Convenience stores have found themselves thrust into the spotlight by this year’s pandemic, with communities relying on them more than ever as hubs for supplies and services. This reliance carries with it a burden of responsibility for the shopkeepers, who strive to serve both customer and community in the best way they can.
Central to this is the concept of responsible retailing, which includes, in the context of the pandemic, proper observation of social distancing in stores, services such as delivery of shopping for the shielded and housebound and charity work and local community fundraising, among many other things.
With consumers increasingly consider their health, and the health of the planet, in their shopping decisions, re-imagining retail through a sustainability lens has now become a business imperative. A 2018 Accenture study has found that 62 per cent of consumers are shopping with their values – a radical shift in consumption patterns which the pandemic could strengthen.
Form deforestation caused by oil palm plantations (remember the 2018 Christmas advert by Iceland?) to modern slavery at tea estates, from plastics polluting the oceans to food waste, consumers are now well aware that grocers have a stake in the environmental issues and this adds another layer of responsibility to all retailers, including independents.
Local stores are in for new regulations in this area with single-use plastic carrier bag charge being extended to include all retailers in England from April 2021 and the Scottish deposit return scheme (DRS) for single-use drinks containers coming into force on 1 July 2022. While the bill to introduce the scheme in rest of the UK is under the consideration of the House of Commons, the exact scope and model of a DRS is yet to be decided as the Defra plans to hold a second consultation on the topic.
Then, there are the legal obligations around the sale of age-restricted products, primarily alcohol and tobacco, but also includes products like knives, lottery tickets, vapes, DVDs and video games, lighter refills containing butane, petrol, aerosol paint, fireworks, party poopers and Christmas crackers. This responsibility plays a big part in shaping a local shop’s role in their community. Retailers certainly deserve a part of the credit for the falling prevalence rates for smoking and drinking among teenagers.
According to the latest estimates of the HMRC, illegal sales of alcoholic drinks resulted in a tax gap of 7.5 per cent, or £1.2 billion in lost revenue, in 2018-19. As criminals infiltrate the supply chain at multiple stages, retailers can easily become implicated in fraud without safeguards in place. Awarah Shikha, who runs Tivoli Food and Wine in Tivoli Crescent, Brighton, has learnt this lesson hard and now lost his alcohol licence.
The 28-year-old bought 90 bottles of wine from a cold caller – a “white van man” – who had promised to return with a receipt but was never seen again. A raid in March by trading standards officers, before the COVID-19 restrictions, found the prosecco as counterfeit.
A police inspection that followed in August then found issues with security cameras. Besides, there were no staff training records and the designated premises supervisor (DPS) left the business in 2016.
Shikha, an Iraqi who he came to Britain to improve his life, admitted that his understanding of written legal and technical terms meant that he made mistakes. He said he has since put controls in place at the shop and hired a licensing consultant to provide training and support good practice.
That was not sufficient to convince the licencing panel, though, which decided to revoke the shop’s licence.
At the same time, his case also shines a light on the impact convenience retailers can make in the community, with the council receiving 24 letters in support of Shikha.
“The views of the residents are that the shop is an asset as there is not much around there during the ongoing pandemic. Shikha and his staff go out of their way to help customers positively,” said Graham Hopkins, the licensing consultant.
Former Green councillor Christina Summers spoke on behalf of neighbours during the licencing hearing who said that Shikha had transformed the shop since taking over in 2016.
He had not tried to hide any of the mistakes that he had made, she said, adding: “If we were to penalise him and solely go by the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of the law, I think the impact on him would be tremendous.”
“If he loses his licence, his business is going to fold because there is no way he, his wife, a baby and little girl will be able to maintain that business and it will impact on the community.”
Shikha now has the option to appeal the decision and needs to find ways to make the shop viable without alcohol licence in the meanwhile.
While it’s the lax approach to the law and policies governing the sale of alcohol that did Shikha in, public disorder is the central concern in many a licence hearing across the country. Oxford Road in Reading is a case in point, with no less than six stores on the high street facing a review of their alcohol licence after a crackdown by Thames Valley Police (TVP).
The force said inspections have revealed poor processes, lack of compliance, breaches of conditions and failure by the licence holder to address or improve these issues.
It added that sales of super-strength cheap beers and ciders is “fuelling incidents of alcohol related crime and disorder in the area”, and said it is “of extreme concern and a priority for the Oxford Road residents and community to resolve this issue”.
