Supporting local growers, helping people to live more healthily and offering a great service are the order of the day at the rapidly-growing simplyfresh group of convenience retailers. Produce Business UK visited the banner’s Alcester store in Warwickshire to find out more
The Birmingham-based simplyfresh symbol group believes it has found a winning formula in offering local food for local people. Run by independent shopkeepers with a passion for retail and their communities, the c-stores place an emphasis on “making convenience better” through a healthy and value-for-money range that focuses on fresh and chilled food, including fresh produce, ready meals and meal solutions, especially fresh meat.
“The concept is all in the name,” says Nick Axten-Rice, who oversees merchandising across the simplyfresh network in the Midlands and beyond. “It’s simple and fresh,” he explains. “Our ethos is to source good quality, local products and to blend those in with the usual, branded products that consumers demand.”
In doing so, simplyfresh says it has gone back to basics in terms of offering shoppers exactly what they want and need. “There’s definitely been a change in the way people are shopping,” Axten-Rice points out. “People are moving away from doing one big shop to shopping on a more daily basis. Some are even coming in [to simplyfresh stores] bi-daily or tri-daily. They’re being more selective too and only buying what they need.”
Added to that, simplyfresh claims it is bringing back the old days by encouraging people to think about what they’re consuming and to eat more healthily. As well as thought-provoking signage in stores and recipes online, every new simplyfresh c-store launch includes a healthy eating initiative whereby local school children are given vouchers to redeem a free piece of fruit.
“You’ve got to have a unique selling point but it’s more than that [at simplyfresh],” states Axten-Rice. “It’s also offering a great service and helping people to live better. All the shopkeepers have the same philosophy.”
Nasta Khera, owner of the Alcester simplyfresh store, agrees: “It’s all about better quality, better service and less wastage,” he says. “We do offer promotions but it’s to get people to try different things. At the moment, we’ve got local strawberries on offer for £1, a deal on bananas and a special offer on Key limes.”
It appears the ethos has struck a chord, as the simplyfresh network is growing rapidly and branching out nationwide. From its original base in the Midlands, stores have since opened in the north-west, Yorkshire and Gwent in Wales. There’s even a simplyfresh in east London on Roman Road in Bethnal Green, which features a community garden, and there are plans to open further stores across the capital.
Richard Benn, office manager at simplyfresh’s headquarters in Birmingham, says the group is currently developing another 40-45 stores to add to its existing 58-strong network. “We’ll probably have 100 stores by Christmas,” he reveals. “In London, our long-term project is to open stores around the railway and tube stations. Two to three are close to opening and the plan is to have 200 stores in two years’ time.”
Every simplyfresh store is individual to its local area to ensure it stocks the right product mix to cater for specific local needs. “You could take the simplyfresh model into many towns and cities because we tailor each store and offer so it’s right for the local demographic,” explains Axten-Rice.
As such, all the stores hold their own despite being situated in competitive locations – the Alcester branch, for example, is flanked on both sides of town by Waitrose and Tesco Express. Some shoppers even drive 30 miles just to go to the simplyfresh store in Redditch, according to Benn.
“If you’ve got the right products you’ll do well with the customers, then they tell their friends,” says Axten-Rice. “We had one customer last week looking for a specific item she couldn’t find in Tesco, yet she found it here at simplyfresh,” adds Khera.
Khera’s Alcester store was filled with all types of shoppers when PBUK visited early on a Friday afternoon and Khera claims it’s no different at other times of the day. “It’s very busy in the mornings and evenings but it’s busy throughout the day really,” he says. “We even get people coming in to buy produce for their breakfast after being to the pub at night!”
All simplyfresh stores are encouraged to stock local fruit and vegetables, as well as artisan, organic and other healthy products where there’s a market for it. The offer also comes down to the decision of the retailer itself (the shop owner) in terms of what he/she wants to do.
The company prides itself on its store design and layout; confident that an appealing and positive shopper experience will maximise turnover. So, with fresh fruit and vegetables representing a key line, the produce offer stands proud at the front of the store where the layout is designed to look like a farmers’ market.
“In all simplyfresh stores we always try to position the fresh produce offer at the front because it sets the right ambience,” explains Axten-Rice. “It’s full of colour which brightens up the place,” says Axten-Rice.
Individual produce items are also strategically positioned to give pops of colour throughout the shelves. “I wouldn’t put oranges and tangerines together, for example,” remarks Axten-Rice. “I’d split them up so you’ve got colour here and there as much as possible.”
He believes presentation is critical to creating that initial impulse to buy. “The produce aisle is made to feel local and ‘countrified’ [at simplyfresh],” he says. “The more countrified the better, I think. It’s like walking into a garden and it makes people feel good.”
The Alcester store is certainly doing a good job of creating that market feel in its produce area as shop owner Khera welcomes his customers through the door and immediately discusses the offers of the day.
