Six years ago, the store Amish Shingadia had just taken over was named the “worst store in Sussex”.
Since then though, he has worked to turn his store around. So much so that earlier this year, Londis Caterways in Horsham, West Sussex, was named as the winner of the Best Independent Store at the Retail Industry Awards.
When Amish first took over the store, it was unaffiliated. He soon signed up with Londis, and the small retailer has been known as Londis Caterways & Post Office ever since.
In a bid to improve the business, just six months after he took over it he decided to close for two weeks to refurbish and re-launch the store. He also expanded its offerings, double-checked prices, and attempted to forge community ties – not least to learn more about what customers wanted.
At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic when Brits were forced to stay indoors, Amish recognised that many of his elderly customers were going to need help.
“I had customers tell me I don’t know how we’re going to survive, my family can’t come to help me, I don’t know how I’m going to get food,” he told Retail Gazette.
“I knew I had to do something.”
“They had supported our business, they’d been loyal, it was our turn to help out”
He also noticed that many other customers kept asking him if there was any way that they could help. This led to him creating a volunteer service for shopping deliveries.
He said the system was very much a collaborative effort where all 13 members of staff in the store got involved. The volunteers set up a free system free with no minimum spend and used telephones to ensure older and vulnerable customers wouldn’t struggle amid stay-at-home orders.
In the end it turned out that their delivery system was more extensive than similar services from competing retailers – it even delivered to villages within a 10-mile radius.
Amish added that the service managed to provide human contact, although limited, between volunteers and those to whom they delivered, even if it was just a short – but distanced – chat on the doorstep.
Amish added that service led to 1000 free deliveries, both to those self-isolating and to care homes. It became so well-known locally that the local council got in touch asking if the details could be shared with other stores in West Sussex.
Although the free delivery service turned out to be a success it wasn’t easy to create. Amish conceded it was difficult to find volunteers initially.
“It was a challenge when we started, people were scared to come and help because of the fear surrounding the virus,” he recalled.
“We approached groups who also refused us because of the same reason, it wasn’t until we went onto Facebook and found groups wanting to help during the pandemic that we managed to find people.”
“Interestingly, we couldn’t rely on locals to become volunteers but instead managed to work with people coming in from other areas.”
“I was very surprised.”
“It’s so important to give back to the community”
And if that wasn’t enough, Amish recognised that not all customers felt comfortable with coming into stores. For that reason, he started a pick-up service where customers ordered their items via phone and then picked up at the shop door, without having to enter.
Alongside these services, Londis Caterways has also given much-needed backing to those helping combat Covid-19. This included donating £500 to Worthing Hospital, as well as food donations to local food banks, and PPE to local care homes.
“As a store we have a budget every year which we give to local causes, we always try to help,” Amish said.
He added that they decided to continue donating to charity because while the retailer was seeing successful sales during the pandemic, not everyone in the area was doing so well.
“I didn’t want to profiteer from this situation, we wanted to give it back to local schools, groups and hospitals,” Amish said.
“We did whatever we could do to give that money back out, it felt like were making money from people going through hard times.”
As the retail industry begins to repair itself and restrictions slowly begin to ease, Amish explained how other small retailers can help their local communities more.
“Our team has really focused on customer service and customer safety, we saw a lot of new faces during covid and we’ve managed to retain a lot of them,” he said.
“We always want to create an attitude and personality within our store that shows we care.
“Go onto Facebook and find out what locals want, find out what they want you to do.
“Even customers just seeing that you’re asking those questions will make a difference.”