According to local community leader Peter Bowyer, the area has a history of anti-social behaviour problems “much of which is attributable to the street population and coincides with alcohol and drug misuse.”
The chairman of the Oxford Road Safer Neighbourhood Forum also concurred with the TVP on super-strength beers.
“A typical street drinker will obtain, often by begging, enough money for a single can, go to the nearest off-licence to buy it, and drink it immediately,” Bowyer said. “Stopping sales of single cans helps to defeat this cycle. Premises that have voluntarily adopted this practice report a significant reduction in anti-social behaviour in the immediate area.”
The council has already banned two of the six shops from selling beer and cider above 6.5 per cent. Both shops were also given a swathe of identical new conditions to ensure they comply with licensing rules.
However, the super strength ban alone, or retailers on their own, cannot make the difference and a holistic approach is needed to root out the issues of street drinking, anti-social behaviour and crime. The TVP report on Anrish News, one of the Oxford Road six, itself reveals how the store has been a victim of crime. Officers have received eight reports in the last three years of fights, thefts, assaults and drunken behaviour at the srore. Alcohol bottles were stolen in two incidents, once by two females and then by an intoxicated, underage individual. Fights broke out thrice, twice inside the store, causing damage to the premises. Two female customers were punched in one of the two incidents of drunken behaviour. Topping it all, shop owner was assaulted by a group of male and female youths, including having a bottle thrown at him and being spat at.
There are clear links between alcohol and anti-social behaviour in our communities, and retailers have stakes in both the cause and the effect, as seen in the case of Anrish News. Community Alcohol Partnerships (CAPs) is one response developed by retailers that adopts a collaborative model to address the issue.
The initiative brings together retailers, councils, police, schools, health providers and community groups to reduce alcohol harm among young people. Piloted by the Retail of Alcohol Standards Group (RASG) in 2007, the CAP is now considered one of the most effective ways of tackling localised undderage drinking with over 200 projects across the UK. The 2019 annual report of the organisation shows 52 per cent average reductions in regular drinking among 13-16 year olds in CAP areas between 2015 and 2019.
There has also been 80 per cent improvement in Challenge 25 compliance following CAP training and 77 per cent reduction in young people hanging around shops and asking adults to buy alcohol for them in the same period.
The latest two these partnerships were launched this month in Skelmersdale and Glastonbury. Both CAPs will work with local retailers to help them avoid making underage sales and reduce ‘proxy’ sales, alongside partnering local schools to take a proactive approach to alcohol education.
In Glastonbury, 85 per cent of retailers surveyed in last November said they had been affected by alcohol-related anti-social behaviour and concerns were raised at a recent Glastonbury Town Council community meeting that issues have increased post lockdown. The Skelmersdale CAP has already begun promoting with retailers its free Challenge 25 training and vulnerability training, and businesses can access the free online training at bit.ly/2ISvQPn.
“Underage drinking is associated with school and educational problems, unprotected sex, drug-taking, violence and drinking problems in later life,” said Kate Winstanley, CAP director.
“In just over a decade CAP has set up 212 projects in some of the UK’s heaviest drinking areas and our evaluations show they have a significant impact on reducing children’s alcohol consumption and protecting them from alcohol harm.”
The latest Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use among Young People in England report has recorded the lowest number of pupils – between ages 11 and 15 – ever smoked, with only 16 per cent saying they had smoked at least once. This compares to 19 per cent in 2016 and 49 per cent in 1996.
The biennial report has encouraging results in other metrics also with the number of current smokers declining to 5 per cent in 2018, as compared to 22 per cent in 1996, and regular smokers to 2 per cent (1996: 13%).
However, there are worrying statistics concerning retailers in the report. While the proportion buying cigarettes from shops by pupils who are current smokers has halved since the prohibition of display in 2015 – from 46 per cent in 2014 to 23 per cent in 2018 – this figure of underage sales is still high. The proxy purchasing is also a concern, particularly in the case of e-cigarettes, as 72 per cent of all pupils and 82 per cent of current vapers were successful to get someone else to buy them e-cigarettes or refills from a shop.
An investigation by JTI earlier this year has also confirmed this, with two-thirds of vape stores failing in test purchases. The study has also discovered that 53 per cent of businesses are not carrying out any test purchasing checks to understand if their own systems are working.
The scourge of illegal tobacco is also a lingering concern. The latest estimates from HMRC show that 8 per cent of cigarettes and 33 per cent of roll your own (RYO) tobacco consumed in the UK is purchased illegally. This translates to a tax gap of 14 per cent and lost revenue of £1.4 billion in 2018-19.
