The Essentials Store on Kent University’s Canterbury campus is thronging with customers in the run up to lunch and it’s not even term-time. “We serve about 7,000 customers a week during the holidays,” states retail manager Trevor Higgs, who oversees the running of all five of the university’s shops, ranging from a smaller Essentials store to a stationers and off licence. “We can serve on average 50 customers within five minutes.”

This is just as well as even with several tills on the go, there is still a queue of 10 people laden with sandwiches, soft drinks and snacks.

But during term-time, the store becomes even more hectic, requiring all nine of the shop’s checkouts to be in operation. “We have an average of 25,000 customers a week,” says Trevor. “It’s phenomenally busy.”

Store profile: Essentials, Canterbury, Kent

Size: 2,980sq ft 
Staff: 12 full-time, 96 part-time 
Opening hours: Mon- Fri 7am-3am; Sat 9am 3am; Sun 9am-12am 
Additional services: food to go, e-top-up, ATM, passport photo booth

When dealing with this level of footfall, you need to be organised, and thankfully this is one of his strong points. Before the start of each academic year, Trevor prints off all his epos figures and reviews each category. “We spend the best part of a week checking what’s selling and what’s not, and discussing what we want with suppliers.”

It’s a time-consuming process, but Trevor knows it’s the only chance he’ll get to carry out such a thorough assessment. “For the first two terms we’ll set a range up and keep it the same,” says Trevor. “There’s no time to do anything. We just keep things running.”

The store’s highlights include a vast fruit and veg section and an Oriental food display brought to life with a Chinese dragon decoration. But one of its biggest pulls is the impressive chilled section, which earned it the title of Best Chilled Food Retailer at the Convenience Retail Awards (see panel, p30).

Throughout term-time, sandwiches alone bring in a massive £10,000-worth of sales a week, making up 15% of the store’s total turnover. “We’re on top of a hill so that stops everyone going into town at lunch!” says a modest Trevor. But it’s not just a case of students being too lazy to shop elsewhere. They are, in fact, spoilt for choice at Essentials. The store provides sandwiches sourced from no fewer than seven different suppliers. The shop’s main supplier is the Co-op, but there is plenty of room for flexibility, which Trevor takes full advantage of. In addition to Co-op sandwiches, there’s a happy balance of locally sourced sarnies from Canterbury, Ashford, Broadstairs and Sittingbourne, as well as trusted favourites such as Ginsters.

It may sound excessive, but Trevor claims that each supplier brings something new to the table, both in terms of ingredients and price points. “We don’t just sell six types of tuna mayo sandwich. The Co-op does lots of healthy options; one supplier tends to do sub rolls; another offers more upmarket ingredients, such as chicken with rocket salad they’re all different.”

And if they don’t float students’ boat, then there’s most likely something else that will. Locally sourced olives, sushi and pakora are all available, and there’s a sea of salad boxes and fruit salads.

“We sell 300 cases a week of fruit and pasta salads,” says Trevor. And ensuring they’re all out on-shelf ready for the onslaught of students is no mean feat. “We have 15-18 cages of fresh deliveries on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, plus ambient deliveries. It takes considerable time to get the store checked in and stocked up because we’re busy at 9, 10 and 11 as students finish lectures at different times.”

And business doesn’t wind down after the lunchtime rush. The store stays open until 3am and has managed to turn those early hours into a key trading time, thanks to some smart thinking on food to go. “The union nightclub kitchen didn’t take much money and ended up dropping its food offering, so I thought if we opened up the store until the early hours we could serve hot food via a purpose-built serving hatch,” says Trevor. “This year on Bake & Bite we did four different meal deals at £2.99. There’s a queue about 20 deep most nights.”

However, the store has become a victim of its own success. “During 2009/2010, our food-to-go sales averaged £4,500 a week. Now we take an average £8,500 a week and have taken £9,980. But the food prep area was only designed to cope with £5,000-worth of sales.”

School’s out
When you hear how manic term-time is you could be forgiven for thinking that non term-time is a doddle, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Naturally, sales are reduced, but that brings with it the tricky task of knowing how much to cut back, and how much product to order in. “In the holidays, we go down to four sandwich suppliers,” explains Trevor. “Fresh meat sales slow, so we cut back on that, as well as butter, cheese, ready meals and fresh pizzas. We still keep the variety, but we order less.”

Even with careful stock management, there is an increase in waste due to the unpredictability of the holiday period. “In non-term time wastage is a bigger problem because we have no idea what people will buy.” He explains that in term-time wastage levels can be as low as 0.5%, whereas in non-term time it creeps up to 2%.

Outside of term-time the store’s customer base is a rich mix of ethnicities. “Last month we had a massive influx of Italian students they come every year, but you never know when they’re coming, how many there’ll be, and what they’re going to buy,” says Trevor. He explains that last year they were into crisps and sweets, but this time he ended up selling out of mozzarella cheese and Frijj drinks.

On other occasions the university plays host to religious groups. “We had hundreds of archbishops at the university because of the Lambeth Conference a couple of years back, and at our nearby Parkwood store we’ve just had 1,000 Quaker for their annual meeting.”

Best Chilled Food RetailerWinner: Essentials, Canterbury, Kent

Trevor was over the moon to be acknowledged as the Best Chilled Food Retailer at the Convenience Retail Awards in March. “It was such a reward to be recognised,” he says. “It was a fantastic day and one I won’t forget about.” 

Judges described the store as “excellent”, highlighting the fact that the proportion of space dedicated to chilled produce showed that the potential of the category had been fully realised. They noted that the easy-to-shop fixture was well merchandised with a good flow. “Essentials demonstrates good brand blocking and stocks many of the major players in the market, as well as locally sourced products,” they said. “While the store uses planograms, staff have also customised product layouts with their own tweaks based on customer knowledge.” 

Judges were also very impressed with the store’s cleanliness and food safety policies, and its ability to make the most of promotions, in particular multi-buys and meal deals.

But while managing university stores brings numerous challenges, Trevor wouldn’t swap it for the world. “I get a lot of freedom to do what I want here, plus the work/life balance is superb.”

In his past life as a deputy store manager at Safeway, Trevor was working more than 70 hours a week. “Now I do between 45 and 50. I get six to seven weeks’ holiday a year and most weekends off I just work four or five a year if it’s busy.”

Time spent away from the store has allowed Trevor the chance to indulge in a spot of ten-pin bowling with his wife, as well as refereeing kids’ football matches every Sunday. In addition, he’s just joined the Chartered Management Institute. “I completed a diploma in management studies in December 2010 and now I’m going to apply for the Chartered Manager Award.”

It’s not just self-development Trevor is concentrating on, though. He has plenty of plans for the store, too. “I read trade magazines and take clippings of everything that other retailers have done differently and I cherry pick their ideas,” he says. “I keep them all in a folder and use them to look at where the industry is going.”

One idea that Trevor is considering is home delivery, while night deliveries is another area under the microscope. “We’re going to build a cold holding where we can put delivery cages so they can be checked in by our night staff. This will improve availability and make it easier for customers to shop without cages in the aisles.”

Trevor also hopes to expand the Bake & Bite operation in order to cope with the increased demand. He is considering a ‘shop within a shop’ concept in the hope of hitting £12,000 in sales.

And as if the store wasn’t doing enough business, there are plans to increase its term-time opening hours to 23 hours a day.

It might sound demanding, but Trevor can’t get enough of it. “I love being on the shop floor more than anything,” he beams. And that’s just as well, because as C-Store’s interview wraps up, another horde of customers enters and it’s back to business for our clever Trevor.