given up well-paid jobs to start their own business. Financially they have staked everything. They are not afraid to take risks, work long hours and constantly seek to improve their business with passion and flair.
Throughout the UK we have thousands of independent entrepreneurial food retailers. We should be celebrating their sheer dynamism and imagination. Instead, all we read about is their imminent demise.
The laughable separation of the food retail market by the Office of Fair Trading into supermarket and convenience already highlights the total dominance of our market by a few major retailers. Just last week Tesco acquired 30 Safeway c-stores, taking its share of the convenience market to 6%. Its total market share, however, is more than 30%.
The OFT’s world revolves around “big is beautiful”. If our world continues down this path, then two companies may control up to 75% of the food retail market. Ultimately millions of customers in the UK will decide if this is a good thing. I don’t expect a lot of interference from our regulatory authorities.
Independent retailers and most food suppliers have a clear desire to ensure this market dominance does not continue. We can’t, however, spend all our time running to politicians and the competition authorities pleading that “it’s not fair”. We need to develop guerrilla tactics to constantly probe and attack this enemy. In the past these tactics have included longer opening hours and the addition of services. As ever, our enemy has learned to combat these.
We operate a chain of 18 convenience stores in the Fife and Perthshire areas of Scotland. As a family-owned and controlled company, we are passionate about our business. Over the years we have continued to invest heavily, with the recent construction of a new head office and central warehouse along with the building of our 19th store. As longstanding Nisa retail members, we have benefited from the group’s unique ability to combine the buying power of thousands of independent retailers for the better good.
Many within our sector are unclear about what exactly they want to achieve. I have been dismayed about endless arguments over the price of goods. If it was simply about price, then why have many discount chains had such a chequered past?
Our membership of HIM’s Convenience Tracking Programme, and the benefits of
more than 1,000 customer interviews as well as many informal conversations with our customers, tell us that there are other important factors. Staff friendliness and speed of service consistently feature as more important than value for money.
We should be good at listening to our customers; after all, we are closer to them. Many independents fail to listen to their customers and are surprised when they lose them to newly opened multiple stores.
There is a growing demand for healthier food, especially in Scotland, where our diet is causing massive healthcare problems. This represents a huge opportunity for small retailers to work with local growers and producers who provide healthier products. It is also an opportunity for local retailers to take a lead. A number of retailers in Scotland, including ourselves, have joined with the Scottish Executive to explore ways of promoting healthier options. Many suppliers fail to grasp the opportunity to deal with regional multiples. With full EPoS and limitless reporting capability, we are an ideal route to allow experimentation and the introduction of new lines.
I suppose it’s easy for me to be passionate about our business, but what about the 400 other people who work with me? Praise and recognition play a vital part in motivating staff. Not a week goes by that we haven’t handed out one award or another.
Trust is important. We recently removed a till checking procedure, which used to take up a lot of management time, simply to allow us to serve our customers quicker and to send out the message that we trust our staff.
We are firmly focused on expanding our business profitably, through constant improvement and innovation. Remember, Tesco started as a market stall.