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How to survive and thrive as a small independent

Q&A with retailer Keren Brynes MacLean, owner of Health Food and More in Kirkcaldy

Q How has rising inflation affected your business?

So far we have been holding fairly steady with turnover and footfall good, but we have a clinic and herbal dispensary as part of the business. Demand for herbal medicine consultations is up because accessing GP appointments is so challenging and because the clinic is busy, this supports turnover in the shop too.

We have been making lots of changes over the past year and I think this is helping us to weather this particular storm. We have dramatically reduced slow-selling stock lines - mainly foods - because let’s face it the supermarkets have got that well stitched up. Instead we have focused on merchandising our supplements much more effectively, giving them ‘space to breathe’ and having lots of information next to the products for the customers. We have been really trying to push the message that we are the place for advice and so far it has been paying off. People are still prepared to spend on their health.

Q Is it possible to protect margins in periods of rising prices?

I think it is. We buy in bulk deals to optimise margins anyway and I’ve always worked on the principle that if you don’t ask you don’t get, so I have no issue trying to negotiate with reps and wholesalers. We also mainly stock Just Natural products from CLF which gives us extra margins on the wholefoods we carry as regular stock lines.

We run lots of promotional deals in-store tying into trending wholesale promotions on supplements and we also have a section of the shop where we sell-on discount deals for one-off foodstuffs that we don’t keep as regular stock line. That way we keep it fresh and we don’t devalue a particular product or brand. We buy in when products are on good deals, hold our usual margins (or sometimes have higher margins) but the customer gets a discounted buy. Our customers love this and I reckon if it works for Lidl and Aldi it can work for us too.

Q How can you best preserve customer relationships at times like this?

We have great relationships with our customers; we know a lot of them by name and we always make time to chat to them and listen to what is happening in their lives. We deliver excellent customer service and we also have lots of fun and laughter in the workplace.

Our staff do weekly training with either myself, with reps or online and this helps sales and relationships with customers. They trust us to give them good advice and to never make a sale for the sake of a sale. We make recommendations based on what the customer needs, not on sales targets. It’s appreciated by customers and staff alike and sometimes means we have someone leaving with an empty basket to perhaps go to their GP instead - but they come back to us next time they need help.

We offer a loyalty card scheme to all customers, which gives a discount after collecting points. It’s based on how much you spend as well as visits, so the more you spend the quicker you get your discount. We are also exploring creating a discount supplement club for regular shoppers to tempt them back to us rather than go online.

Q At a time of wage inflation, how do you engender staff retention and a sense of belonging?

We are a small team and everyone plays to their own strengths. We train together, we take time to check in with each other and I feel as a manager I can trust my team to get on with their jobs with the minimum of supervision. I need to be able to do this as I spend a lot of time in clinic seeing herbal medicine clients.

I always seek feedback from staff and recently we did a SWOT analysis together to look at where we will be going over the next few months. They appreciate having input to the business and having their opinions listened to.

They know I work as hard as they do and I will roll up my sleeves and get on with any job that I ask of them. We have a good supportive atmosphere, have good fun and lots of laughs and we all know we have each other’s backs.

As for wages, I always try to pay more than minimum wage. I am reviewing salaries at the moment and with uncertain trading times ahead, changes with national insurance and a huge jump in energy bills it’s going to be hard to give much of a pay rise this year. However I trust that my team will be staying with me as they are loyal and hardworking and know how much they are appreciated.

They have all worked for large companies before and really appreciate the benefits of working within a small independent business. They aren’t just a number and that really matters.

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