Rich Airey catches up with a family of dairy farmers turned retailers also celebrating 21 years in the industry.

When the Gillett family kicked off their wellies in late 1984 and made the bold move from dairy farming in Lancashire to owning a Spar store in the small Cornish town of Callington, no one could have predicted the lofty position of their business 21 years on.

Gillett’s of Callington now operates 38 stores throughout Cornwall and Devon, with recent acquisitions including stores in Alphington, outside Exeter, and Carnon Downs, near Falmouth.

However, success for managing director John Gillett and his family team has not been overnight, as his son and sales director Mark points out. “We’ve grown steadily to where we are today,” says Mark. “There’s no rocket science involved, just good staff and good managers. Everyone is loyal, con-scientious, keen and enthusiastic.”

As the sector has changed so too has the business. “We couldn’t be called a c-store by today’s standards when we started out, and in fact the shop was called Callington Supermarket,” Mark says. “We had products on our shelves then that just wouldn’t sell here now. Take, for example, something like gravy. In the past we would have stocked all the ingredients needed to make gravy but now people are happy with instant granules. As our customers have changed we’ve had to as well.”

When the Callington store first opened it traded 50 hours a week with half-day closing on Wednesdays and all day closing on Sundays - a far cry from the longer hours the family was used to working on the farm. This didn’t last long, though, as Mark recalls: “When we started out we were open from 8am to 5.30pm, with a ‘late’ opening on Thursdays until 7pm. Now people need a store to open much longer than that.”

Half-day Wednesdays became a thing of the past and the store was soon trading on Sundays. A refit in 1985 saw business really begin to take off. Turnover climbed to £26,000 a week and later that year ‘eight till late’ hours were introduced - a move that increased turnover to £40,000 a week and saw the family return to the kind of hours they had become accustomed to as farmers. The store is now open 6.30am to 11.30pm, Monday to Sunday.

The type of products and services on offer have also changed a great deal over the past two decades, as Mark explains: “What we’ve certainly seen increase is the amount of space dedicated to fresh and chilled products with people buying less of certain ambient items.”

Mark believes shoppers enjoy a much wider range of services from their typical convenience store than they did 21 years ago, thanks to the introduction of items such as PayPoint, mobile phone top-ups and cash machines. “They’re all things people expect to find.”

This year is cause for double celebration in the South West as Gillett’s supplier, Appleby Westward, also celebrates its 21st birthday. The supplier, which now handles 348 stores, was formed with the merger of two Spar wholesalers - Appleby and Son in Bristol and Westward Food Distributors in Saltash, just 20 minutes from Callington.

Good relations with suppliers is something Mark singles out as key to success. “We’ve always had a good relationship with Appleby Westward because we’ve both been willing to work hard at it,” he says. “One of the benefits of having worked with it for so long is that we’ve all made a lot of close friends.

“Saying that, I don’t think it’s important for store managers to spend all their time with visiting reps from suppliers,” he adds.

Something that cannot be ignored when looking at the past 21 years is the impact the multiples have had on today’s convenience sector.

“The sector has become much tougher and although I’d like to think we could, I’m not sure we’d be able to start afresh today and build up to the same number of stores. Growth is so much harder to come by and the multiples have driven up property prices.

“So far, we haven’t had any particularly serious instances of the multiples moving in next door but we do have six One-Stop stores close by, two of which have been earmarked to be converted to Express stores. There’s also talk of an out-of-town supermarket for Callington and I understand the council is 8-2 in favour. So far, we’ve coped reasonably well but I still think we need to move even faster in developing our offering to our customers.”

Seven years ago the Co-op opened a new supermarket in Callington, and although this created an initial downturn in sales for the Gillett’s store, its central location and shrewd business moves such as buying the post office across the road ensured there were still reasons people preferred it to the Co-op. However, Mark reveals Gillett’s lost out this Christmas as the supermarket opened on Boxing Day for the first time.

Buying the post office hasn’t been the only expansion for the Callington store - 10 years ago it bought the building next door which used to be a bank. The connecting wall was then knocked through to create what is now the off licence. Two years earlier the family also purchased an electrical goods shop, which it now uses as a separate fruit and veg outlet.

“The shop now needs another refit,” says Mark. “As part of the grand plan we’d like to move everything in together but it’s been hard getting around to it given all the new stores we’ve been working on.”

Mark feels there is further room to grow the business in the West Country, and there are no plans to branch further afield: “There are plenty of opportunities in our current area not to have to look at areas outside Devon and Cornwall,” he says.

As Gillett’s has grown the family has tried to avoid setting up in large towns. An unsuccessful store opening in Torquay confirmed their belief that small towns and rural locations were their best option. “We had our fingers burnt in Torquay 12 years ago,” recalls Mark. “We only lasted 18 months there. We’ve got our formula and it seems to work. The larger towns seem to throw up so many more problems.”

Two hurdles Mark believes have to be tackled over the next few years are Sunday trading and red tape. “I’ve written to eight MPs to say that I hope for their support in not extending Sunday opening hours for larger stores,” he says, pointing to a Commons acknowledgement form on his desk.

“Red tape and paperwork has also increased dramatically in the 21 years we’ve been involved and it needs to be sorted. There was certainly a lot of paperwork with the new alcohol licensing laws and we were lucky to get all of our applications completed by the deadline.”

Gillett’s dabbled with 24-hour formats for their St Austell and Plymouth stores but it’s not something Mark’s keen on attempting with any other stores. “We tried opening round the clock a couple of years ago but it really didn’t work,” he says. “There were problems with noise, threatening incidents and staffing. The format couldn’t be justified and we went back to the original hours after about eight months.”

Looking to the future, Mark believes it’s a lot brighter than many forecast. “Although the long-term future is harder to predict, I would say in the medium term of about five years it looks pretty good.”

Mark thinks those who predict doom and gloom for independents are jumping the gun, but he believes that membership of a symbol group does make life easier.

“There are still a lot of successful independents but it can be harder without the backing of a group,” he says.

“Spar has helped us as it’s modern and progressive. It’s a tough industry that requires people to work hard and pay attention to detail. Your mind has to be going the whole time.”