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Community Engagement: Is it worth the effort?

July 26, 2017

As sponsors of the Forecourt Trader Magazine’s Community Engagement Award 2017, it’s been interesting to see the standard of entries and look through all the initiatives that convenience stores and forecourts are putting into place. But what’s the point of community engagement and is it worth the effort?

 

It’s clear to see that community engagement in the local store sector is growing; 84% of independent retailers engaged in some form of community activity in the last year, according to the Association of Convenience Stores (ASC). From the award entries we saw, retailers are certainly putting in more effort and some are reaping the rewards; increased customer numbers, more regular visits and bigger basket sizes – resulting in improved profit for individual stores.

 

So, what are they doing, what works, and is it really worth putting in the effort?

 

 

Post Offices and Convenience Stores are recognised by community groups as having the most positive impact on a local area. We think this is because they’ve become a valued member of the community, not just as a shop, but as reliable place to go for some last-minute items for dinner, a snack, possibly a coffee and often a chat or some banter!

 

Perhaps, not surprisingly, the lowest levels of community activity are seen in London, but are highest in the South West and in Wales.

 

Many of the entries we saw are getting involved with local community groups – sponsoring young people’s activities such as local football teams and other sports clubs. This gets the businesses’ name out there and known among local people. It means the retailer is included as part of the local community and parents, especially, are likely to feel much more positive about the business, leading to more regular visits. It also gives shop staff and customers something to chat about and to engage with. One shop posted several photos and results on their community notice board, congratulating their team on wins.

 

Supporting shop staff with their own fundraising was high on the agenda. Some stores encouraged this through bake sales (using shop ingredients) and staff volunteer days at local charities.

 

Getting involved with community fundraising was seen as useful; both in terms of giving back to the local community but also as becoming an established member of a community and we saw several entries who were supporting the fundraising and placement of a mobile defibrillator. One was considering placing the defibrillator outside the store at a central location – almost as a permanent reminder of their involvement in the community.

 

Helping to organise local charity events and providing prizes and discounts to local events, such as school fayres also went down well – as long as it wasn’t just seen as a way of getting rid of old and unpopular stock.

 

Several of our entries were providing work experience to young and disadvantaged people. This was well received by customers who seemed appreciative of the effort and supportive of the initiative. And others provided a much-needed delivery service to elderly customers during bad weather.

 

Another useful tool for building community engagement, social media, is a double-edged sword.

 

We’ve seen it done well and… not so well. Local area Facebook pages can be good for spreading the message among a very local audience –sharing information about new products in stock, especially when items are in demand (fidget spinner anyone?) and promoting seasonal produce with links to recipes and barbecue suggestions. If you’ve got a new producer doing a sampling or time-limited special offer, it gets the message out quickly and widely. On the other hand, time and effort needs to be put in as local consumers can see it as a great place to air a gripe and retailers have to respond – in sight of a whole audience. If you are on top of it and can respond positively and engagingly, great, but leave it alone and an individual gripe about the quality of the ice-creams can escalate and suddenly lots of customers are complaining and you are left wondering how you will ever turn it around!

 

So, is it worth the effort? On balance, we’d say yes! Stores that are doing it well are reaping the rewards, becoming a vital part of their community. They are sitting at the heart of community activity and providing a constant reminder of the services and products they provide, this can only help in the battle for customers and on-going profit.

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