A challenging year for convenience retailers – An interview with Mandeep Singh.

We caught up with Mandeep Singh, of Singh’s Premier in Sheffield to hear how he managed his way through the pandemic and what impact it has had on his business.

A challenging year for convenience retailers

2020 is a year in which we’ve all experienced unprecedented change, brought on by the arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic and the resultant national and local lockdown restrictions. The impact on our lives has been far reaching, from how we live to how we work and from where we shop to what we buy. Convenience retailers found themselves classified as key workers and on the front line of the pandemic, so we caught up with Mandeep Singh, of Singh’s Premier in Sheffield to hear how he managed his way through it and what impact it has had on his business.

 

How was it initially?

When the news coverage of the pandemic first appeared in the UK, things literally changed overnight. Shoppers started panic buying as the realisation sank in and we were inundated with customers stock piling essentials. We very quickly found we were running out of stock on key lines. Just finding stock to keep our availability up was a mission in itself, but we had to do that at the same time as ensuring that our stores were a safe place to work and shop.

We found it really challenging and stressful and at times struggled to cope with everything that was suddenly going on – it was chaos!

What measures did you take to make your store a safe place to shop.

Our number one priority was to ensure that the store was a safe place for our staff and customers, so very early on we introduced a series of initiatives inline with Government guidelines. These included limiting the number of people in the store at any one time, putting up signage on how to stay safe, introducing a one way system and creating markings every two metres to make it easier for shoppers and staff to keep to the recommended two metre distance apart. We also limited the number of shoppers in the store at any one time and constructed a screen at the till point to protect the staff from the risk of infection when serving customers. We felt we were managing ok and that’s when I tested positive for the virus and had to self-isolate.

How did you manage to keep everything going?

It wasn’t easy but we have a great team in place, which has meant we’ve always been good at hunting out stock, but we’d never found it this difficult before. Availability was a real issue but we managed to keep most things in stock at a time when other retailers were struggling. However, things like hand sanitiser were a different story. It was being sold for silly prices and as soon as we got it in, it sold out really quickly – we even sold several cases to the local hospital who had run out and couldn’t find any, so we must have been doing a pretty good job!

What effect did the pandemic have on your sales?

Like most neighbourhood convenience stores across the UK, our sales increased dramatically almost doubling overnight as people started panic buying any essentials they could find. This caused basket spend to increase dramatically and it pretty much remained at that level throughout the first lockdown, as more people chose to do their big shop locally. What has been really pleasing is that although sales did fall back after the first lockdown ended, we saw them holding up significantly above the same level last year and with Government restrictions continuing on, customers have remained loyal to us.

What did you do to achieve this?

Availability was our number one challenge and at times it felt like The Singh’s team were on a mission working all hours of the day and night to keep our community safe and fed! Thanks to Booker and The Singh’s team, we managed to keep stocked up on most essential lines when a lot of retailers were struggling with availability.

We also made sure we were posting more on our 17,000 Facebook followers in the community, sharing fun photos to keep their spirits up and telling them about the great deals we had in store to reassure them they were getting great value when choosing to shop here.  As a result, we increased our Facebook followers by over 4,000 during the first lockdown, so social media has come into its own as a community tool during the pandemic.

We also went out of our way to help the more vulnerable people in our community, many of whom were shielding and didn’t want to leave their homes, offering to drop their shopping off, which we did in our own cars or on foot! The feedback and letters of thanks we’ve received from customers has been really touching and made it all worthwhile.

But when word-of-mouth spread, we had more people asking for home deliveries! With home delivery basket spend being more than double the level of a walk in customer, we took the view that if we can copy the Amazon model and deliver great value quickly and directly to people, with little additional cost for the service, then there was a big opportunity!

So that’s what we did! We initially partnered up with a local taxi service and agreed a delivery charge linked to a percentage of each order, but after posting the service on our Facebook page and seeing the demand sky rocket, we decided to carry out the deliveries ourselves. A number of the team already had their CBT’s, so we bought 3 scooters and had big branded top boxes put on carrying the name of the new service, Singh’s Drop, and to be honest we haven’t looked back!

It’s been great for staff as they love fulfilling the orders and riding the scooters and to make sure we always have delivery drivers on hand, we’ve committed to pay for anyone who wants CBT training!  We can now promise to deliver locally within 30 minutes of placing an order, which we are really proud of and it means people really can stay home and stay safe and let us bring their shopping to them!

How has that developed?

What started out as a favour to help regular customers stay safe, has turned into a major On Demand delivery business opportunity, which has helped reinforce our customer loyalty in the community. But what has really surprised us is that we have been getting  orders in from as far away as Rotherham and Barnsley, so we’ve expanded our store catchment area massively without the cost of opening up a new store. To help grow these orders, we’ve now opened a delivery hub in a unit in Rotherham which we use to fulfil deliveries to homes there. So far, we are making on average 70 deliveries a day, which is contributing massively to the stores weekly sales and it’s still growing.

As well as continuing to push the service on Facebook, which is such a powerful way of talking to regular customers, we’ve also sent out leaflet drops to large blocks of flats in Sheffield to recruit new customers and new followers on Facebook! So far we have over 22,000 followers!

So what do you think the future holds?

As far as the business is concerned, we really do feel that we are in a better place now than before the lockdown because by going the extra mile and looking out for people in the community when they’ve needed us most, we’ve really reinforced our position in the community.

But it’s also helped us identify a whole new business opportunity, that we only thought big supermarkets could do. And now that it’s helping to spread the Singh’s name outside Sheffield, who knows what the future holds in other areas.

We know we can’t rest on our laurels, because times are very tough out there with a lot of customers losing their jobs and watching their money carefully, so we are going to continue to offer strong deals and value to compete with some of the incredibly low prices that we see the supermarkets offering. We will continue to make sure that our stores are great places to shop by delivering great customer service, good range and availability and make it a hub for the community so we secure good customer loyalty.

At the same time we will continue to invest in Singh’s Drop so we can meet the increasing demand. We need to ensure we keep delivery times low, so we are watching how the Rotherham hub helps with this and if it continues to perform well, we may consider opening hubs in other areas to extend the Singh’s Drop service! 

How will you look back on 2020?

Mainly that it’s been an extraordinary year, and one that none of us ever imagined we would experience in our life times. It has obviously been incredibly difficult in so many ways, particularly for those that have lost loved ones to the virus, or lost jobs because of it. But in a strange way, even though people have had to keep their distance from others, its actually brought people and communities closer together. We’ve certainly seen a much stronger community spirit developing, as people realise the important role their local independent shops play in supporting their local communities. I hope stronger local communities are the positive outcome of the pandemic and we continue to bring people together to create a better and more positive spirit after we beat this horrible virus.

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