A month of staffing issues and record numbers

It’s been another mixed month at Woodlands Local as our staffing problems continue, yet our core team keeps delivering the goods as October featured a record week in terms of sales.

by Antony Begley

There’s no doubt about it, staff are the most complex element of running a convenience store. The latest investment we’re considering at Woodlands Local is a revolving door to help us cope with the amount of new starts that we have trialled who haven’t lasted longer than a week or two. When I used to write SLR purely as a journalist I was always sceptical about all the comments I heard from retailers about how difficult it is to find hard working, committed staff. After all, in our publishing company the average length of service for the team on SLR is probably around 10 years. But after the last year in Woodlands Local I’m beginning to come around to the idea that staffing is without doubt the biggest challenge of running the store.

In the last month alone we have seen three new staff come and go with excuses and explanations that you frankly couldn’t make up. Where once we had a ‘three strikes’ policy in terms of no-shows and last-minute call-offs, we now operate a ‘single strike’ policy for new staff during their probationary period. If I hadn’t lived through the last month – and had to cover for no-show staff at short or zero notice – I wouldn’t believe what we’ve been through. We’ve had people call in sick on their second day, we’ve had people ‘forget’ they were going abroad on holiday next week, we’ve had people simply fail to show then fall off the face of the earth, uncontactable by phone, text or email.

I accept that for many it can be an unglamorous job, not particularly well-paid with difficult hours – but I would have thought that reliable, steady, full-time employment with decent working conditions and the prospect of career development would have been attractive to at least some of the good people of Falkirk. And I don’t believe that what we offer at Woodlands is significantly different from what’s available at most other convenience stores in Scotland, so I’m left puzzling as to what exactly we need to do to attract and retain staff with a little ambition and work ethic.

It’s doubly frustrating because we invest a lot of time and effort into training new staff and giving them the tools they need to be effective members of the team – and every time they walk out the door because a 5.45am start doesn’t suit them all that work has been wasted. But let’s face it, nothing I’m saying here will be news to anyone reading this.

Sales spikes

So it’s onwards and upwards once more with yet another new start and a whole new set of plans for building a solid, reliable, ambitious team. And there are definitely some signs of good progress. In the last month we saw a record week in terms of sales this calendar year. Under the guidance of manager Arlene and long-term team member Marlyn, we saw an exceptional seven days at the end of October that had the highest week of sales in 2017 alongside some serious growth in the key hot food and alcohol categories.

Even sales of tobacco were around £400 higher than the average week, which suggests we’re getting some of the things we’re trying right.

To build on that upward trend, we are in the midst of an entire re-lay of the shop and we’re taking a purely data-driven approach. We have been working with our Epos suppliers RDP and our principal wholesaler JW Filshill to merge our historic sales data from the shop with some anonymised data provided by RDP and Filshill about sales in the and around the Falkirk area.

The RDP and Filshill data gives us, effectively, a sort of top 50 in every major category for all stores in the area. This will allow us to identify any big selling lines that we don’t currently stock. We will then combine that with our own Epos sales data to build new ranges for every fixture in the store, adding in big-selling lines we don’t stock and stripping out any slow-selling lines we do stock.

To help with this, RDP will be visiting the store in early November to help us manage the data integration and the output of new ranges lists for each fixture.

We will also then be making use of one of the great tools on RDP’s system that allows us to calculate sales and cash profit levels by individual fixture. That way we can see which areas of the shop are doing well and which areas are doing less well and need some tweaking. Over the coming months we will undoubtedly then decide to grow some fixtures and to reduce the size of others, in line with the profit they are delivering for the business.

Bolt-on training

As part of our renewed commitment to trying to build a lasting team, last month saw us also go live with our formal staff training programme using Bolt Learning’s innovative online training platform.

All members of staff are being asked to complete the online training modules and for Phase I we have started with a few of the modules that we consider fundamental to the efficient, safe and legal operation of the store:

  • Age-related sales (Scotland)
  • Tobacco retail (Scotland)
  • Food Safety Level 1
  • Food Safety Level 2
  • Basic Health & Safety
  • Phase II will then follow and will cover ‘softer’ topics such as customer service, upselling and protecting the environment.

A full report is produced on how each member of staff gets on, allowing the management team to identify areas of strength and weakness where we can offer praise or support as required. Additionally, every staff member earns a certificate upon completion of each module, which is a nice touch.

In-store trials

The last couple of months has seen a great effort from the team in-store too on a couple of trials that we ran with Wrigley and Mars. A price-marked pack trial with Wrigley saw sales of a number of lines increase by between 58.8% and 148.3% – remarkable figures. Then last month our trial of Mars’ new goodnessKNOWS bars saw us shift well over 660 units in a single month, not a bad achievement for a small shop like ours. It goes to show what can be achieved with a bit of effort and a great product.

Spooky sales hikes at Halloween!

It may of course have been coincidence, but we’d like to think that all the work we did in-store helped contribute to the week prior to Halloween being the biggest sales and profit week we’ve had in calendar year 2017!

As well as a raft of standard Halloween chocolate and confectionery lines from the likes of Haribo and Mondelez we also went a bit overboard on our dedicated Halloween aisle end to include a range of great deals on everything from Dark Side Skittles to more creative lines like Quaker Oats’ Limited Edition Pumpkin Spice version of their popular Oat So Simple range.

The result was a lively, colourful and engaging fixture that appealed to a wide range of customers, from small kids to adults.

Again, a fair amount of effort was needed but the proof is in the Halloween pudding and you can’t argue with the best week of the year so far! Great products, merchandised enthusiastically and well makes all the difference.