The Mills Group is a relative newcomer to the c-store sector but it’s determined to make up for lost time.

In his book Round Ireland with a Fridge the sometime novelist and comedian Tony Hawks describes the task of carrying a refrigerator around the Emerald Isle in a bid to win a drunken bet made with a friend. Not only does he succeed but the quest turns him into a national cult figure and celebrity across the Irish Sea.
While the Mills Group isn’t so much interested in cult status, by taking Hawks’ lead and moving its own fridges nearer the front doors of the 51 c-stores it runs, it hopes to make a further move away from its CTN roots and become a genuine c-store player.

The first stage of this process took shape this year with the launch of a new fascia, Mills Local Store.

Mills Group sales and marketing director David Pickford says: “Our history is in the CTN market but the company has been slowly evolving for several years now.

“The c-store industry is still in a state of change, with Tesco and Sainsbury’s entering the market strongly. The need to keep moving and remain competitive is greater than ever and is why we have rolled out the new fascia to explore how we as a c-store company can move forward.”

The new fascia was rolled out in three of the group’s stores in Carlisle, Brunswick in Northumberland and Sunderland after six months preparation at a cost of £500,000.

The new stores are fitted with a larger fresh and chilled offer, improved ranges and bake-off sections.

While the stores still place the newspaper and magazine section by the front door, the movement of fresh and chilled produce ever closer to that prized position gives a clear sign of the company’s intentions. “We don’t want to lose our old identity completely but we do want to show people that we aim to be competitive,” says Pickford.

“At the moment, our newspapers and magazine section is still the first thing people see when they walk in. But we’re putting a lot of thought into moving a chilled and frozen section in there instead.

“With the trial stores it is just a case of tweaking the offering to get the best result. So far, the feedback from customers and the uplift in sales has been encouraging but we are still in the process of fine-tuning the product offering.”

The new move includes a refreshed company website and a new in-store logo and tagline.

“We put a challenge out to all our staff to suggest a tagline for our new gondola ends that would stand out and hit customers as soon as they walked in,” says Pickford. “They came up with ‘Saving you More’, which we think is very relevant for a local store.”

One of the greatest challenges for the company was getting the right range balance in-store. Pickford says: “People have to remember that we are still relative newcomers to the c-store sector, so our in-store range has sometimes not been perfect.

“The research into the new concepts allowed us to take a step back and look into this.

“What we found is that we were doing too much in certain areas. Stores were becoming cluttered, leading to confusion for customers.”

New ‘freshness zones’ have been implemented in the three new Local stores to help guide customers from one specific section to another.

“Making things as easy for the customer is paramount, and every business is trying to make this process as simple as possible,” says Pickford.

“By adopting the right signage in store, including a new colour scheme, customers can navigate the store in a way that makes their shopping experience smoother.”
The company puts a lot of faith in leaflets to get its message across, with nearly two million delivered directly to homes across the regions covered by the group’s stores during the past year.

Pickford says: “We have actually cut back on the amount of promotions we do so we can focus on key lines that consumers can pick up on. Around 80,000 of the leaflets we send out over 16 three-week periods go through letterboxes which are no more than half-a-mile from each store. This allows us to take the store into people’s homes and is a useful tool for growth in each local community.”

The company’s break from tradition doesn’t mean that newspapers and magazines are to take a back seat to new lines as there are still 31 CTNs under the company’s banner and paper rounds to 33,000 homes.
Pickford continues: “We are in the top six retailers in the country for home news delivery and it would be foolish to ignore a part of our business that generates 25% of our turnover.”

That high percentage has also led the company to roll out a new inner city concept for its CTN outlets - Mills City Express.

Back in April, the company’s store in Birmingham city centre became the first to take up the new concept. Pickford says the move has already paid off.
He confirms: “There is a lot of competition there, with a Tesco Express very close by. However, our store has always generated a good turnover, and with the more professional branding this has steadily grown. We will now look to see which other sites will benefit from a conversion and hope to see the same results.”
The company also wants to see more services in its stores, whether post office counters, cash machines or even sunbeds. Travel tickets are on offer in seven of the company’s outlets.

Pickford says in-store bakeries also have a key role to play in developing the group’s convenience offer.
He says: “At present there are only six bake-off sections out of the 82 stores we run. Bake-off is a part of a convenience offer that consumers expect in modern stores.

“We are working with Country Choice to see how we can move forward with this, especially in our bigger stores.”

One service that features in all of the company’s estate of stores is the lottery, with the service accounting for the highest percentage of turnover during 2005.
“We have already been honoured by Camelot as Lottery Retailer of the Year, and for us it’s the cornerstone of a good local store. But it’s not just one service we are concentrating on, it’s a different package in each store, that reflects and compliments each location that we are trading in.”

As Mills takes its stores toward a more professional c-store offer, it is making sure its staff follow with the added incentive of a new annual employee award scheme called the M Awards.

Pickford explains: “We want to bring all our stores up to a high level of performance and reward them for their work. Top stores will receive £750 while product category winners will win £250. Judging will include epos data and mystery shopping, and we hope it will inspire all our stores to aim for the top prizes.”
While the company starts off on an interesting phase of it development, Pickford is convinced its investment will pay off.

And while Sainsbury’s has already moved to acquire other North East- and Midlands-based c-store chains such as Bells and Jacksons, Pickford is quick to point out that for Mills, the long process of becoming a force in the c-store sector will be done on its own.

He concludes: “Mills Group managing director Nigel Mills is very much in for the long haul when it comes to making the company all that it can be. We believe these first three new concept stores are the initial steps in that journey.”