Captain Vigilante

CLARITY. What’s going on in the independent sector with its opaque shop windows in very sharp contrast to the pristine, transparent and inviting glass fronts of the dreaded Tesco Express?

A drive along our main road reveals the bright, shining and inviting shop front of the local Tesco Express with its spotless windows revealing an appealing interior. It all says ‘Please come in…’

But then a Spar and two newsagents come into view with their painted-over opaque windows hiding the interior. What is the message to the consumer?

Is Tesco Express out of step with contemporary shop design?

LITERARY. Spar veteran and former independent lobby supremo Morton Middleditch retired to write novels and has completed his first under the title of “Left For Dead”.

It’s fiction but Morton denies the title is a commentary on the failed campaign to persuade the Competition Commission that small shops are in danger.

Those who also suggest that “Left For Dead” has its roots in the head office power struggles which characterised the group’s action-packed 1980s and 1990s are also wide of the mark.

Morton is now burning the midnight oil on his second book, which will not be entitled “Eight Till Late”.

IDENTITY. Pulling into the station the first thing rail passengers see is a notice “East Croydon, home of Nestl eacute; UK”.

In these days of frenetic brand promotion, should this not say “Home of Nescaf eacute;?”

PARFETT/JOHN LEWIS. No, that will not be the name of Parfetts Cash Carry when the ownership of the business is eventually put into the hands of the staff on the retirement of MD Steve Parfett. But the shorthand is useful.

Steve – typically – consulted the John Lewis board prior to announcing the future sale of the company to its employees with a pound;20m refinancing bank deal to fund the move.

The plan secures the future of the company for the benefit of those who have helped to build its success. In a ferociously competitive market it’s difficult to envisage a greater incentive for the Parfetts’ workforce – putting their future in their own hands. It’s masterstroke of industrial relations.

The John Lewis structure from which Steve has borrowed the principles, with its share owning staff running its department stores and Waitrose supermarkets, is a proved business model.

QUEUE. There are long waiting lists of people waiting for vacancies at John Lewis outlets. Vigilante’s family knows this from thwarted applications for gap year fill-ins and summer jobs.

There will be no shortage of folk seeking jobs at Parfetts. It seems a lifetime ago – December 2, 1986 – that jobs were at risk when the Reddish warehouse was seriously damaged by fire.

No one lost their job. But the great fire of Reddish was the making of the company. Founder Alan Parfett bought the Orbro cash and carry in Stockport for pound;1.5m plus pound;435,000 for fixtures and fittings

Stockport became the hub of the Parfett masterplan, the sector’s most profitable philosophy – competitive prices, availability, stable relationships with suppliers, managers walking the floor, close customer contact… and the rest is history.

EDUCATION. A programme based on familiar principles was shown on BBC2 on June 2. The presenter’s pre-transmission PR said: “My job is educating small shop owners to communicate confidently with their target customers.”

With 2,000 independents closing every year, said the blurb, the shopping scene is worrying. The UK is becoming a country where the big retail chains dominate.

This rings bells. It’s the My Shop is Your Shop philosophy of reminding the consumer of the value of the independent and motivating the self same independent to link with his community.

But “Mary Queen of Shops” turned out to be a programme promoting small fashion stores.

GLOOM. Reflecting the fundamental MSYS philosophy, Booker boss Charles Wilson slams news reports, which predict doom and gloom for the trade.

He calls for the end of the victim culture that independents so easily adopt, and for more focus on community.

He speaks from strength. Sales are up with a big leap in profits. His Euro Shopper range gives independents 30% POR. He is setting the pace in action – and philosophy.

Hurtful. Public relations insiders are currently very frustrated by the flawed perception of the independent retail sector held by many journalists in the national media – as implied by Charles Wilson (see above). Doom-laden press headlines on stories about the recent market review focused on small shop closures caused by giant multiple domination. It’s difficult to write about the Competition Commission without referring to doomed small shops.

A recent example is to hand. A BBC radio reporter being briefed on the success of thousands of independents who are involved in their communities veered away from the story.

She simply wanted to know how many small stores had closed down in the last five years and why the trend was continuing. Regional and local media are not, it seems, obsessed with the doom angle.

INTELLIGENCE. Once upon a time, one of the many pleasures of the sales director’s role was gossip. The juicier the better. This could centre on competitors or it could and often did focus on what the sales director’s other customers were up to.

For example, wholesaler A would seek “the latest” on wholesaler B. We now know this type of conversation could spell trouble. Sales directors and account managers will need to be re-trained in how to sell in a very formal manner if the OFT probe into supplier market chat and the Arla milk price issue comes to anything.

Balance. Are wholesalers in danger of being injected by the same doom virus? Is it influencing their investment decisions?

Out-of-home is becoming fashionable again – it’s the denim flares of the food trade. But does the balance need to tip back in favour of the retailer in his hour of need?

One company is minded to invest pound;2 into catering – the old fashioned term for it – for every pound;1 sunk into the retail side of the business. This is 90s thinking – and look where it got us.

Surely we are not going back to 1985 when a senior “voluntary” group figure said you can take independent retailers to the water but you can’t make them drink. This caused a major frisson then and it would today.

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