An expert appraisal
In a competitive retail sector, ensuring your store is putting its best foot forward at all times of the day is essential in order to retain a loyal custom base. Here, Pat Fox, director of Solution Management Associates (SMA) Retail Specialists, explains how an objective, outsider appraisal can help retailers stay at the top of their game
17 May 2017 | 0
A fresh set of eyes is vital in any business – and arguably nowhere more so than in the world of FMCG retail. Shoppers entering your store are continually making split-second judgements about the offering and customer service they receive. Standards therefore need to be kept up to scratch round-the-clock in order to ensure repeat custom.
Step in Solution Management Associates (SMA) Retail Specialists. Auditing over 6,000 sites across the island of Ireland every year, the company’s assessors are trained to give stores a full break-down of their performance right across the business, alongside the solutions they need to implement in order to improve.
With no major marketing campaigns, the company led by director Pat Fox, relies on word-of-mouth to gain business. An approach that has worked well since its establishment in 2005. Indeed, the company’s client list is impressive in itself, including BWG, Centra, SuperValu, Topaz, Gala and the ShelfLife C-Store Awards. “We know we’re the best,” Fox says simply. “We know by the interaction from the brand owners that they continue to use us. Our contracts don’t diminish, they grow year-on-year and we’ve had growth from year one when we started with our first contract covering 140 shops with Gala. We’re still there today.” In the case of BWG’s Spar and Londis brands, SMA audits its entire compliment of stores several times throughout the year. A time-consuming task, for which Fox jokes, “you had better like driving!”
Not that an enjoyment of driving is Fox’s primary motivating factor – far from it! His enthusiasm for retail is immediately apparent. “I can tell you to a person, we live every day to go to work,” he says of the company, operated by former members of Tesco’s senior management sales, marketing and operations team. “It’s fantastic, we love retail. And that’s the biggest thing that signifies the growth in our company; it’s that passion for what we do.” And when it comes to ensuring a store is delivering its best, no detail is too small.
For each audit the company conducts, up to 300 different points are examined, with a complete set of corrective actions for those points sent to the retailer within 24 hours. This quick turnaround is possible because in its fourth year of business, the team decided to make a major €50,000 investment in software. The company was simply too large to operate on a paper-basis – a good complaint to have! This investment means that the audit findings can be plugged directly into the retailer’s own back-office systems or else emailed direct into their inbox. Naturally, retailers will be informed of critical corrective actions on the day, such as the need to replace out-of-date baby food. They will then receive a full analysis with recommendations for pre-agreed corrective actions the following day. In the case of symbol groups, Fox says, retailers will usually be a given a “grace period” by the symbol to perform those corrective actions, before SMA’s assessors will revisit the store to check they have been carried out. This method delivers ‘real time’ findings to all clients enabling a fast-track response to issues identified.
This is important in the case of symbol groups, whereby a hard-earned national reputation can easily be diminished in the eyes of a consumer if they visit a particular store in the brand’s portfolio which does not meet their expectations. “More and more the brand owners are taking an awful lot more of ownership responsibility for what happens in a store and they want eyes and ears out there that are at a good level of retail knowledge so we don’t get queried too many times,” says Fox. “If we’re saying you’ve got to have this number of signs around alcohol legislation, then a store has to have them. There’s no excuse for not taking corrective action around that; it’s a legal requirement.”
Importance of customer service
One factor that can easily damn or raise the opinion of a store amongst shoppers is customer service. As experienced retail assessors, SMA realised that the need for better customer service was constantly recurring. “We said, ‘let’s find a solution’,” says Fox. This led to the company writing a number of customer service training modules which are retailer-specific. For example, SMA has identified the problems within a particular retail brand, and developed specific modules, tailored to that brand’s specific needs. Suzanne Bosscher, now heads up a complete training division which began two years ago and which Fox describes as “going terrifically well”.
Another key advantage of the training delivered by SMA, is not only that it’s brand-specific, but that it can be delivered intensively on-site by professionals. “The training is conducted in the environment of the retailer or foodservice operator, so we’re not moving staff and we do it at the times that suit. Whether that time is 8am or 8pm, we are available so it’s a very flexible solution,” says Fox. “We’ll tailor it either to three or 33 staff, whatever the requirement is. Generally we don’t have more than 12 in the room at one time so we can really engage with them. If a store has a lot more staff we’ll do a number of different sessions.”
