The imprint of family is writ large in independent convenience, where two out of five stores are owned by family partnerships, over half of retailers (54 per cent) employ at least one family member and 28 per cent of them inherited a family business [ACS Local Shop Report 2020]. The Next Gen Retailer of the Year category of the Asian Trader Awards recognises the way in which convenience has begun to be carried on and expanded by the daughters and sons of those who originally built up the sector in previous decades. In 2020, this category has a unique winner in Geoff Palmer of Torbay, whose father Steve is a beef farmer as well as a retailer.
When he was finishing college, Geoff started working in his father’s shop one night a week, on Fridays, as he says he wasn’t sure about what he would do after college. But soon they acquired another shop and he could see himself working full time as a retailer. They have since added another store and he now manages all three, Family Stores and Belgrave Stores in Torquay, and Foxhole Stores in Paignton – all under the Premier fascia. “I’ve never had another job, other than working on the farm, and I worked at a restaurant for a year. Other than that, I’ve never had a job,” he says.
It’s hard to miss the fact that the two sectors the family is involved in, retail and farming, are known for their demanding, even punishing, working hours. “Early mornings, late nights and long working hours were something I grew up with,” Geoff agrees. But, he says this offered him a “great grounding” when he started working within the retail industry, especially in the early days. He even feels that farming has a lot of similarities with retail as in constantly adapting to new legislation, changing consumer demands and costs.
“Experiencing this from a young age in two industries was a great grounding for me. My dad taught me that your product/offering needs to reflect what the consumer wants and you constantly have to evolve and change to meet consumer demand,” he says, adding that these learnings are the “bedrock of the way” he runs the shops.
The pace of change has been really breathtaking for the business over the last two and a half years. They have expanded the amount of both cold and hot food to go, introduced coffee to go, trebled chilled food space, removed the tobacco gantry to sell tobacco from drawers, introduced a great range of spirits and cut back on slower, more traditional lines. “Everything we have done has reflected what our customers have asked for,” Geoff says, harking back to his father’s principles.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck, which dealt a particular blow on the food-to-go sales. However, Geoff says they are nearly back to the same level as before, with people who saved up showing an increased appetite. “Now [food to go] seems to grow more because everyone’s out and people seem to have more money as well,” he says. “They’re willing to have a more premium product rather than the standard and they’re happy to pay more to have the best quality product.”
Geoff is set for another round of expansion, again responding to the changing consumer behaviour brought about the pandemic. They are currently planning an extension of their flagship Family Stores in Torquay, and they hope to start work later this year. Another work in development is home delivery through an app. However, he stresses that while home delivery is a “brilliant idea”, his aim is to bring people into the store and get them pick up at least one item more. It may sound contradictory, but Geoff vouches that vast majority of people are happy to visit their local store for a variety of reasons.
“We have looked after the customers a lot, right? And the customers were so grateful for that they feel like it’s safe, and they’re happy to come into the store,” he says. “It’s not busy; there are not loads of people. It’s a good environment, so they’re happy to come in store as well.”
He says there is also a palpable shift from supermarkets to convenience stores post pandemic, which could be reinforced by strengthening the offer and customer service. “The customers are more likely to come to you rather than go to the supermarket, probably because a lot of people have been scared in the last year. It’s brought them into store, and when they come into the store, you get good customer service, you have everything they want, and then they come back in, you know, as long as you look after the customer, they’re willing to come back to you.”
Another “massive” skill he has learned from his father is how to manage a great team. He says they have a very good team, “everyone’s really hard-working”, that makes such a difference in the store. “We wouldn’t be here without the staff. We have a standard and the staff are all happy to keep to that standard, because it works, not just for them. If you’re giving the customer a good experience, they’re happy to look after you, they’re happy to come back,” he notes.
They have around 25 staff across all the sites and he works closely to develop them and offer them the chance of career advancement. More significantly, he is well aware of the need for building trust with the staff, especially when you operate multiple stores. “If you’re in one store, and something is going on in the other store, you know that you can trust everyone,” he says. “You’ve got to be able to trust everyone that works for you. Otherwise, you can’t be on the ball.”
