The tide is most definitely rising

Antony Begley

For all that it’s a logistical nightmare to carry out, the on-the-road judging for the SLR Rewards provides a unique opportunity every year to have a look at dozens and dozens of stores across Scotland in a very short period. For taking the pulse of the industry you can’t beat jumping into a (hired) car and travelling the length and breadth of the country for weeks on end doing nothing else but visiting some of the best stores our nation has to offer.

It’s too easy to make the glib statement that standards are rising every year but I have to admit that some of the stores I visited for this year’s judging are the best I’ve ever seen – and not just in Scotland. I’m lucky enough in this job to get to see lots and lots of convenience stores across the UK and Ireland and, occasionally, even further afield. And I can say without the slightest hesitation that Scotland now boasts some of the finest stores I’ve ever seen anywhere. Not only that, I’d say the general standard of stores is probably higher than you see anywhere else in the UK. A lot of that credit must go to the symbol groups who have worked tirelessly to drive store standards and compliance up – and with a great deal of success.

But some of it is down to great entrepreneurs who simply wanted to deliver the best for their customers. Ardeer Service Station, the winner of this year’s Scottish Local Retailer of the Year, is simply spectacular. There’s no other word for it. Yes, it cost a lot of money to build – around £1.5m – but it’s the quality of thought that went into the concept that really blows you away, not just the fact that a lot of money went into it. Innovative concept plus world class execution equals top notch store. Spar Euro Garages Lomondgate is another similar example, and there are many, many more.

There are few high streets in Scotland’s villages towns and cities these days that don’t boast at least one very, very good independent convenience store. Scotland’s populace has never been better served for stores that offer great prices, long opening hours and friendly smiles behind the till.

It’s a far cry from a decade ago when the competition was a little softer and independent retailers could often get away with lower standards, sloppier service, patchier availability and poor in-store execution. Today’s customers are so used to high standards that they don’t want to accept less – nor should they. So it’s massively encouraging to see independent retailers stand up and be counted and once again show the pretenders like Tesco and Sainsbury’s how you run a real local retailing outlet. With passion and pride and community spirit and heart and commitment.

Despite all of the many challenges that our industry faces – DRS, minimum wage, rates hikes, squeezed margins – we are still right there at the cutting edge doing what we’ve always done best. It’s been a tough journey but let’s hope that all’s well that ends well and we can fully reclaim what was ours in time.

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Antony Begley, Publishing Director