As Fox points out, a retailer can have everything else right in-store; “the value, the range, and all the legal requirements. Yet the one thing that can let you down is that one person who might cause someone to say, ‘I’m not going back to that person again; that wasn’t good’.” On the other hand, good customer service becomes a calling card for a well-run store. “I can pull into Eddie Tobin’s forecourt in Letterkenny at 6.30am on a dark winter’s morning. I’m not even after switching the engine off in my car and the guy is out to fill the car. That’s customer service!”
Growing foodservice business
Foodservice is also a growing part of SMA’s business, with BaxterStorey being a key client in this area. Fox has two key pieces of advice to help retailers make the most out of their deli offering.
Firstly, “Irish consumers are now extending the time that they wish to eat at,” he says. This means retailers must extend the hours of their hot food offering in order to capture potential sales. For example, if the breakfast offering ends at 11am, and lunch doesn’t start until noon, this represents a lost hour of potential sales. Later in the day, if the lunchtime offering ends at 2pm or 3pm, customers who have been out on the road all day would be disappointed not to be able to find a range of both hot and cold options later in the afternoon or early evening.
Demonstrating what can be achieved
As an example of what can be achieved in this regard, Fox points to the success of Spar Ballinrobe in Co. Mayo. “If you go to Spar Ballinrobe at 5pm today, you will see a minimum of six people behind the hot food deli serveover,” he says. “You can find a choice of three or four hot food meat joints, as well as a mix of wet mains such as Irish stew and curry. That continues into the whole dinner offering up to 8 o’clock.” If it can work in Ballinrobe, Fox sees no reason why it couldn’t work on other sites. “Some retailers have a mental block about Irish people not wishing to eat that type of food at that time of day, but that mentality has changed.”
For those who cannot afford a qualified chef moreover, tasty-yet-simple foodservice offerings can still help meet customers’ needs. “For those that really can’t afford to have a qualified hot food person behind the counter at those times,” says Fox, “and are absolutely convinced that it won’t sell – which is not correct by the way” – they can provide a broader offering for the shopper who finds themselves ravenous after hours stuck on the road. “For example, you could break up a couple of whole chickens and make a salad or sandwich at 4pm with a soup. That is an adequate offering but some retailers haven’t got that. If we’re examining where retailers should be looking for extra business; it’s there already but you need to provide for it.”
Focus on creativity
Range and creativity are also necessary to thrive in the foodservice game. Here, Fox describes what passes as an archetypal, “adequate” breakfast offering – complete with sausages, rashers, possibly pudding “and the egg that is sitting there for three hours that’s actually going blue and purple – that drives us scatty!” However, with a bit of creative thought around breakfast-time, Fox reckons a much more attractive offering can be conjured up.
“Why not do a pot of muesli, a granola mix, a fresh fruit compote – and I mean fresh – made behind the deli counter,” he says. What’s more, if fresh smoothies can work in shopping centres, Fox is confident they can also be a winner in c-stores and forecourts, but they don’t necessarily have to involve an elaborate smoothie concept. “One domestic mixer can do the job,” he says. “There are so many good food offerings; I read about them in the magazine and hear about them from suppliers, but we’re not always delivering them on the ground.” From this perspective, Fox says a visit to Spar Ballinrobe or Corrib Oil sites such as Racecourse Road would be absolutely worthwhile to see what can be accomplished. “Of course there’s a bit of investment needed, there’s a bit of waste to start off with but once you’ve built up your business, it will stand to you.”
Wealth of experience
If anyone is qualified to make such a statement it is Pat Fox. Starting his retail career with H.Williams Supermarket Group, he later joined Checkout Magazine before returning to the front line of the food industry with Associated National Distributors (Mace and Keencost Cash & Carry Group). Next up, in 1998, Fox joined Associated British Foods (Quinnsworth, Crazy Prices and Lifestyle Sports) and headed up its marketing and communications division. In the same year, Tesco bought over the group and Fox remained with them for a further two years, before getting into the auditing business. This has certainly paid off; with the business assessing more than 6,500 sites last year, the team at SMA are currently “at the top of our game”.