Innovative Retailers – Thornton’s Budgens

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The Name: Thornton’s Budgens

The Place:Crouch End, London N8 and Belsize Park, London NW3

The Story: Thornton’s Budgens is in this column for two reasons. Firstly its quest to have the lowest carbon footprint of any existing supermarket in the world, which has all sorts of people turning up and making notes, and secondly its totally uncanny ability to generate large amounts of publicity for just about anything it does. Like eating squirrels.

The Thornton in Thornton’s Budgens.
Please. It’s a bit early for all this isn’t it? Never too early for the manager of Crouch End’s Budgens Andrew Thornton to have a good idea. People fell over themselves to get there when the national press announced squirrel meat ‘sustainable and delicious’ was on sale at a certain north London supermarket in 2010.

The grey variety, I hope Mr T? Mais oui. And after that we had the ‘Box of Hope’, which you can still buy. Tapping into the idea that we need to see something concrete for our charitable donations you put a wooden box in your shopping trolley and give it to the cashier who adds a £1 donation to Dementia Research to your bill. Columnists had another field day.

Box of Hope: What all retailers need right now.
Who has these super ideas? Well, they come from all over the place. Andrew Thornton describes himself as an innovator and a creator. There is no PR agency – he is it. But they also get approached as it is known that they are open to ideas of all kinds. Customers, suppliers – they’ll take a good wheeze from anyone. Although Thornton is bemused that the idea of a poet laureate for the store never really got taken up by those fickle journos. But never mind about that because in a couple of weeks you can eat your dinner up on the roof of Thornton’s Budgens.

It’s an ideas whirlwind. Kindly explain: Thornton is also the co-creator of ‘Food From The Sky’ so beloved by Bozza (that’s London Mayor Boris Johnson for non-Londoners). He has allowed the roof of his store to be taken over by a sustainable, roof top allotment scenario and they are holding a harvest supper and auction up there. I’m telling you this shop is a legend in its own lunchtime.

I can see. So what’s the effect on sales? Thornton says you cannot link ideas to sales generation particularly. They simply do these things because they care. Retail consultancy him! has allegedly described Crouch End as the most competitive food retail high street in the UK. Tesco is next door, Waitrose two doors down, M&S nearby, loads of local independents too – so getting a slice of the ever decreasing customer budget is key however you do it. But in affluent Crouch End sustainable and local is what makes them tick and this is where the Budgens franchising business model comes into its own. But first I must just tell you about ‘Made in London’.

Go right ahead:A whole section of Thornton’s Budgens food is exactly that – Made in London – and 13 of his suppliers are located in the borough of Haringey. At least three food companies have started with help from this shop and the ‘Stall for All’, which is always outside the shop, showcases some of these cottage industries who hope to go mainstream. A good example is Stewed! that started out in Alexandra Palace farmers’ market and asked Thornton’s Budgens for help. He stocked the stuff, and now you can get it all over the place. Another food empire is born.

Nuff said. Back to franchising: Budgens is family owned by the Musgrave Group of Irish stock, as is Thornton. He claims that the Irish independent retail sector was/is of a far higher quality than in the UK. When Musgrave Group bought Budgens it was around 200 stores in a ‘command and control’ chain. They immediately sought out franchisees like Thornton and now around 120 of them are fully independent. Incidentally Thornton himself is not at all interested in gaining any more leases than the two he already has. In fact, he struggles slightly with the idea of a community retailer having any more than one shop saying he’d be ‘just a store manager then’.

Budgens’ model working well in Crouch End.
So the future according to Thornton is? Definitely the community-based franchise model. Fairly new to the UK as opposed to Ireland, but people are disillusioned with big chains and if shops cannot compete on price they can major on personalisation, service and local food. Tesco ‘did everyone a favour’ by buying One Stop thereby forcing an improvement in the quality of the UK independent sector with a kick up the…

Quite. Tell me about the green stuff: Hold on to your hats. The Belsize Park store has LED lighting throughout, using 10% of normal energy levels, but with no discernible effect on shoppers. People said it couldn’t be done. Only 6% of their waste goes to landfill. For a supermarket they are saintly, I’m telling you. And they put fridge doors onto chiller cabinets despite this being obviously a no-no.

Err is it?No. But people screamed that customers would not open doors to get yogurt. It is a barrier to purchase. Calm down dear, said Thornton’s Budgens, we’re doing it anyway. And lo, and behold the people of Crouch End managed to open the door and close it again. Since then Thornton has showed certain other large retailers around to show them how it works. Evidence that this is an ethical thing, not a sales advantage thing.

So, what tips for anyone who wants to follow in the Thornton’s Budgens footsteps? If you are big then plan to open a shop in an area of early adopters, and if you are small then concentrate on community. The beauty of the Thornton’s shops is that they have managed to do both.

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