Blueheath's first customer is now enjoying buoyant sales under the KeyStore fascia. Rich Airey reports

Having operated as Elmwood Food Stores, a Quix convenience store and now sporting a bright KeyStore fascia, retailer Bob Gibson's Basingstoke business has had many guises in the 22 years he has owned it. For most of its customers, however, the store has always been called simply 'Bob's shop'.
This attitude and the personal feel of the store is testament to the strong relationship Bob has forged with his community over the past two decades. The bond is further emphasised by the fact the store has been selected to hold one of 12 main regional street parties as part of the forthcoming National Independents' Week.
With entertainment including a bouncy castle, raffles and a bbq taking over the whole parade, Bob and his customers will have a chance to celebrate together. But the close-knit feel of this community store lasts throughout the year.
"When I first came here, the shop had shut down and before that none of the previous owners had stayed for more than a couple of years," explains Bob. "It helps to have been here such a long time. I know most of my customers by name. I've seen many born, go to school and now have children of their own.
"We've got quite a large catchment area which includes some of the nearby villages, including Sherbourne St John, where I used to run a bakers. I also used to run a wine store in Basingstoke town centre so people also know me from back then."
The store serves a fair amount of elderly customers, many of whom have lived on the nearby estate since it was built about 40 years ago. But, as Bob explains, he has to cater for a complete range of customers with different ages and different needs.
"We mainly serve as a top-up shop but still have some customers who will do their weekly shop with us," he says. "We also do a bit of home delivery. Customers ring their orders in and we deliver up to about five miles away. At the moment we probably deliver to only about eight to 10 customers so it's not a massive money-spinner, more about offering a service for those who can't get to the store very easily.
"We also have a good relationship with the local school, Fort Hill Community School. There were a few complaints when we introduced a two-at-a-time rule for pupils, but we were able to explain our reasons when some pupils visited recently to carry out an interview as part of the BBC News' School Report project."

In tune with Key

The KeyStore conversion for Bob's store came about after Blueheath, of which Bob was the first customer some seven years ago, joined Key Lekkerland in 2006. Bob explains how his decision to use the online wholesaler, which evolved out of Direct-to-Shop, was an easy one.
"I came back from my local Booker one day and just thought 'I don't want to do this anymore'," he says. "Why go down the cash and carry when you can use the extra spare time on the golf course?
"After I joined Quix I started using Direct-to-Shop," he explains. "I then introduced the National Federation of Retail Newsagents to Blueheath and was the first store Blueheath delivered to. When Blueheath took over AC Ward, I was already dealing with both companies so it was the perfect partnership for me.
"More recently I wanted to move more towards an overall c-store offering, so I wrote to Quix and gave in my notice so I could join KeyStore. Key offered a lot of support and promotional material.
"At the same time as I joined Key, I was introduced to Nisa Chill, so now I get all my chilled and frozen products from Nisa."

What's on offer?

The store has retained its individuality over the years, despite signing up to national fascia groups. The huge array of plants and flowers for sale outside the front of the store is just one USP. And with plans to introduce a greater focus on food to go, Bob is keen to continue to evolve to offer customers what they want.
"We've teamed up Glendale Nurseries in Dorset for the plants and flowers," says Bob. "They provide us with a huge range and I have to spend up to an hour each morning watering them! It gives me a good chance to speak to all my customers, though, and they sell very well.
"My next idea is that I want to extend our bakery and food-to-go offering. I've just visited a store in Bracknell to look at Country Choice's Bake and Bite shop-within-a-shop concept and have agreed to install it. When I first sold food to go we did a small amount, but now there's a greater demand for it.
"We also sell a good range of soft drinks and have a separate Red Bull chiller as well as branded Coca-Cola and Lucozade units."
A Tropical Ice drinks machine is popular in the summer months and is switched with a Pot Noodle machine as the evenings close in. "We're keeping everyone happy," Bob comments.
He also offers both PayPoint and Payzone and owns his own self-fill ATM, which has now paid for itself. A larger than average display of greetings cards is often met with disapproval by visiting reps, but Bob is adamant it is here to stay as it's something customers like.
A photocopying machine is available, as well as a send and receive fax service.

Beat the neighbours

Bob is confident that by being willing to move with the times, he can remain ahead of his competition. "If you constantly look for new ideas, then you can offer people more than they'll get elsewhere," he says.
But it's not always been easy, as Bob explains: "About 15 years ago there used to be a DIY store nearby. I came back one day and found we'd sold hardly anything at all. It had reopened as a Kwik Save and everyone had gone there instead. My customers returned, though, and it has since become a Somerfield, which doesn't seem to pose quite the same threat."
Bob believes the supermarkets should never have been allowed to enter the c-store market and adds: "At the moment I just have to take advantage of the little time I can trade when they can't, such as Bank Holidays and Sundays."
By continuing to focus on the personal touch that the supermarkets will never be able to match, however, 'Bob's Shop' looks set for a lasting and flourishing future.

Store stats

Store size: 1,800 sq ft
Weekly turnover: £14,500-£22,000
No of staff: 3 full time, 10 part time
Opening hours: Monday-Friday 6.45am-9pm
Saturday 7am-6pm
Sunday 8am-1pm