Bedford-born retailer Natalie Lightfoot converted her Glasgow store to a Londis earlier this year. It has been one of the most exciting and challenging times of her life.
We ask some of Scotland’s young c-store retailers about their businesses and the key issues of the day.
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How did you get started in convenience retailing?
After I finished university I didn’t know what to do, so my brother, who already had a shop in Baillieston, told me about an empty shop along the road and encouraged me to move up and run it with him. It was two shops – a video store and an ice cream parlour – and we knocked them into one. We carried on running the ice cream parlour because it was a good business, but eventually the convenience store side just got too big and we needed somewhere to keep the stock, so we took the ice cream parlour out. Over the years my brother and I grew really independent of each other and two years ago he left the business to concentrate on his ice cream café down the road. Originally I only expected to be here for two years. That was 10 years ago.
How has your business evolved since joining Londis?
We did the refit in February, and since then we’ve focused on increasing our sales, working from a different model. Before we were just an independent, but you get so much support from joining a symbol group. I was part of a buying club, but it’s not the same. You don’t have anyone to go back to or talk to. I’m part of a WhatsApp group with other Londis retailers and everybody shares ideas, it feels quite supportive and lets you know you’re not on your own. I felt a bit isolated after splitting from my brother and it feels good to have other people to bounce ideas off.
I think it’s probably the best business to be in. It’s consistent, there is growth in it and as long as you’re committed with a good work ethic, and not afraid to take a few risks, you can make it work. And I think once you get into it, it’s hard to get out. It becomes part of you. I know some people resent it because of the long hours, but you can make it work. I have eight members of staff and I believe in delegating. Finding a balance can be challenging, but it can be done.
Which categories do you find offer the most opportunity?
I focus a lot on soft drinks. We have quite a variety and we do a big glass bottle range, which is very popular. Alcohol does well, but I think supermarkets have the edge, price-wise. Fresh is something else to consider. We extended our fridges in the refit and started offering sandwiches and butcher stuff. It’s good value and good margins. Wastage was a problem at the start, but it’s trial and error.
When I’m active on Facebook I am very active. It’s my number one virtual platform. Twitter I tend to use for supplier relationships and speaking to the trade, but Facebook is an extension of the shop’s relationship with the customers. It’s quite personable and funny, and I try to involve the staff and customers.
What is your experience of retail crime?
We’ve been broken into twice since the refit. We had a weak spot and they exploited it, clearing out everything from the cigarette gantry. That was the hardest time of my life. We didn’t get an insurance pay-out, so I had to suffer the loss myself, which is quite hard to digest. I had a lot of regrets and very tough lessons to learn. I’m not a stupid person, but that made me feel like I was. I’m pleased to say that’s in the past now and I’m still here, paying the wages and bills. I don’t think I could have gotten over it if without the support of Londis.
It has been hard. You can’t become complacent in this business. I became complacent with my security and look what happened. I need to insist on selling PMPs, because that shifts volume, but if the margin starts getting affected I need to think about what products I can change to non-price-marked to make a bit of money on and keep paying wages. Obviously in October the minimum wage goes up again for the under-25s. I’ve got three over the age of 25 and the rest below, so that brings its own challenges. I am more conscious of hours now and trying to think of new things that can bring more revenue in. We added a slush machine, which helped, but I’m expecting that to tail off in the winter, so we’re thinking about adding a hot food counter.
What do you think will be the impact of EUTPD2?
Tobacco is about 42% of my whole trade, so with all the changes that are going to happen by May of next year, we’re facing a big challenge. What will happen? Will people start going to the illicit trade because they can’t buy 10 packs anymore and they genuinely can’t afford 20 packs? What will people be forced into doing? That concerns me. You can try and prepare yourself, but you can’t prevent people from buying packs in pubs or market stalls that could be mixed with rat poison.
It seems to me the government knows the tobacco trade is going to fall, they need to get their revenue somewhere else and they can justify by saying people are obese. But all it’ll do is make people obese and poor. It might lead to more sugar-free alternatives, but things are already moving that way. We have healthy snacks like Forest nuts and Graze boxes and they sell well. I was surprised, but people really are already looking for healthier options.
How do you differentiate your store from competitors?
It’s all about customer service. I can’t emphasise that enough. My mum worked for the John Lewis partnership for 30 years and she has instilled in me the value of customer service. Customers have told me the reason they come here is the staff. There are many shops that sell the same things we do, but people choose to come here because the staff make them feel valued. It’s important to listen to your customers, check out other stores and not be afraid to take advice from other people. I think one of the things about being independent is you can get carried away with being the boss. I hate that title. I quite like it when people just think I’m the shop girl.