“There are many reasons why retailers and the wider public should care about illicit trading,” commented Ian Howell, fiscal and regulatory affairs manager at JTI UK. “Selling illegal tobacco damages legitimate businesses by taking revenue away from honest retailers, supports criminal organisations and makes it easier for young people to get hold of tobacco products.”
JTI regularly undertakes test purchasing to assess the availability of illegal tobacco across the UK, and their recent investigation in Bolton during the summer revealed that mystery shoppers were able to buy illegal cigarettes or RYO tobacco in more than 60 per cent of the stores.
The operation revealed that packs of illegal cigarettes are being sold for as little as £4.50, half the price of the cheapest legal product. Counterfeit 50g packs of RYO could be purchased for as little as £5.00, around one fifth of the price of the genuine product.
“Whilst this is just a snapshot of what is happening across the country, it shows how entrenched the problem is, especially in areas like the North West,” Howell said.
JTI uses a two-pronged approach to deal with the issue, raising awareness with both retailers and consumers on one side, and taking or supporting enforcement actions on the other. Their awareness initiatives include the nationwide Don’t Be Complicit in Illicit campaign launched in 2018 and the Postcode Calculator Tool, unveiled this year, which helps to find out how local areas are affected by the problem.
The firm has so far removed gantries from 43 retailers who have been convicted of selling illegal tobacco and continues to support private prosecutions.
“We want to do everything we can to help stamp out illicit trade and we take a no-nonsense approach when it comes to this issue. We will continue to take action with the relevant authorities as and when needed,” Howell added.
The only way to avoid prosecution for an underage sale is to demonstrate that you have a due diligence defence. This entails taking all reasonable steps and precautions to avoid committing the offence. To prove this defence, effective and robust systems and procedures relating to the sale of age restricted products should be in place. It is equally important that retailers must be able to show that these are being followed.
A 2018 study by retail age check company Serve Legal has identified waning commitment on the part of retailers to invest in staff training, performance and processes around age identification checks. Convenience stores made the most significant cuts to their test programmes in recent years with 25 per cent lower test numbers in 2017, when compared to 2014, when overall numbers for the retail sector dropped 13 per cent during the same period.
One option for local stores to improve on this area and ensure due diligence is responsible retailer schemes run by several councils. The scheme in Sandwell, for example, provides comprehensive due diligence package, with accredited training for staff and an annual onsite audit and test purchases by the trading standards team for an annual fee of £159.
The ‘Buy With Confidence’ scheme is another option which is supported by over 50 local authority trading standards teams. The service, however, can be availed by retailers anywhere in the country and conducts detailed checks by trading standards officers before approving a business as a member of the scheme. The annual fee varies depending on the number of employees at a store, and starts from £250 for a shop with less than five workers.
The Assured Advice scheme from the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), which is backed by Surrey and Bucks Trading Standards and free to all direct ACS members, offers members signing up for the scheme the benefit of the law of ‘primary authority’.
Primary authority enables businesses to form a legal partnership with one local authority, which then provides assured and tailored advice on complying regulations that other local regulators must respect. A primary authority can block an enforcement action if the business was following the advice issued by it. Businesses can also join via trade associations in what is known as co-ordinated partnership.
While the Assured Advice guides produced by the ACS are available for all to view, only those who are signed up to the scheme will benefit from the protection of the Assured guidance that, if followed, must be respected by enforcement authorities.
Energy is a major component of operating expense for food retailers mainly due to the use of refrigeration, in addition to the lighting and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) requirements. Rising energy prices and the effects of climate change make energy efficiency a key area of retailers’ focus, especially when they look for a store refurbishment.
Reduction in operational costs is the main incentive for making sustainable changes to the energy consumption at small local stores which are more energy intensive. An ongoing project by Suntory Beverage & Food (SBF) GB&I has shown that convenience stores in the UK can save to the tune of £1.6 million if they implement just four changes to their stores.
The project, which is being run in partnership with the Energy Saving Trust, made these changes at Amit Patel’s 900 sq ft store in Derbyshire. The team has replaced his old 800W oil-filled radiator behind the counter, installed a new door-closing mechanism for his front door, and updated the screen he uses to monitor and display CCTV footage. Following this, new lighting was installed throughout the store, replacing the ten-year old 30W tube lights with energy efficient LED panels.