“Presenting the produce in baskets really works too – because it’s visual, the attraction is immediate,” adds Axten-Rice. “The quality of the produce is visually evident as well. Then when the customer samples it at home and they know it’s good, they come back.”
simplyfresh’s message on produce is to eat healthily and support your local community, according to Axten-Rice. “Youngsters nowadays do care about what they eat. Young parents in particular are putting good food in front of their kids. People are also more willing to try [new products and new ideas]. The internet for instance makes it a lot easier to find recipe ideas.”
Since c-stores are small enough for customers to notice new products, simplyfresh encourages its retailers to constantly test new items, depending on their local market. If a product or range works, other items are moved to make more space.
“If it works, we keep it,” notes Axten-Rice. “Most stores start small, then expand new brands and take more volume as the new products sell well. Right now, demand for organic is big as well as our health-conscious ranges like ‘eat goodness’, which features dried fruit and nut, seeds, pulses etc. Gluten-free is another popular health range.
“If you’re [the store] in the right demographic then it [health products] works. Any where there are people who are into healthy living will be interested in these ranges and products. The challenge is finding space in store for all the popular lines!”
When it comes to sourcing, simplyfresh encourages its retailers to visit local farmers’ markets and to work very closely with local producers, as another way of supporting the local economy and community.
“We go to Evesham Market three or four times a week,” says Khera, the owner of simplyfresh Alcester. “We know all the growers and get flowers from the local nurseries too. Our produce is generally from within five to 10 miles of the store.
“Most of the produce we stock is therefore seasonal. At the moment we’ve got local rhubarb and spring cabbage all grown in Evesham. At this time of the year the local asparagus sells well, and purple sprouting broccoli too. We source local potatoes and some are re-packed in our own simplyfresh branded packaging.”
Khera adds new fresh produce lines all the time but the same approach applies to imported produce. “We’ve got local bunched radish at the moment,” he points out. “Passion fruit is also something different we’ve introduced recently and custard apples from the wholesalers in Birmingham. We listen to what our customers want.”
Because of the small volume of produce purchased, Axten-Rice says it’s easier for the shopkeepers to go to their local market or wholesale market, rather than direct to grower-suppliers. “They make connections and form relationships at the market all the same,” he adds. “A lot comes down to word of mouth too in terms of finding a good supplier.”
If any growers are considering supplying their local simplyfresh store all the retailers are approachable, Benn says. “The majority of our food comes through [wholesalers] Palmer and Harvey and Blakemore Fine Foods but the best thing for growers is to contact me at our head office so I can meet them and introduce them to the most suitable stores.
“We are always very keen to talk to fruit and veg suppliers.”
Axten-Rice adds that simplyfresh retailers want good quality products that are competitively priced, with which Khera concurs; explaining that by going to Evesham Market he is able to negotiate on price. “If it’s not fresh, people don’t want it,” notes Axten-Rice. “They’re looking for the best quality because consumers are more aware about what they’re consuming these days. People would rather pay a little bit more for good quality.”
simplyfresh says it’s aware of such buying preferences because its retailers listen to their customers and actively solicit feedback. Indeed, the company places customer service high on the agenda; believing it’s the key to customer loyalty.
Khera’s Alcester store –was named the most popular Asian community shop in the UK at the Asian Traders Awards in 2012 – and he knows many of his customers by name. That’s a trait that’s found across the network, according to Axten-Rice.
“People like the personal touch within our stores,” he explains. “The stores know their customers, they listen to what they want and often put products aside or let customers know when stock is coming in.”
Both staff and retailers under the simplyfresh banner receive product and people training with the aim of making the whole shopping experience better for the customer. “[Retailing] it’s all about communication, whether that’s simply smiling or offering older shoppers some assistance,” says Axten-Rice. “As a customer, it puts you at ease and makes you happy.”
With the simplyfresh brand proving desirable, Benn claims the group doesn’t have to look for new members. “They look for us,” he says. “But we don’t give the brand away to anyone. Our fascias portray a certain message. It has to be the right fit and usually it’s a gut feeling.”
Fast facts about simplyfresh
Founded: By Birmingham-based brothers Sukhjit and Kash Khera in 2009.
Partner: Costcutter Supermarkets Group which acquired a 20% stake in late 2014.
First store: Kenilworth, Warwickshire.
Strapline: Convenience just got better.
Operation: Stores are owned by independent retailers, many of which are are family-run, and situated at the heart of their communities.
Formats: simplyfresh, which offer fresh produce, organic and artisan ranges as well as main grocery lines; and simplylocal, whose stores can be smaller and tend to focus on the main grocery lines.
Network: 58 stores with plans to add 40-45 more this year, including smaller stores in London (away from its traditional Midlands hub).
Emphasis: Fresh and seasonal.
Suppliers: Local and reputable producers with whom shopkeepers create strong relationships.
10 reasons for joining simplyfresh
Find out more about becoming a simplyfresh member – download the e-brochure
Learn more about the simplyfresh symbol group – read the presentation