“Everybody is in a position to help out.”
That’s the mantra of Anita Nye, store manager of the Premier Eldred Drive in Orpington, the winner of the Spirit of the Community Award at the Asian Trader Awards in 2019.
Located in a housing estate, just opposite a primary school, the store has been part of the community for over three-and-a-half decades, and their customers were equally happy over the recognition.
“They were over the moon. They obviously know what we do, so they were really pleased,” Anita says, and adds with a laugh, “which is always a good thing.”
One community initiative that captured the imagination of the judging panel was the store’s “snack smart” loyalty card for school children. Every time a child buys a healthy snack under 100 calories (not sweets or chocolate) they get a stamp on the card, and for every 10 stamps they get a free healthy snack.
Apart from being an excellent strategy to tackle childhood obesity, the scheme also makes business sense to Anita. “A lot people ignore the youngsters, they are the one you’ve got to work on. They are your future customers.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the scheme, as they were not allowing children into the store, especially during the lockdown. Anita was hoping to re-launch the card– which is a “massive thing” for her personally –when the kids go back to school, but with the country going into a new lockdown, she needs to keep her fingers crossed.
The store’s adult loyalty card is still going strong, though. In this scheme, customers get a stamp every time they spend £10 on groceries.
“We chose to keep the amount that triggers a stamp relatively low and shoppers just need to collect 10 stamps to get £5 off their shopping,” Anita says.
The scheme is incredibly popular, with people saving their cards throughout the year so that they can get some really good money off their Christmas shopping. “We actually keep a lot of people’s cards behind the counter for them as quite a few, particularly the elderly, worry that they might forget or lose them and then miss out on savings,” she added.
Another initiative that gives this store a place in the heart of the community is its tab system, offering credit to people who are really hard-up. They don’t publicise this as a service, but provide it to customers they know really well.
“We don’t do it on alcohol, tobacco or lottery, it’s purely on groceries and essential items, food to feed their kids,” Anita says. “Many times we’ve thought about setting a limit on the amount that we allow people to rack up on their tabs, but in the end we’ve always decided against it.”
The scheme has been “bit more in demand” this year, Anita added, with people losing jobs and being furloughed.
“We have a couple of customers who came in and said, “Is it okay to pay by payday?” That’s fine; we are not going to turn anybody away. I just think it’s part of a convenience store,” she says. “The way the world is at the moment, they know they can come to us if they need help. That’s very important.”
Anita admits there’s a risk in the scheme as they could lose out if shoppers failed to pay up, but says they are “willing to take a risk in order to be true community retailers.” In fact, they have seen a few instances where people have moved away before paying their dues, and others where customers have simply stopped coming into the store because they can’t pay it back and they feel awkward.
“This upsets me because I would never want them to feel that way. If they are people in genuine need I’d always rather try to help them and find a solution,” she says.
Every area is different – just get to know your area, your community, your shoppers and their needs. Then see what you can do to get involved.”
This drive to seek solutions is also something that helped the store to cope really well as the pandemic induced a “new normal” last March.
They faced a few issues with supplies in the beginning of first lockdown, but the store has been able to overcome that. And it didn’t stop there:The Princess Royal University Hospital, which is quite close to the store, has opened a pop-up shop for the NHS staff, but was finding it difficult to source supplies. The store supplied them for the duration of the full lockdown.
“We could supply to them for the whole eight weeks, sometimes two deliveries a day. Anything they needed we could get hold of, fresh meat, toilet rolls, snacks, anything like that,” she says. No mean feat!
While home delivery of groceries has been a trend that picked up nationally during the lockdown, for Anita and her team, this was something that they have always done.
“We have done deliveries to our elder customers for years. Obviously that increased during the pandemic. We are still doing deliveries. We got some of our elderly customers who don’t want to go out. So, basically we get them to ring in the morning between 9 and 11, then we deliver their shopping in the afternoon,” she explains.
The store understandably has had curtail a lot of their community outreach programmes due to the pandemic. However, they still managed to continue their raffles, which they do around the year, normally to support those with motor neurone disease. Recently, they have raised just under £1000 for the Poppy Appeal during the period of Remembrance. They also gave upto 220 presents for the nearby school to give out to the pupils.
While all these limitations are what Anita, a veteran shopkeeper of 36 years, would take in her stride, the pandemic has also led to something that would shake her –when she was attacked by a male customer on the day before the first lockdown. She hit her head on a till when the offender pushed her.
She had a good response from the police who dealt with the incident in three hours. However, the store has not been free from the menace of violence targeting shops that has increased particularly during the lockdown. They had another member of staff being subjected to verbal abuse in July. Her husband has also suffered an attack by a customer.
“We had lot of support and help from the community, especially when they heard about attacks. Regular customers are more understanding. Unfortunately we get the odd one or two who may be passing by,” she says.
The incidents prompted the store to decide against policing the regulations that made wearing face mask compulsory for shoppers. Anita terms it as “one of the big decisions” they took as a shop, but she noted that majority of customers do wear a mask.
Otherwise, the shop adopted a pro-active approach to the fight against the pandemic. The 1200 sqft store has got a couple of very narrow aisles and they have taken several measures to control crowding. Initially, only four people were allowed in, and they maintained a one way system with arrow marks and guidance.They also installed a traffic-light system, which signalled when customers were allowed to enter, dependent on the number of shoppers inside at that time.
“We had a visit from the council when they were doing checks. Basically we were doing brilliantly, and doing more than what needed to do. That was a good thing as well,” Anita says.
As far as the sales are concerned, the store has benefitted from the other pandemic-induced trend of increased custom to local shops. During the pandemic, sales have gone up to around £45,000 a week, without services like lottery, whereas the corresponding figure before the pandemic was £36,000-37,000. This has now settled at around £40,000, reveals Anita.
Some hands-on innovations also help in the sales uptick. Their ranging of free-from products is a case in point. They used to have a separate section for these products, but Anita says shoppers found it confusing.
“We changed what we did. We literally went through every product in the store to see whether its free-from – sugar-free or gluten-free and like that – and then we put a green dot on the sticker. So, when people are doing their shopping they know it’s free from something,” she explains.
The ingenious method saves shoppers who are looking for a free-from product quite considerable time. “With the green dot on the ticket, they can cut down reading labels on every single product,” she says.
Anita observes that pandemic has led people to focus more on prices, and they try to respond in whatever ways possible. “Everybody is watching their money now. We try to do price-marked stuff, because that’s what the customer prefers,” she says.
Starting out on the shop floor when she was just 14, Anita has amassed a wealth of experience to tell you that small gestures like trying to remember your customer’s name and the sort of products they like go a long way in engaging the community also.
“You can do little events to make them part of the business. Just get to know your customer,” that’ll be her refrain.
When you get to know your customer, you get to know your community.