An analysis of the impact of the first set of changes has shown that this could help Amit save more than £345 per year in energy costs. If the UK’s 46,388 convenience stores replicated these measures, the total savings across the channel could be up to £16M per year.
“We know that if this model were to be followed by other retailers, not only could the channel save an astonishing amount of money, but the impact on the UK’s CO2 emissions would be significant. It’s great that we’ve had such an impact,” Andrew Tod, insight and analytics manager at Energy Saving Trust, commented.
Jemma Healy, category controller at SBF GB&I, added that the changes are just the first steps in their project at the Premier Town Street store in Sandiacre. “We aim to show how easy and affordable it can be for convenience retailers to make changes – both large and small – that have a genuine impact on their store’s energy use,” she said.
For Amit, the change has been good for business, not only by saving money on the overheads, as the changes transformed the store into a more welcoming and inviting place for his local shoppers to visit.
“It’s an amazing start to the project, and I’m over the moon with the impact so far,” he said. “My customers have said they love the way the store looks already, and they love it when I tell them that not only does it make the shop look better, it helps the planet as well.”
On the cooling front, Liebherr Appliances is breaking new ground in food retailing with its latest plug in refrigeration options which are being trialled by several convenience store groups and multiples. The ultra-low energy supermarket chest freezers and full length glass door multideck freezers are plug in with integral systems and utilise environmentally friendly hydrocarbon refrigerants.
“Both ranges feature full connectivity providing data on temperature and energy performance along with key component performance data,” said Stephen Ongley, national sales manager for Liebherr GB’s business and industry appliance division. “LED lighting and seamless white interiors enhance sales, speed up cleaning and promote excellent hygiene standards.”
The new concept multideck FGD plug in freezer, with its full length glass doors, allows for great impact with consumers seeing food products face-to-face. Moreover it can be located in areas where space is limited and siting refrigeration cooling plant is often ruled out.
Waste and Recycling
Packaging waste and recycling is an area in which retailers’ role is hotly discussed. The extension of the single-use plastic carrier bag charge to include all retailers in England, aligning the policy to rest of the UK, is a major milestone in this regard. Figures from the ACS Voice of Local Shops survey show that around half of convenience stores already voluntarily charge for plastic bags.
The current 5p charge, which will be doubled, applies to retailers employing over 250 people. Official data released in July has shown that plastic carrier bag sales have plummeted by more than 95 per cent in England’s major supermarkets since the introduction of the charge in 2015. The average person in England now buys just four bags a year from these retailers, compared with 10 last year and 140 in 2014.
While the Scottish DRS for single-use drinks containers will take effect on 1 July 2022, after a delay of over a year from the scheduled date due to the COVID-19 pandemic, small shops have got an exemption if the operator of an alternative return point ‘located with reasonable proximity to the premises’ agrees to accept the returned items on behalf of the retailer. The regulations passed in May also exempt stores where it is not possible or reasonable to operate the return point without significant risk that the retailer would be in breach of legal requirements such as food safety, health and safety, and fire safety as a consequence.
Opinion had been divided on the initial decision of the Scottish government to include small shops in the scheme with the ACS and Scottish Grocers’ Federation (SGF) saying that the scheme “won’t be safe, clean or practical for small retailers”.
With the spotlight often on the packaging waste of the products retailers sell, one aspect often overlooked is the recycling and management of the waste the stores generate. Grocery stores generate significant amounts of cardboard, food waste and plastic, much of which is compostable or recyclable. This provides retailers money-saving alternatives while helping the planet.
The Covid-19 pandemic’s effect on commercial recycling and waste management is a less discussed, less measured, but important area of business disruption. The conditions imposed to prevent the spread of the virus has led to greater volumes of waste, such as used PPE, requiring retailers to take a serious look at the issue.
A study commissioned by Rubbermaid Commercial Products (RCP), a provider of recycling and waste management products, has found an impact of the pandemic on the recycling practices of 56 per cent of European businesses surveyed. Importantly, 30 per cent of the businesses said that recycling has gained importance because of the pandemic and 86 per cent committed to giving recycling greater focus in the coming years.
“Commercial recycling is a long-term project that changes and develops over time. When disruptive events like the pandemic occur, they have the potential to derail progress, or create setbacks,” Paul Jakeway, head of marketing, EMEA at RCP, noted.
“The businesses we spoke to are, on the whole, still in a phase of adapting to changes that the pandemic has brought, but with 86 per cent of businesses intending to increase focus in the coming years, we are optimistic that commercial recycling will continue to develop, despite the disruptions.”
