Are you experienced? Help your customers get creative and boost the experience

Tom Gockelen-Kozlowski on helping your customers get their ‘experience’ spot on. 

Last month was the 50th anniversary of one of the most important albums ever recorded. No, not Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the hoopla around the fab four’s psychedelic arrival effectively occluded the half centenary of Are You Experienced, Jimi Hendrix’s epoch-defining debut, released in May 1967.

I bring this up because as the anniversary passed, there was something akin to a tribute from Debbie Robinson, Spar UK’s managing director, who challenged the industry to up its game.

“I think we should be looking to reinvent the idea of the convenience store… For example, offering customers the opportunity to enjoy craft beer as part of their in-store experience,” she told RN, BW’s fellow Newtrade title. Not so much “Are you experienced?” then, but the not too dissimilar “Are you offering an amazing experience?”

Robinson’s own vision mirrors Hendrix’s, but bringing excitement, intrigue and the unexpected to the world of convenience rather than rock music. It includes a c-store-meets-garden-centre, to be unveiled to the industry later this summer. She is also looking to spread the creativity of retailers such as Nicholson Boyd, whose Pickles of London store in Dalston, east London, serves freshly-made pizzas, and the team behind Eat 17, who brought together their successful restaurant and c-store businesses, first in Spar Walthamstow in north London, and now in sites in Hackney in east London, and Whitstable, in Kent.

Her comments come just weeks after another boundary-stretching business opened its doors. In Devon, award-winning retailer Dan Cock reopened his Premier Whitestone Village Store, adding a bar, dining area and full barista coffee offer. In a village that lacks amenities, he’s become the pub, the takeaway, the local restaurant, the coffee shop and a venue. Oh, and he continues to offer one of the best shopping experiences of any convenience store in the country.

Here, Premier joined forces with the rest of the Booker team to help Dan Cock use its foodservice expertise in the same way that he’s tapped into the company’s retail knowledge over his decade in the trade.

Spar and Booker are by no means the only wholesale operations that can point to great examples of retailers bringing amazing experiences to their shoppers.

United Wholesale can point to Ferhan Ashiq’s Levenhall Village Store – a tiny business outside Edinburgh where local schoolkids hurriedly queue for freshly-cooked chips from his vending machine. Nisa store owners Joanna and Franck Casonata, meanwhile, took a course in Italy to learn to make their pizzas, and combine this with a long-standing and successful ice cream business.

In other words, mind-bendingly brilliant experiences are something that retailers up and down the country are already offering.

Yet, there is a problem – if Spar’s Robinson is to get her wish and the idea of the c-store is to be reinvented, the brilliance of the few must affect the operations of the many. Privately, wholesale bosses will admit that getting a few brilliant stores doing something incredible is actually only a minor part of the challenge – too few retailers are getting the basics right at the moment.

It’s why Robinson identified “raising standards” as a priority for the company’s retailer customers, and she’s by no means alone in that belief.  

So, what to do? Focus on a few excellent stores to ensure the future relevance and success of the industry are secured? Or focus on most of your retailer customers, getting them to meet the standards that customers brought up with Tesco Express and Sainsbury’s Local stores now expect?

To ape another 1960s icon – step forward Bob Dylan – the answer, my friends, is…. well, both, actually. So, ask yourself, what are your plans for fostering and sharing excellence among your customers in the months ahead?


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