Social media and apps are one of the best ways a modern business can manage and promote itself, especially in the smartphone era. But what are suppliers, wholesalers and independent retailers themselves doing to grow the industry's presence online? Asian Trader investigates.
Social media is now a well-established tool in use for businesses seeking to reach consumers and other businesses. An independent store can use digital technology to connect with its local area and drive its sales, and also connect itself more efficiently to suppliers and wholesalers further up the retail supply chain. The question is how to do it both efficiently and well.
There are lots of social media platforms and the time needed to run a good social media strategy, on top of the demands of a busy shop, mean that a retailer has to choose where to spend their time wisely. Even the most popular social media platform have a unique purpose, a different demographic and offer different opportunities. Likewise many suppliers and wholesalers now interact directly with retailers on social media and offer their own apps to reduce the time and money needed for pre-existing supply chain processes to function.
Asian Trader asked suppliers, wholesalers, symbol groups, and entrepreneurs about how they were helping independents to integrate with them via digital platforms, or how their firms were working with time poor retailers to improve their online presence. We also spoke to several independents themselves on how they had used apps and social media to grow their businesses.
Retailers on social media
Many retailers are not confused by social media itself, which they use in their daily lives outside the store. But according to a P&H survey at last year's Pro-retail trade show of the retailers questioned 37% still did not use any in their business at all. 
Of those who did, the key benefits of using social media, as identified by retailers themselves, included creating positive exposure for their store, the ability to quickly respond to customer complaints and queries and posting information directly applicable to their customer base. Retailers also said that it was much cheaper than traditional advertising.
According to the survey Facebook stood out as the most popular social media platform, with 94% of retailers who do use social media saying they run a business account. Twitter is used by over half of retailers (55%) followed by LinkedIn (22%) and Instagram (17%).
“There is significant demand from our retailers to use social media as they recognise the opportunity it provides to engage with their local customers. With two thirds of adults in the UK owning a smartphone and 90% of 16-24 year olds having one, a strong social media presence is key to reaching consumers who are not consuming media in the traditional way,” says Sean Russell, Digital Marketing Manager for Costcutter Supermarkets Group.
There is widespread industry agreement that social media is a great way to promote your store, whether that be by running store specific promotions, promoting local heroes or events, or starting a competition. But often retailers who think of using platforms like Facebook or Twitter find they only have enough  time and energy to post a few things they want their audience to like and share. Many profiles languish underused or ignored, with retailers unsure how to get users' attention. 
Sometimes the support provided by digital specialists can really help local retailers to create a thriving online following from a standing start. One option is working with franchises and symbol groups, who have been developing their digital support for independents' staff and businesses. 
Costcutter Supermarkets Group offers a resource centre including best practice guides, ‘top tips’ and retailer case studies is available to retailers via the ActivHUB retailer portal. One recent beneficiary of the symbol group's recent pilot retailer social media training programme was Costcutter retailer Derek Ritchie. 
Derek had a training session with Costcutter's digital team and after it his store in Ellon, Scotland, went from a standing start to over 1,000 Facebook page likes in just two months. One whisky promotion achieved sell-out in store, reaching almost 8,000 local consumers and over 900 likes, comments and shares. 
However not all independent retailers are symbol group members and not all symbol groups currently offer members social media support and training. 
One retailer who has been a pioneer of social media in the convenience channel is Sheffield-based Mandeep Singh, who runs several Premier stores with his brothers. Mandeep says the trio made a decision two years ago to really develop their online presence after being advised to do so by a business colleague. Their efforts were a rocketing success and the brothers now run a widely followed Facebook page that has helped them take on the surrounding multiple retailers in their area.
Mandeep says: “On Facebook we have 13,000 followers and on Twitter we've got over 5,000. We looked at other retailers and what they were doing and we didn't really see anything that was making a major difference. To me… unless you are getting the engagement – shares, likes and comments – it seems a bit pointless. So… we did a few videos and put our community work on there. The adverts we do are straight to the point and everything mirrors what we are doing in the store. 
The brothers started out slowly but the number of their followers crept up as word spread online about their stunts and deals. When they won an Xbox in a Heineken competition they announced a competition to pass it onto their customers. Since the Xbox was originally won from Heineken and the firm were sponsoring the Rugby World Cup at the time, the brothers used Heineken's #ItsYourCall Rugby World Cup hashtag to raise awareness. After putting news of the draw on Facebook their advert got more than 1500 likes, 1100 comments and 1800 shares. Mandeep reckons it ultimately reached 29,000 people.
He says: “We started comparing our likes to Sainsbury's and Tesco and… we are beating Tesco and getting more hits. It's had an uplift on sales as well… when I put something on Facebook people come in and ask for it.”
Talking to retailers
Of course technology doesn't just have to put stores in closer contact with their customers, it can also put wholesalers and suppliers in touch with them.
Greg Deacon, Independents Sales Manager at News UK, uses social media to keep in contact with retailers online, using a consistent personalisation via News UK's Twitter account and his own to promote and highlight the role of news to stores, plus the programmes his company has implemented. 
He thinks that: “Currently in the retail environment Twitter's primary mission between supplier, trade press & retailer is B2B. To succeed you need a constant presence, consistency in tone and messaging. [But] building advocates and differentiating brand position can be accomplished if you invest time in this platform.”
Regarding stores and their customers, Greg sees Facebook as the community platform for use between them, and a great way for retailers to influence visit/purchase decision locally. 
By contrast retailers will need to decide if they see Twitter as a channel for their consumer messages or as a personal supplier engagement tool to drive store experience/profitability through supplier and trade advice. Either way it is a growing platform that will only continue expand as smartphone penetration increases and allows customers to communicate directly to brands.
He adds: “Retail is competitive, evolving and never stands still. We need to use all channels to influence, inform and engage the retail network to drive… relevance to the last yard.”
Entrepreneur Anx Patel would probably agree. Having been born into a retailing family and run his own store which he sold for a large profit eight years later, he craved the convenience which mobile ordering can offer businesses. 
Having headed up software development at Nisa, Anx then developed GoKart as a wholesale mobile order capture and processing app for smartphones and tablets. The app solves many of the problems he faced whilst a retailer, and gives independent retailers and wholesalers alike a chance to leapfrog the technological advances of bigger players in the industry. 
GoKart has been championed by companies such as Kerryfresh, because it gives free and instant access to supply optimisation for independent retailers and foodservice businesses via their smartphones or tablets, while enabling wholesalers to increase loyalty and efficiency via a branded mobile ordering app for their customers. 
The GoKart team have two versions for wholesalers to offer their customers, their GoKart Marketplace, where trade customers order from from suppliers on the GoKart app, or an individual branded company app specially built by GoKart, so trade customers can order exclusively from that company's catalogues.
More and more suppliers are also moving into the apps business for their sales teams. Last year, Bonds Confectionery replaced its electronic pen and paper ordering system with a brand new iPad app, PixSell from Hampshire-based tech firm Aspin. 
According to the company the app has streamlined their order-taking: the Bonds’ sales team can present digital representations of the products to potential customers, receive information from head office regarding promotional items, and order in real-time. 
Steven Barrett, Web Sales Manager at Bonds Confectionery, says: “The app has really sped-up our ordering process whilst providing a professional catalogue/selling tool and giving staff much more time to concentrate on other tasks. The ordering process has made something that was traditionally a bugbear for staff something that is efficient, easy to use and streamlined.”