Jakeway added that the current situation offers businesses an opportunity to implement and improve recycling processes at their premises.
Food waste has been another area that has got increased attention from consumers as a result of the pandemic. Household food waste in Britain fell significantly in the early phase of the lockdown in April with just 14 per cent of four key items – bread, chicken, milk and potatoes – thrown away, according to research by environmental group WRAP, which conducted thousands of interviews.
Pre-lockdown, an average of 24 per cent had been wasted.
Waste had begun to rebound by June, with a second WRAP survey putting waste of those products at 18 per cent, but remained significantly below pre-lockdown levels.
“The positive news is that 70 per cent of people want to maintain their new-found food management behaviors in the long term,” said Richard Swannell, director at WRAP Global. “This is an encouraging sign that people are taking this opportunity to adopt less wasteful habits in life after lockdown.”
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that a third of the world’s food is wasted every year. Forests are cleared, fuel is burnt and packaging is produced just to provide food which is thrown away. Meanwhile, rotting food in landfills releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As a result, food waste is responsible for around 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, a similar amount to road transportation.
Independent retailers have been at the forefront of fighting food waste even before the pandemic, harnessing technology to sell their surplus food. Mobile app Too Good To Go is a major player in this endeavour, securing partnerships with Nisa, SGF and SPAR operators A.F. Blakemore and James Hall & Co., among others.
Nisa partners were among the first independent retailers to join the scheme that also recover some of the costs of unsold stock, and they have saved more than 10,500 meals, preventing 26,320 kg of CO2 emissions, since signing up with the initiative a year ago.
Around 60 Nisa stores are now working with the app, including the Pinkie Farm store in Musselburgh, which is owned by Dan Brown, the president of SGF, who said the concept works brilliantly for him.
“Our business is very focused on fresh and with that comes a lot of waste, so we wanted to try and find a solution. Since working with Too Good To Go the amount of food we’ve been throwing away has dramatically decreased, we’ve been saving a lot of money and our customers are thrilled,” he said. “It’s given us a great image within the community. It’s been fantastic and very easy to use, being set up overnight and it’s been really simple ever since.”
A.F. Blakemore has announced the trial of the app in their stores in January and James Hall & Co. has launched the partnership in September.
“We already work with over 70 food banks across the north of England but have found logistical challenges exist when donating fresh food as many organisations do not have the required refrigeration facilities to store or transport fresh food safely,” commented Julie McAulay, company stores director at James Hall & Co. “This new initiative will complement our current food bank collections and will ensure that we can safely re-distribute all forms of surplus stock for individuals and families across Lancashire and Merseyside.”
Occupying a place at the heart of local communities, the primary responsibility of convenience stores will always be to help feed the nation. The COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the first lockdown, has revealed the indispensability of local stores who went above and beyond in the face adversities, including supply constraints. Even as major suppliers prioritised multiple supermarkets, convenience retailers have shown their adaptability, working with local suppliers and suppliers that usually work with event and hospitality businesses to source products elsewhere. By May, at least 600,000 deliveries were going out from convenience stores every week, often supported by local volunteers in the community, with 62 percent of stores providing some form of delivery service, according to an impact survey by the ACS.
As James Lowman, the chief executive of the ACS, rightly pointed out to MPs, food supply would have been difficult during the lockdown had it not been for convenience stores.
“This situation has shown that one of the strengths of the food supply chain is its diversity, and that’s something we need to emphasise more,” he told an evidence session held by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee of the Commons in June. “Without the convenience sector there to support communities, there would have been far more significant issues with people getting access to groceries.”
Recently, convenience retailers have again shown how they hold dear to the mission of feeding the nation, when Manchester United and England forward Marcus Rashford called for support in the issue of food vouchers for poor families during the October school holiday.
In Sheffield, Mandeep Singh, who runs Singh’s Premier on Teynham Road, offered 500 free pack lunches all week, between 10am and 3pm, which included a sandwich, snack, yoghurt, chocolate bar, some fruit and a bottle of water.
“We don’t want any child to go hungry and as a local community retailer, we want to support our shoppers who may need some help. We are really pleased to be able to give something back to our customers and are here to support them when they need us most,” Mandeep, the winner of the Spirit of the Community Award at the Asian Trader Awards in 2015, said.
(Sarah Booker-Lewis and Tevye Markson of the Local Democracy Reporting Service contributed to this feature)