Most retailers who have a multiple within a mile radius of their store will claim they have pretty stiff competition. But for staff at Henderson Spar Victoria Street, its competition is so close it’s breathing down their neck.

In July of last year, a Tesco Express opened just two doors away from this busy city centre store. Despite the invasion on its territory, management at Spar Great Victoria Street didn’t panic or lose heart, but instead looked at how they could improve and take on the giant.

Their positive attitude has meant it survived the challenge and has maintained sales, and their efforts were recognised by winning the Best Small Store Award at this year’s Convenience Retail Awards.

Manager Chris Williams (pictured) believes that the store’s success is down to a combination of excellent staff and offering value to customers.

He says that the staff and customers know each other well and this interaction gives the Spar store an edge over its rivals. “It’s something we ingrain in our staff through the Sparkling Service programme,” says Chris. “They treat customers with respect and offer a friendly service. Even the way the staff rota is set up means that quite often the same customers will see the same members of staff, which helps to build up a good relationship. In the multiples, a customer could see a different member of staff every day and not know their name - that’s not the case here.”

shop profile

Spar Great Victoria Street, Belfast

Size: 1,450sq ft

Staff: 10

Opening hours: Monday to Sunday, 6am-10pm

Additional services: food to go, PayPoint

The store boasts a very low turnover of staff, too. Chris says that the group offers staff plenty of opportunity to further their careers in the retail industry, helping to create loyalty. “There are plenty of development courses available for staff members if they want,” he says. “I started on the shop floor myself and received training from the company to become a manager. We want everyone to be able to develop themselves. All they have to do is come to us and we’ll find a course that will best suit their talents within the business.”

Even with such dedicated staff, the threat from Tesco was very real. However, Chris is proud to point out that weekly turnover hasn’t really been affected, with the weekly average of £36,000 close to what it was recording before Tesco opened.

Chris took over the running of the store earlier this year when manager Julie-Ann Galbraith went on maternity leave. Did he have any reservations about taking over a business with such hot competition nearby? “To be honest, I saw it as a challenge,” he says. “When I first started working at Henderson, I was at this store so I know how good it can be. I know that when Tesco announced it was opening so close, it was a big shock to everyone, but I think we’ve recovered well and the business is still thriving.

“Thankfully, Tesco wasn’t granted an alcohol licence so it didn’t have that advantage over us. You can’t just roll over and let other stores take over your business it’s important to keep going and keep the business successful.”

To achieve this, the team decided to focus on the areas in which Tesco doesn’t do as well and make them a unique selling point for the store. This included food to go, which has become a big focus for Spar Great Victoria Street. A range review for the store led to categories such as household and pet food being pared back in order to make room for the more lucrative freshly-prepared food.

As the store is surrounded by busy office blocks, the team has to keep on top of its food to go offering. Chris does this through meal deals and promotions to keep the offering fresh and exciting. “We have a range of promotions and loyalty schemes that all tie in together nicely, such as our stamp scheme for lunchtime meal deals that offers the fifth one free.”

In order to increase consumer interest, the meal deals often come with free drinks, and there are regular specials available to keep customers’ interest. “We try to keep things different by having different meal promotions every week,” says Chris. “If people get bored of the food in a store, they will shop somewhere else, so we mix it up and have fresh choice for them regularly.”

The store has an average of about 7,500 customers a week, with a lot of these coming in for breakfast and lunch. In fact, the category is so popular that food to go accounts for 10% of the store’s turnover. Ensuring it is well managed is therefore a priority for Chris. “We have someone on the hot food counter at all times, plus the other supervisors and I are all trained to jump on the counter if needed,” he says.

“It’s such a big part of the store’s business that we can’t afford to have queues building up, or a substandard service.”

As well as the hot food counter, which has an amazing selection of dishes that customers will happily queue for, the store stocks Tim Horton’s doughnuts, plus a hot beverage machine that dispenses about 550 drinks a week.

To help drive sales in these areas further, Chris has plenty of offers for his customers, such as a hot drink and a doughnut for £2, or a hot drink and a muffin for £2.50. He also integrates sandwiches into these meal deals and has a wide selection for his customers to choose from.

Rather than looking at its stores in isolation, the Henderson Group considers the big picture when it comes to promotions. “We have a voucher scheme where if a customer spends more than £10 they get 5p off a litre of petrol at one of our forecourts,” explains Chris. “It keeps shoppers’ business within Spar stores, so even if this store doesn’t receive that extra business, one of our group stores will.”

He adds that this offer gives plenty of opportunity for the staff to up-sell at the checkout, especially with the store’s ‘product of the week’, which is located at all of the till points. “If a customer has already spent £8 or £9 in the store, we encourage them to pick whatever product we have at the till to take them over that £10 threshold in order to receive the offer,” says Chris. “Customers feel that they’re getting a bargain, as well as some money off their petrol in the future, and we benefit from the bigger basket spend.”

Although its closest rival is one of the big four, Spar Great Victoria Street is taking a cue from the multiples with its latest promotion, an evening meal for a tenner. “The offer includes everything for an evening meal for £10, including fresh vegetables,” says Chris. “It’s perfect for those in a hurry on their way home as they can pick up all they need in a few minutes. It’s obviously something that stores such as M&S have done first, but I think customers are now expecting this kind of offer everywhere and it’s important that we do it right. It helps bring people back to the store, too, as they’ll see the offer when they pick up their lunch then come back after work.”

The store uses some local suppliers for the meal deals, including Mash Direct and locally sourced vegetables. It also stocks a wide variety of locally produced breads and cakes.

Despite being a city centre shop, these local suppliers play an important role in the store’s success. “Local suppliers go down well with our customers - they’re proud of local businesses and want to support them,” says Chris. “We have a wide range of local breads and sandwiches that we make sure to signpost in-store so customers know about them. They’re also great for people who want to try something a little different. They can’t always get products such as these in the multiples so it sets us apart.”

Tempting offers, plus a dedicated team with a winning attitude, mean this little store can see off anyone who dares encroach on its patch. •

Best Small Convenience Store

Winner: Spar Great Victoria Street, Belfast

Judges were very impressed with the professional attitude of the management and staff at Spar Great Victoria Street. Even though the store has had some serious competition with Tesco opening just two doors away, it has held its own and put its energies into improving standards and meeting the multiple head on.

Promotions, especially within food to go, have helped the store maintain its pre-Tesco turnover and build customer loyalty. A range review was carried out by management and the team decided to put an increased focus on food to go and move away from household items, to great effect.

Merchandising is another area that impressed the judges, especially within the soft drinks category. The efficient use of the ‘try me, I’m new’ signs certainly helped to sway the judges.