Martin Flanagan: Tough times in convenience store sector

Napoleon Bonaparte, weighing an invasion, dismissively told underlings we were just a nation of shopkeepers.

The convenience store sector continues to shed jobs. Picture: Jon Savage
The convenience store sector continues to shed jobs. Picture: Jon Savage

Britain saw off Boney, but cost increases on the convenience store sector have proved more attritionally effective.

The number of jobs in the sector has fallen by another 20,000 this year, a second consecutive year of staff haemorrhaging and damage to local shops and communities, says the latest annual report from the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS).

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The latest job losses – despite rising sales and significant investment from convenience retailers – give a sector headcount now of 370,000. That compares with 390,000 in 2016 and 407,000 in 2015.

Despite the ACS revealing that the near-50,000 convenience stores in the UK have seen sales rise £500 million so far this year to £38 billion, the bleak direction of travel in terms of employment looks clear.

As ACS chief executive James Lowman says, part of the reason for the headcount fall is a result of the increases in the national minimum wage and national living wage. The rise in business rates has been another shot to the body, coming just as small stores were raising their arms to defend against punches to the head.

On the jobs front, and as the ACS report makes clear, if you are a small shop owner under the financial cosh, the obvious kneejerk response is to reduce the number of hours that your employees work whilst putting in an extended shift themselves. Meanwhile, the convenience offering of the big supermarket operators – 7am to 11pm and all that – has now become an institutionalised shadow over the smaller more vulnerable players.

The proposed move by Tesco for Booker and Co-op Group for Nisa shows how it is becoming an industry given that a convenience offering is a vital bit of competitive kit. The independents are in the firing line.

For whom the Bell tolls

We will probably know if City PR firm Bell Pottinger can survive its unpleasant South African opinion-forming fiasco quite soon. Former founder Tim (now Lord) Bell thinks the game’s up, however; and clients are already said to be pulling business with the outfit.

Some say it is a black and white case of incompetence. Bell Pottinger doesn’t really have the option of hiring a reputational management firm, either.