Four success stories make symbols of independence

23 March, 2007

Symbol group Musgrave Budgens Londis has proved a fertile stamping ground for retailers wanting to make their mark. Christine Boggis reports

After more than a decade working for Bottoms Up, Richard Hipkin decided he was sick of working for other people and bought himself a dilapidated Londis corner shop with a run-down off-licence. He put in a whole new wine range, made the shop look more open and has increased takings eight-fold .

What changes have you made to the shop?

When we opened in 2001 there was probably more booze in your house than in the shop. The old couple who ran it used to close at 7pm before it got too busy.

We walked in and put in 200 white and 200 red wines, a full range of spirits and a full range of beers. We merchandised like we used to in Bottoms Up and Majestic with pallets on the floor and grocery around the outside.

Sales doubled not quite overnight but within a couple of months. When we bought the shop it was taking about £2,500 a week - within a couple of months we were up to £5,000 and a year later we got up to £9,000.

The shop was clean but still very old, it looked very tired. We had a £50,000 refit in 2003 and instantly jumped sales to £11,500.

These days we knock £18,000-£20,000 and it is still going up.

How do you feel about being part of a symbol group?

The brand is an advantage. If I'm honest, when I bought the shop I didn't think Londis was very high profile. Since ­Musgrave and Budgens got involved the profile has become so high it gives customers a bit of confidence. It is trust that is the key.

We are as loyal as we possibly can be. I don't think there is a single product I order from someone else if Londis does it. I can order anything on a Monday and on Wednesday morning it is delivered, the driver puts it where I like, I pay for it automatically by direct debit - it 's easy.

I'm fiercely independent and it is very much our own business . I like to do things our own way. I don't feel I'm a franchisee working for somebody else. As for downsides, it sounds cheesy but I don't see any. When I first bought the shop I was going to cash and carries here there and ­everywhere. What little time I had I was wast ed driving around the country picking wines up. Now it all comes in one load it's much easier.

What tips would you give other retailers?

Be brave and put drinks on the floor. A lot of people hide spirits behind the counter. Here they are available and customers can touch them. I appreciate you can't do that everywhere, but we sell three times as many spirits than we would if they were hidden behind the counter. We do get the odd thing that gets nicked, but if you double your sales and lose a couple every week it is not the end of the world.

And train your staff. People don't train staff. If you sell wine, people behind the counter don't have to be Oz Clarke, but they have got to have a little bit of basic knowledge. Londis runs wine courses for managers - at £70 for half a day it is a good investment.

One of an independent chain of four convenience stores, Broadway's Budgens shop has made a real feature of local products, creating a separate fixture for local drinks and stocking a full range of local beers, ciders, wines and liqueurs. The shop, which is in a touristy village in the Cotswolds, opened just over a year ago, and operations manager Steve Neale plans to build up its business before expanding into more shops in the future.

Tell us about your drinks range.

We have got nine local companies and we stock about 45 local products, all from within a 20 to 25-mile radius of the store, including Henneys Cider from Herefordshire, which is our best-selling cider; Knights Cider from Malvern; Purity Brewing Company from Great Alne in Warwickshire; Heart of England wines from near Stratford; Three Choirs English wines; Tipsage fruit gins ; Monkhide Country Wines from Herefordshire, and the Wye Valley Brewery.

How easy has it been to build up the range?

We started with only two or three lines and now we have 40. Booze was a slow starter - we had to do regular sampling of lines people hadn't heard of, but sales have grown and grown and it has scored us a lot of brownie points because people love being able to get local stuff.

We have leaflets in front of each product about the company, explaining where they are from, whether it is a one-man band etc. It probably accounts for 8-9 per cent of our total booze turnover, which starting from scratch is very good.

Some of the companies we are dealing with are very pleased with how it's going.

What is your wine range like?

We have just launched a premium wine end: 36 wines priced from £10 to about £36, which we purchase from the local Stanton Wine Company . We launched them about four weeks ago because demand for fine wines was growing. That has really taken off for us.

How do you feel about being part of a symbol group?

We are only a small independent, we have four sites where we trade under Budgens and it is quite easy to adapt.

We take the best Musgrave ha s to offer - we cherry-pick from its range, and it does a very good range. Then we source some local products and premium products as well, so we have enhanced the Musgrave range.

Paul and Michelle Gravelle have been working for Budgens for years - Paul as a regional controller covering 90 stores in London and the south, and Michelle as a store manager in Belsize Park, London. A year ago they took over the franchise of Budgens in Sawbridgeworth, Herts, and have used their independence to build up a range of local suppliers and tailor the store to its customer base.

How have you changed your drinks range since you took over the shop?

