With numerous triathlons, including the gruelling Norseman Extreme Triathlon (reputably the world’s hardest Iron Man) under his belt, it’s fair to say that Spar retailer Julian Holliss relishes a challenge. And four years ago, almost to this day, he was facing one of a very large and orange kind. Just 12 months after a Lidl opened immediately next to his forecourt store in Dartmouth, Devon, a large Sainsbury’s opened just a few yards in the other direction.

However, never being one to take things lying down, Julian put a robust plan of defence into action, adopting a heightened focus on quality food to go, paired with a strong value proposition.

So, four years on, has the plan worked? Well, the short answer is yes.

Despite the pretty abysmal summer weather, store sales are buoyant, footfall is on the up, and the future is looking bright.

“Premium pricing days are long gone in today’s climate and we are now favouring an rrp pricing structure across the categories, which is working well for us,” Julian states.

“A few years ago, we made a decision to stock pricemarked cigarettes and tobacco and this has led to ongoing double-digit growth on an annual basis, with tobacco now accounting for more than 30% of our sales mix at Dartmouth,” Julian explains.

“Other retailers say the margin is poor and that it dilutes your overall margin, but for us the decision has led to more sales and growth as customers keep coming back. You’d be amazed how much word of your pricing spreads. Just last month I visited my local corner shop in Kingsbridge and the cashier said to me, ‘Your ears must be burning - we were just talking about you. Your tobacco prices are the cheapest in the area’. It goes to show that the word spreads positively sometimes.”

Julian is also an advocate of round pound deals, which he says work well in his store. “We are currently stocking Spar £1 deals and finding these are driving incremental impulse sales. In my opinion, a percentage of something is better than none,” he adds.

With the store’s heightened focus on providing quality food and drinks to go also paying dividends, Julian decided to take things one step further last year with the introduction of a footfall-driving Subway franchise.

“Being on the edge of town, and next to a school, leisure centre, park and ride and housing estate, I was confident that we were ideally situated for the introduction of a Subway,” he explains.

In fact, he even managed to turn his competitors’ proximity to his advantage, benefiting from the extra footfall that they generated, by tempting the supermarket shoppers away with his Subway offer.

As a director of Food and Drink Devon, local goods still create an important point of difference within the store. However, the range - which sits in a dedicated branded bay - has been rationalised of late to better stand up to Sainsbury’s premium Taste The Difference offer, which includes goods at similar price points.

The past four years have also seen Julian up his commitment to supporting the local community in ways in which no multiple ever could, a fact which has seen him gain not just widespread local recognition but bag-loads of admiration.

“Supporting the local community in a meaningful way is a must for any serious community retailer and we try to do so at every possible opportunity. It’s something that the multiples just can’t seem to replicate, however hard they try, and people notice that.”

In addition to sponsoring the local football club, rugby club, and juniors sports teams, Julian’s charitable focus reached new heights this summer when he completed a 120-mile Devon coast-to-coast triathlon in honour of local schoolboy Ben Baldry, who was recovering from a brain tumour. The feat saw Julian raise more than £2,000 for CLIC Sargent and the Derriford Children’s Cancer Service.

Julian’s energy has also stood him in good stead in other ways. “These days you can’t stand still for a minute. The retail world changes fast and you have to be able to react and make the most of every new opportunity when it comes along,” he says.

This philosophy was demonstrated in 2009 when, much to local delight, Julian took up the chance to open a Post Office Local counter at his store following the controversial closure of the old office. In addition to driving footfall, the post office counter has generated plenty of good feeling, providing the area’s local people and particularly its elderly shoppers, with a much valued service.

And he’s been no less active in 2012, jumping on each and every opportunity that the summer presented with various promotions and campaigns, including sponsorship of the Dartmouth Regatta Road Race, a high-profile local athletics event, for the first time. On the day that Convenience Store visited, you could hardly move for customers and extra stock ready for the nearby Tour of Britain cycling stage, with thousands of tourists in town hoping to catch a glimpse of Wiggo or Cavendish.

Julian’s race for footfall is showing no sign of letting up, either. With the help of his brother James, who recently returned to the family business, he is hoping to refit the Dartmouth forecourt this winter.

Range reviews will play a crucial role. “It sounds obvious, but you can’t pay close enough attention to your ranges. The importance of weeding out the slow sellers and making ranges work as hard as possible for you cannot be overstated. Every item has to earn its place.”

With value so important, Julian is also looking to introduce some ‘Famous For Lines’ pos material in batteries, torches, bin bags, screen wash and air fresheners. “By combining bulk buying and realistic margin aspirations we hope to achieve sales and further convey the value message,” he adds.

“We’re holding our own, but these days you can’t afford to let your guard down for a minute. Food to go will continue to be an important opportunity and part of our overall offer as time progresses, and we must challenge ourselves to get better. You have to know what your customers want from the range, though. In our case that’s quality, value and variety, and so that’s what we’ll give them.”•