Mark Wingett reports on a family business that has generations of retail experience to call on.

According to one of America’s leading business experts Sam Taylor, convenience store customers like it when store staff are drawn from among their own community. If that’s truly the case, then the villagers shopping at the Spar store in Bampton, Devon, must be in daily heaven; their local store has been run for the past 100 years by the same village family - the Sewards.

From its earliest days as the village bakery, the Seward’s outlet has been the cornerstone of Bampton’s daily shopping experience and Brian Seward and his son Roger are the latest two generations to carry on the tradition. The two are clear, however, that their success is due to their ability to adapt and meet changing customer needs.

Brian explains: “The store has changed with the village. Initially it was opened as a bakery in 1908 by my grandfather John Seward, who passed it on to my father Arnold Seward in 1936. I took it on in 1972. Even then the store was changing and taking on more and more grocery lines. As people’s tastes changed, the bakery side started to take a back seat.”

As a wider grocery range found its way into the store the move to a full blown convenience became inevitable and in 1987 the family was approached by Appleby Westward, Spar wholesaler for the south and west.
Brian confirms: “Joining Spar just seemed like a natural progression. We still had the bakery but it was obvious that the grocery side needed a more professional feel. It was time to develop the store further.”

Over the next 16 years, the store’s sized tripled from an initial 400sq ft to 1,200sq ft, after the family knocked through into the cottage they owned next door. Then three years ago Brian and Roger - who was taking on more and more responsibility for running of the store - decided the time was right to go a step further.
Says Roger: “It was time to take the store forward and really invest in making enough space to deliver a modern offer including chilled and alcohol, organic and local lines.”

The £400,000 transformation commenced in September last year, and resulted in an airy 2,500sq ft store.

Roger continues: “For a couple of months we were trading out of a Portakabin but by December, we were able to open part of the store and use two gondola ends to sell alcohol and basic groceries for Christmas.”

By February 14 the store was set for its grand opening witnessed by most of the village.

Brian says with a smile: “The opening day was amazing. We were jam packed becuase everyone had taken such a big interest in what was happening to the store; it was a big boost for us.”

With a Spar Millenium fascia in place and big approval from local residents Brian, Roger and the rest of the family were all set .

Although Brian is slowly handing over the running of the store to Roger and his wife Dawn, who live in the flat above the store, he and his wife Caroline still play an active role.

Each family member has their own category to take care of, with Caroline driving the store’s organic section.

Brian explains: “It was her baby and it has turned into something wonderful. As a first step she tried a few lines from local suppliers and customers seem to take to them. Now, Caroline has introduced things like organic chocolates, which you would not expect to take off at a store like this, but they have. Initial turnover on organic was £50 a week and is now somewhere between £500-£600.”

As for Brian, he maintains the store’s heritage by looking after the bakery section; the store still produces its own ‘Seward’ bread.

He says: “We still use the same tins to cook the bread in and they still carry the Seward name. It gives us a link with the store’s past while allowing us to produce fresh bread daily.”

Although, as Roger butts in, it does mean that Brian has to get up at 5.30am most days to get the ovens up and running!

As for Roger, he is in charge of the overall welfare of the store, making sure it runs to its full potential. He is particulalry keen to point out the success of the store’s chilled section and the new waste disposal unit acquired recently.

He says: “As my father has pointed out, there was a time when frozen was the buzz word for the sector but now it is definitely chilled. When we opened we were doing £3,000 a week on chilled but now we are already pushing £4,000.”

Dawn, Roger’s wife, takes care of the staffing and day to day life on the store floor.

“I look after most of the morning hours, overseeing the staff and the deliveries. Dawn takes over in the afternoon; mum and dad still cover shifts when needs be,” he adds.

The next generation is also keen to step up.
Roger explains: “My eldest son, who is nine, is already interested in the store and will probably start doing a paper round when he is old enough. You never know, there could be another generation of Sewards to take the store into the next century.”

The store’s future will not only depend on the continuation of the family link, but also on its close relationship with Bampton’s villagers.

Indeed Brian proudly admits he can, on any given day, walk through the store and address the majority of customers by their christian names.

Brian says: “We have always been very involved in village activities, whether that is sponsoring local football teams or supplying goods for events. Caroline has even put together a book showing people’s stories about living in Bampton which we sell in the store.
“The good thing about the village is that it still has a lot of independent stores such as a butcher and fishmonger. These attract consumers who appreciate having an alternative to the supermarkets to the village, and allows us to pick up passing trade.”

The close knit community also gives forth a trusted mix off both young and older staff.

Brian says: “They are part of the extended family and help make the store what it is. They know most of the people that come in and the majority of customers treat the store as a place to come and catch up with the local news. Having friendly staff is key in building that atmosphere.”

Over 70 home deliveries a week, also help build relationships in the village.

Store turnover reached record levels for three week during July and turnover has increased by 25% since the relaunch, to top £22,500 a week. However, this doesn’t mean that the Sewards will be taking it easy.
Roger concludes: “I have always felt, and I think the rest of the family would agree, that this store is our life. We never arrived here to make it our livelihood, it has always been that way and is shown both in the relationship we have with our customers and in the pride we take in the store.”

Vital Statistics
Store: Spar, Bampton, Devon

Size: 2,500sq ft

Number of staff: Four full-time, 18 part-time

Turnover: £22,500 a week

Opening hours: 7am-9pm Monday-Saturday; 8am-8pm Sundays

Points of interest: Home deliveries, working bakery, organic chocolates