Paul: We've tried to add a local offering to Budgens' standard corporate range. At first we struggled to find local people to supply us - we were inexperienced about sourcing and people did not know who we were. Our starting point was Taste of Anglia, a food brokerage that supplies all sorts of products from East Anglia, including St Peter's Brewery and Aspall's Cider. Then people started to hear about us.

That sort of led to the Saffron Brewery, near Saffron Walden, contacting us, saying it had heard about us in a local pub and that we were looking for local suppliers, and we've now taken it on board.

We use our website,, as a tool to talk to suppliers. If you phone and ask what are we all about, we direct you to the website.

We are always looking for more suppliers. It would be fantastic if we could find a local vineyard.

What is your customer base like?

Paul: Thirty-plus, ABC, with more ABs and predominantly families and older people. They are very traditional - we tried to sell spicy foods and couldn't sell them.

Michelle: They are more interested in knowing where the food comes from and it being of a certain quality, rather than cosmopolitan foods you can sell in the London stores.

How do you feel about being part of a symbol group?

Paul: As franchisees we can react a lot quicker than we could before and go to outside suppliers, but as part of a fascia group we are protected in the sense that we've got a reasonably guaranteed supply and six-day deliveries.

There are financial incentives to stay 95 per cent loyal to Budgens.

Michelle: The Budgens name is a quality brand to be associated with, and there is a network of support from Budgens' head office, including a business development manager who comes round and supports us.

What are your plans for the shop?

Paul: We are looking at having a refit in about 12 months to put wood flooring and special lighting into the BWS department.

Michelle: It will be like you are walking into a different shop - a shop in a shop.

Faced with growing competition from supermarket drinks ranges, Oxfordshire retailer Jack Patel trawled the internet for ideas on how to fight back. An article on the Campaign for Real Ale's website inspired him to invest in a range of bottled beers, which he sources locally from breweries such as Ridgeway, Butlers and West Berkshire, as well as nationally and internationally through wholesaler Beer Paradise. He started building his range in November and has already grown sales to 130 bottles a week.

Why did you decide to focus on bottled beers?

I've been studying the market and there are no corner shops doing a range of ­bottled beers. The idea came to me to introduce more beers , something the supermarkets don't do a lot of. They only do the big brands, not the smaller breweries, so I'm working with quite a lot of microbreweries trying to get their beers here and sell them and promote them as well, and it has worked quite well.

What are your plans for the range

My target is to get at least 600 different bottles of English ale from different ­breweries from different counties. I'm trying to cover most of the counties so that people can have a good range to look at and buy from.

I'm working on turning the section in my shop into a speciality corner. I'm working with some cider people, including Sheppy's and Westons, because I'm also going to introduce ciders at a later stage. My next project is to get more ciders in, especially with the hot weather coming up. There are not that many ciders in supermarkets - all they have is the common ones, not the special ones.

How easy is it to develop a range like this when you are a member of a group such as Londis?

I'm working with the beer buyer for Londis, we had a meeting last week and he is very impressed with what I'm doing so he's trying to help me and negotiating with different breweries. He's very keen to develop the bottled beer section as well and, hopefully, we will come up with good sellers and try to see if we can spread it to more retailers.

What are your plans for the shop?

I'm trying to draw people from further afield, to come in and probably buy something else as well, and it is working quite well. I'm also looking to promote the shop in the Reading Beer Festival.

I try to do some tastings every now and then - the breweries give me free bottles and in return I sample to some customers. If they try it and they like it they will buy it. Even if you only get a few customers hooked on that lager or beer it works. I'm sure if some other retailers did that it would work, but not many people want to do it.

Westholme Stores Londis, Goring, Oxfordshire

BWS share of turnover: 15 per cent

Beer price range: £1 for lagers to £6 for 75cl Belgian beers

Best-selling beers: Local and Scottish ales

Budgens, Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire

BWS turnover: £650,000 a year

Share of total turnover: 13 per cent

Wine price range: £3-£15

Best sellers: Jacob's Creek,

Budgens Merlot, Budgens Cabernet, Carling, Foster's, Stella Artois, Magners, Budgens Whisky, Budgens Vodka

Budgens, Broadway, Worcester

BWS turnover: £416,000 a year

Share of total turnover: 15 per cent

Wine price range: £4-£40

Best sellers: £5-£7 wines, including big brands such as Hardys and Jacob's Creek, but fine wine sales are growing

Château Wine Londis, Marks Tey, Essex

BWS turnover: £400,000 a year

Share of total turnover: 42 per cent

Wine price range: £3.29-£119.99 (Penfolds Grange 1995)

Best sellers: Nobilo Sauvignon Blanc, Nagyrede Pinot Grigio (Hungary), Londis Cote du Rhône, McGuigan Black Label Merlot

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