Responsibility, flexibility and efficiency

Lewis Prager went from finance to convenience, bringing with him a talent for adaptation and planning that has delighted his customers and improved the local community

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Lewis Prager with his trophy for the Asian Trader Responsible Retailing Award

Before purchasing a convenience store in 2018, Lewis Prager worked in banking, one of the most regulated and supervised of economic sectors. It should be no wonder then that his best-one Preens store in Wakefield has been declared the joint winner in the Responsible Retailer of the Year category at the 2021 Asian Trader Awards.

The Asian Trader Responsible Retailing Award, supported by JTI, recognises the maturity, foresight and concern for customers shown by retailers in adhering to legal and regulatory guidelines and working with authorities and their community to combat illicit trade in their area as well as a commitment to social responsibility and the environment.

Prager had in fact had a serious problem on his hands when he decided to run the store, originally bought as an investment property.  Street drinking had been a serious issue in the area and he was approached by the alcohol licensing team soon after taking over the store.

“The old owners hadn’t tackled the issue of street drinking. It was very, very prevalent- this is actually an amber zone area,” he says. “So we’re in the city center, there’s this £100 fine for drinking on the streets.”

Working with the local council, the local alcohol licensing team, that includes a police officer as well, they came up with the strategy of to tackle the issue.

“Single cans were an issue -obviously not just our store – but I didn’t want to be known of putting through the problem. So I just said ‘look, why don’t we just stop selling single cans’. So we just made them four packs to stop that issue of them buying one can, like a kind of coffee or Coke or Pepsi and walking out to the street and opening it and drinking it,” Prager expalins.

He had also removed the low end brands and high-strength lagers completely from their range, so one can’t even buy those as a four pack. “So the clientele that was coming in originally to buy the single cans and that sort of cheap brands, they didn’t come in anymore because we didn’t have anything for them,” he says.

The community appreciated the efforts, though it took some time, and the store eventually even started to attract more family shoppers.

“Obviously the community saw the impact on the area, but it also showed my dedication to the community. I actually saw a better clientele coming to our shop. The families returned because the store wasn’t having street drinkers loitering outside the shop, or intimidating inside the shop,” he says.

“We actually got a nice clientele – obviously not straight away, it took several months to see that improvements and obviously word is out in the area that that’s what we were doing.”

Embedded in community

Prager stresses the importance of community’s backing to the independent convenience stores as they tackle the completion from the multiples.

“This is where we will win over the corporate stores because at the end of the day, a can of Coke is a can of Coke, we are all selling the same product,” he notes.

“You go to Tesco, you get a can of Coke, you go to a best-one store, a Premier you can buy a can of Coke. Now, if you have that relationship with your community, they will come to your store because you will talk about the football match or you recognise your customers.”

He says 80-85 per cent of their customers are returning, regular customers. It also helps that they are situated near a bus station, which provides high footfall to the store, with people on their way home from the bus stopping by.

“I think it’s very important that you embed yourself in the community to build that relationship and they will choose coming to your store because they know they see a friendly face and that gives them a lot of comfort and they like that,” he explains.

“Sometimes in your community you are the first person they’ll speak to on a morning. The power of having a simple conversation of, ‘good morning, how you doing, I’ve got your paper in here, anything else you need’, that’s literally probably the first conversation for a lot of our elderly residents who live around here.”

“Embedding yourself in the community is very, very important is what I’d say,” he cannot help reiterating the point.

Flexible to change

Regulatory requirements on convenience stores are now increasing in scope – Natasha’s Law requiring allergen labelling on food on the go products came into effect in last October, calorie labelling rules took effect this month, the HFSS regulations are set to come into force in October this year, and a deposit return scheme for single use containers is in the pipeline. Prager feels that every store owner and their employees have to be ‘flexible to change’ in this fast-paced environment.

“As a business owner, you have to be able to change and move with the times. If that’s what the government is implementing, that’s what we have to do,” he says. “Everyone can complain about it, or you can just get on with it, move on. And that’s what we’ve got to do.”

He thinks store owners need not see these changes as necessarily negative, but would like them to focus on the intentions behind the laws and, even make use of them to get more ‘embedded’ in the community.

“They are not bringing changes in to make our lives difficult; they are doing it to help the environment with the deposit return scheme, to help tackle obesity (with the HFSS regulations). So, take it as a positive,” he comments.

“If you are following all the new regulations, shout about it, put it on social media. Take the regulatory changes as positive, and shout from the rooftops that you’re doing it.”

Lewis Prager before his best-one Preens store in Wakefield

And, it’s not just the regulatory landscape; he feels that convenience retailing as a whole is an area where you can’t stand still.

“If you don’t change, you get left behind. That’s why as soon as I bought the store, we refurbished it because it was old, it was tired, it needed modernising,” he says.

