Opening in lockdown; how a neighbourhood Co-op store won the hearts of the community

The last 12 months have been some of the most challenging and difficult times for businesses up and down the country – and many would view this as a vast understatement. But to open a new store on a high street that has been thrown in and out of lockdown adds additional obstacles. Here we catch up with Amit Tomar, Store Manager of the freshly opened Co-op on the upper High Street in Connaught House.

With a strong neighbourhood focus, the Co-op’s brand values seem well-aligned to the new trend of tying us to more local living and shopping. But how do you get the word out on the street that you’ve opened, when no-one’s on them!

From employing new staff in such turbulent times, getting to know their locals and raising money for important local charities, we hear how Amit and the team at the Co-op have done their best to embed themselves into the community, providing a safe and reassuring environment for customers to carry out their essential shop.

  • When did you open the store?

Our store opened on 4th September 2020, although, as you can imagine, the property was acquired by the Co-op a good few months before that.

  • How many new members of staff did you employ?

We hired 9 new staff members at the time, and 1 experienced member of staff transferred with me from another area of the business.

  • Did you run any opening activities, and if so, how did they go down?

Due to Covid social distancing rules, we were restricted by the type and amount of opening activities we ran, but did manage a few events. Councillor Maddy Redpath of Holy Trinity Ward officially opened the store and cut the ribbon. The opening was attended by only a small group of guests, a number of who were from the Guildford Street Angels. Prior to our opening, we had raised £250 for this important local charity, so it was great to be able to present them with this donation on our opening day.

  • How would you describe the community in which you operate?

The majority of our customers are very local which makes it so great to get to know everyone. Because of that, we are able to move away from just being a regular supermarket and more towards our goals of being at the heart of the area. This is one of the core values of the Co-op, and its importance has never had more prevalence than in the last 12 months when the UK has seen a definitive move to local.

  • How have Covid-19 and subsequent lockdowns impacted your business?

We have been overwhelmed by the gratefulness and appreciation from our customers, and have rapidly become known as a reliable and safe place to obtain all your essential shopping. Throughout each lockdown, we have managed to remain open and trading to support our local community. We know that many of our customers can’t or don’t want to travel further to larger supermarkets, and are uncomfortable to do so, therefore it’s great for us to be able to support them. This makes the team feel that they play an important role within the community.

  • What safety measures have you put in place in your store, and how have these been communicated.

The Co-op has invested a great deal into keeping our customers and staff safe – it’s a crucial part of our business and one that our customers greatly appreciate. We have sanitising stations set up before you even enter the store and run a frequent cleaning schedule to sanitise all customer and staff touch points. While shopping, we also use our in-store radio to remind customers to wear face coverings and to shop alone where possible.  A one-way system has been introduced in some narrower aisles to aid social distancing, plus we have a number of self-service payment machines, separated with full height Perspex partitions (we also have these at the main, manned tills) for those customers looking for a fully contact-free shopping experience.

  • What have you found most challenging during your first 6 months in operation?

The most challenging part of opening up a new store, especially during this pandemic, has been all the unknown factors. We weren’t able to judge the trading patterns and business of the store. These have kept changing rapidly with constant updates about lockdowns and restrictions which has required us to quickly adapt.

  • What have you found most rewarding during your first 6 months in operation?

The most rewarding aspect over the past 6 months is seeing my team grow as a family and as valued members of staff. All but 1 staff member was hired brand new, near the start of lockdown, some with no experience in retail at all, and seeing them all learn, adapt and grow has been incredibly rewarding.

If you haven’t visited Amit and his team at the Co-op in Guildford, you can find them at Connaught House, 255 High St.

If you have visited them, Amit would love to hear your feedback and any recommendations as to how you think they could improve the store.

Just follow the link below to leave your views.

Store number is 3698.