Geoff says availability is a major challenge the convenience sector is facing at the moment. “Availability is a massive thing. If you don’t have it, you can’t sell it,” It’s as simple and straightforward as that. Though we speak in the backdrop of an HGV driver shortage that begins to threaten critical supply chains, he is yet to see the impact. But, last year, as the pandemic began to unfold and panic buying set in, he had to do some heavy lifting to ensure they have enough stock to meet the increased demand.
“Our whole way of purchasing changed. As well as our normal three deliveries a week from Booker we needed to visit the cash and carry almost on a daily basis to keep up with demand. We also joined and used the Booker Retail Partners fresh food scheme which took our fresh food availability to new levels. We had to use other wholesalers who we had not used before too. This combination ensured we offered customers optimum availability,” he says.
Fresh food has seen the biggest growth last year, prompting them to introduce more chilled space, as they joined the Booker scheme. “The increased chilled range has resulted in us retaining a high proportion of our new customers,” he adds.
Geoff says his family experience across two industries of adapting and changing due to unexpected circumstances has been key in tackling the pandemic challenges. And, they were quite lucky to hold quite a lot of back stock. “We actually didn’t have too many shortages. But where there were shortages, we were just limiting things, like two per customer.”
A safe shopping environment and great customer service are the two factors, according to Geoff, that played a significant role in instilling confidence in their existing customers, attracting new ones, and subsequently, retaining many of them. “We introduced a limit on numbers in store, introduced consumer sanitizing stands, clearly introduced one-way and queueing systems. We worked hard on communicating well with our customers throughout. We kept them updated on Facebook and made sure if they did have to wait to come in we apologised and thanked them for their patience,” he explains.
Treating customers as individuals has been the essence of their approach. “We recognised many were feeling anxious and that we might be the only people some older people might speak to all day. We tried to ensure we had time to speak with each customer and to make them feel valued,” he adds.
In fact, Geoff puts a lot emphasis on customer service, counting it as a point of difference that helps him stand out from the competition. “When you come into the store, every time the cashiers will always be very friendly, asking ‘How is your day; did you find everything?’” he says. “If you can talk to every customer that comes through the door, you know, it is a very local thing as well.”
He adds that this works well even for his store situated in the holiday area. “If you’re good to them, people will remember that. ‘They were nice in that store. I’ll go back now. I’ve got everything I wanted in that store.’ That’s the main thing we have.”
It also helps that his stores “look presentable”, always clean and tidy. “People want to go to places where they get everything and in a nice, clean atmosphere, you know?” Yes, we cannot agree more.
Although they are in a tourist area, Geoff predicts people will largely keep themselves confined to their homes for some more time. But, he is not expecting much of a hit due to that, as he reveals an emerging trend. “People are staying in, they’re not going to the pubs because they realised [that] the pubs are quite expensive. They’re happy to get their beers and drink them at home.”
Speaking about the challenges facing the sector, Geoff picks crime as an area of concern. “The law has got to be tougher on those who are shoplifting. And crime in general, that’s one thing that does affect us, and will impact us in the future if no one does anything,” he says. “Then, it’s just going to get worse and worse.”
The 24-year-old just likes the job and can’t really think of anything that he would count as a minus. “You don’t know who’s gonna walk through the door. Everyone’s different, and every day is different. And there’s always something to do, there’s never a dull moment. You’ve got to be on the go all the time and I’d like to keep my mind busy,” he says, adding that he doesn’t think he will ever have another job. “I’m so happy where I am. The company is obviously growing. We’re looking for more stores. And yes, I love the job.”
His dad has indeed passed on the hard work ethic to Geoff, who believes that “the more you put in, the more you get out at the end of the day.” And he thinks that independent retailers really need to have that feeling of “want to do it” to make the store a success.
“If you don’t want to do it, then it’s not the job for you. You’ve got to be wanting to be in the store, putting in the hours, keeping the customers happy and that’s how you get the most out of it.”