The 1,400sq ft Costcutter in the Surrey town of Lingfield could well be a contender for the busiest c-store around. You get the feeling that if you stopped moving even for a minute you could get picked up, plonked into a shopping basket and carried to the checkout on a wave of retail energy.
This, explains store manager Graham Cooper, is just how he likes it. Graham is a man with selling in his blood; he has worked in the grocery trade for more than 25 years, having previously worked for Tesco, Alldays and Costcutter, where he was an area manager. He was also a Spar Guild member when he owned a store in the White Horse area of Bristol.
The day C-Store visits is his last day after almost seven years at the store, although the only giveaway is the stream of customers who come up with presents and messages of good luck. Aside from this, it's business as usual and Graham is chasing gaps on the shelves as fervently as if it were his first day on the job.
It is only 9.30am and already the first wave of morning customers have made big inroads into the well- stocked bread, sandwich and soft drinks fixtures.
The store, which is open from 8am until 10pm, Monday to Saturday, and 9am until 10pm on Sundays, seems to need almost perpetual re-stocking and Graham and his well-drilled team have to monitor the situation constantly.
Graham was brought in to run the store by owner Tony Marshall when it converted to Costcutter. Marshall has owned the store for 23 years and had previously run it under the Spar fascia.
"The store was already doing well when I joined," claims Graham modestly. "It's just that Tony felt he could use more help while he concentrated on other things." The help has seen the store's turnover grow from £32,000 a week to £50,000.
Graham says that the success isn't just down to him but is a team effort, and he points out that many of the staff members have been with the store for much longer than he has.
"We have 24 staff in total, 10 of whom are full time, and they all live within 10 miles of the store," Graham explains. "Ten of the staff have worked here for more than a decade, while another eight have been here for more than six years."
These are impressive statistics in an industry in which high staff turnover is the curse of so many retailers. According to Graham, staff are happy to stay, simply because they are treated fairly.
"You have to get involved with people and take an interest in their concerns," he says. "If you can help them in any way or just give them the time and space to deal with what they have to do, then I find that people will always be happy to work for you. At the same time, if staff feel that they have been mistreated they will soon be out the door, or they won't put in the effort in for you."
He adds that paying staff fairly not only has the benefit of keeping staff for longer but that it cuts out employee crime, too. He argues: "Theft really only happens if staff feel that they are underpaid or undervalued. We have managed to keep instances of theft down to a minimum. Of course, the fact that everyone here is a part of the local community means there is a lot of respect."
Respect is important to Graham, as is the store's reputation in the community. This can be witnessed in his tough stance on selling alcohol and cigarette to those underaged. "When it comes to drink, I won't sell to anyone who looks under 21 unless they have a passport or drivers' licence. We have to work hand in hand with local people to stop the problems with binge drinking, and here the message is getting through. These days, kids don't even try to get served here and we only have one or two refusals a week," he claims.
He has also overseen a number of major improvements in the store which, he says, are designed to keep it one step ahead of the competition. He explains: "With a store like this it is a must to keep improving things. But that is easier said than done, as we can't afford to close and risk losing our regular customers.
"I have tried to do one big job every year to improve the store and keep it fresh. Last year we made a significant investment in all of our refrigeration equipment and this year we have just finished installing a new ceiling with some of the latest lighting."
Graham is passionate about retailing and the independent sector. Although the store faces competition from large supermarkets in the form of both Morrisons and Sainsbury's within a few miles, he is convinced that independents can compete. It just takes a lot of very hard work.
"I get very upset when I hear people say that they can't live with the likes of Tesco; it's just not the case. In this store we have a range of about 7,500 lines and plenty of deals that are hard to beat. On top of this, we can offer a level of service that can't be matched by the big retailers," he maintains.
a full house
For Graham, it is all about making sure you know what customers want and then making sure it's there when they want it. He believes there is nothing worse than an empty space on his shelves, as he explains: "You can't sell it from the store room."
This is the legacy he is leaving behind and is something that has been instilled in his staff, time and time again.
As the well-wishers continue to pour in, Graham tells them that he has prepared the store for his departure and put in place a solid management team. In fact, his successor has worked with him for the past five years, current deputy Garry Farne.
"I have no doubts that the store will continue to do well," says Graham. "The staff have plenty of experience and all know the customers so well that it should be a very smooth transition."
Graham is leaving to take over the running of the retail operation for Isle of Wight ferry company Wightlink Ferries, where he is planning to develop a state-of-the-art convenience format for both ferries and terminals. If Graham's track record is anything to go by, we could well see it become the most efficient retail operation on the high seas.