He has spent a substantial amount of money refurbishing it, adding food to go and changing all the aisles and chillers. “We added a lot of better lighting, ceiling; literally the only thing we didn’t change was the floor tiles,” he says.

Discussing the refit further, he says his first priority was to listen to the business development team of his symbol group.

“They see more than just your store, they travel across multiple stores. So sit down with your rep and listen to them, do a few different ideas. We said yes to some and no to others- what we thought would work. Get involved with a proper design team: don’t try and do it all yourself. You know, we’re not experts in everything,” he says.

“So I think number one priority is definitely to get as much experience and knowledge to have a look at your store, and sit and pull up ideas of things that have worked in other stores.”

An efficient shop

He also suggests looking at any methods to make the store more efficient.

“And I mean that in multiple ways,” he explains. “I mean efficient for the customer to walk around and move around; to make any changes so that you can optimise your sales.

“Secondly, make sure everything is energy efficient. If you’re spending a substantial amount of money, make sure that in the long run, it’s worth it. Don’t just think ‘oh, we’re gonna save five grand on keeping the fridges’. If that five grand fridge can save you six and a half grand over seven years, it paid for itself.

“And, as a store owner, sufficiency yourself.  I think a lot of people are scared to spend money on store. They wanted to keep it as it is and run it into the ground. I see the complete opposite. And I’ve benefited from refurbishing it.”

Giving one example, he says changing the lights in the store has paid for themselves within the first eight months. The store had fluorescent tubes, and he changed them to 22 square LED panels that saves just shy of £115 pounds every month.

“So after eight months of what I spent, they’d already saved me enough electricity cost. My real electricity costs reduced that much just by changing my lights,” he reveals.

But, he also cautions that to make sure you’re doing changes that are positive. “Shop owners can sometimes think they know everything, because it’s their shop. We never know everything. And we always learn. I just always ask the team, you know, knowledge of other people.”

 

He also ensures that the store team is also on the same page, whether it’s adhering strictly to Challenge 25 policy and thwarting dealers of fake products, whose approaches he routinely reports to the local police force.

“We have, excluding myself, four members of staff, and they’re all regularly trained. Every quarter we have a mini sort of quiz that we do verbally, I guess you’d call it a role play. We make sure they’re aware of the Challenge 25, on the vape, cigarettes, underage drinking, and the recent change of underage lottery,” he says.

Prager sees a massive growth for home delivery in convenience, and has created a delivery app for the store. But, he has not yet promoted it much as he does not have the staffing to cover the potential it does have.

“What I did notice was, there weren’t my customers that were delivering to,” he says. “So I think a lot of worries for retailers that they will take people away from coming into your store, I would say get that get out of their heads – the people that come into your store, or in walking distance to your store or passing on the way home where to work, etc. while they’re out and about; the people that order online for home delivery are a completely new customers.”

“When we’re doing deliveries, I haven’t had a customer that was actually a customer of my store. So it’s a way to tap into a three-five mile radius of your store and take business of all the competition in the area. So I would advise anyone to do it.”

Switch to retail

So, why did he, after working for banks like Lloyds and Halifax and mortgage company Countrywide, decide to switch to retailing?

“I saw a growth in retail and the convenience sector. A lot of the banks and financial services are run by corporate micromanagement. I can’t deal with someone telling me, you know, all the time when I know that things could be done better,” he says.

“So I wanted to work for myself. Obviously, the convenience sector was booming, had a great location in the city center right next to the bus station. It was high footfall area. So I decided that this is this is the change for me.”

But, if he wanted to work for himself, why affiliate with a symbol group?

“Obviously, I was relatively new to retail. And it was quite important to me that I partnered with a symbol group that could offer me a lot of their experience and their knowledge of how to improve the store,” he explains.

He joined the best-one just before lockdown, completing the refurbishment, and he adds that the Bestway Group and the best-one branding has been ‘definitely’ the solution for him.

“They had all the right planograms , they had the knowledge, the business development team there was truly instrumental in my decision in joining best one,” he says.

He values the support and marketing material offered by the group, and the big nice branding that people recognise. “And you get a rebate, so why wouldn’t you do it?”

He adds the offers from best-one really help them to compete with supermarket, offering shoppers very good value for money.

But, he thinks that the manufacturers need to come together and have a look at the price marked products as the costs are increasing towards retailers.

“We used to make 40-45 per cent, now we’re down to making 25-30 per cent on some of the products,” he says.

He suggests uprating PMPs, say from £1 to £1.15, assuring people will still pay as long as it’s clearly spelt as the PMP.

“The feedback we get from customers is ‘oh this has gone small, I’m not buying it’ when they’re trying to keep the same price but the chocolate bars going smaller,” he adds. “They’re happy to pay a little bit more if they’re getting the same product.”