Derek and Karen Hallett last year invested in a refit for their Cleethorpes store, which became the first in the country to sport symbol group Nisa-Today’s ‘Today’s Local’ format. Simon Linacre visited the Lincolnshire seaside town to meet the couple.

Derek and Karen Hallett are new to c-store retailing. After trading successfully in the seaside resort of Cleethorpes for two decades, expanding the shop twice and attracting a large band of regular customers, last year they decided to enter uncharted waters and go convenience. Their business had previously been driven entirely by fruit and veg, with the couple also making deliveries to many of the town’s hotels and guest houses.

“When we opened 20 years ago, it was a tiny corner shop. Now it is two shops and part of a house all together,” says Karen. “We started out as a very small shop. We have had two alterations over the years, then the third one last September. When we first started we just sold fruit and veg. We have added other products gradually.”

Last year the couple felt the time was right for yet another upgrade and started looking round for a suitable partner to help finance the project.

“Money needed spending on the shop, so we looked at a lot of symbol groups and decided on Nisa-Today’s. It’s gone very well. Nisa Today’s is the expert and has done a lot of marketing for us. It advertised the shop and organised special days, such as National Independents’ Day on June 1,” says Karen.

The change to their business has been massive. As well as adding a wide range of wines, beers and cigarettes to their offer, they have extended opening hours from 5pm until 10pm and added newspapers and magazines. Luckily, the store’s two managers had previous experience dealing with news, which the Halletts say has helped them a lot. The changes also impacted on their core offer of fruit and veg, which had to be scaled down slightly in order to allow room for more products.

“We have a lot of trade in fresh fruit and veg with local hotels and have had for the past 20 years. We still have the same fruit and veg range but have had to cut back on varieties of apples, for example,” says Karen.

The couple have found, however, that offering sandwiches has had the knock-on effect of encouraging shoppers to buy fresh fruit as well. Karen says: “We have a lot of people who get their lunch and pick up the fresh fruit, so sales have been excellent.”

Expanding into new areas has presented challenges: for Karen it was not knowing how well the refit would go, while Derek has suffered some culture shock with the introduction of an epos system. “Without a doubt the computer system has been the greatest challenge for me,” he says. “To a lot of people it would be a doddle but I’ve never used a computer before. After six months though, we wouldn’t consider going back. “We still have a lot to learn but the potential is enormous, I can see that. For instance, the scope for making time-saving measures.”

What has been evident is the enormous increase in trade the shop has seen, with alcohol and cigarettes leading the way. The response from customers has been emphatic, with positive comments ringing in the Halletts’ ears as well as extra cash ringing in the tills. They say they are more than holding their own in an interesting, dynamic local market.

“We get lots of holiday trade in Cleethorpes, and there is also Thorpe Park just 15 minutes away, which brings in a lot of people. It used to be quite seasonal but now we’ve gone convenience we do a lot of trade in during the evenings all year round. We realise now that a lot of people shop at night on their way home from work,” says Karen.

Derek points out that the local market is changing, with competition from multiples never far away. The Halletts’ shop is at the end of a pretty, busy avenue filled with independents and chains, which forms the main high street shopping area of Cleethorpes.

“There is a Somerfield about to open after being done up - it used to be a Kwik Save - and there is also a Jacksons at the other end of the avenue. However, we find we can compete on price and provide a personal service that they can’t.”

The couple can call on a friendly, reliable staff and this, they believe, is their point of difference with the competition. “The staff we have are unique. Some have been with us up to 17 years, and we’ve instilled the need to be nice to customers. Staff have been advised to chat to the customers and to encourage them to come back again. It’s amazing how many customers will come back to the shop if the staff are nice. I think the length of time they’ve all been here speaks for itself,” says Karen.

Apart from keeping ahead of the competition, the main issue in Cleethorpes for convenience retailers seems to be the same as for most other towns in the UK - youths loitering on street corners.

“The kids are our biggest problem. The police don’t come down here very often because they’re busy down in Grimsby but we really need police on the beat. “We’ve got kids hanging around outside on a Friday night, and even though we have not had any incidents as such, they are a nuisance. If they are hanging about outside the door people don’t like it and won’t come into the shop, so we lose out. It’s a nationwide problem and something that needs sorting out.”

The couple will now concentrate on building up the business as much as they can, as well as mastering that new computer system. After the three expansions they have no more room left, so are holding fire on what they may do next. With the summer season in full swing, they have better things to be thinking about.

Location : Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire

Store size : 1,100sq ft

Staff: nine staff including derek and karen plus delivery driver

Opening hours: 6am-10pm, Seven days a week Point of interest: sold and delivered fruit and veg to local hotels for 20 years; UK’S FIRST TODAY’S LOCAL SYMBOL STORE