Mark Wingett talks to a former policeman who has made an arresting case for staying independent.

There is little difference between being a policeman and being a c-store retailer.

That’s the view of Tim Lake, who swapped walking the beat for life behind the till and now runs a Mace store in Fareham, Hampshire, with his wife Carey.

“Both jobs are basically about dealing with, and helping people,” Tim explains. After 12 years with the Metropolitan Police, followed by a further 12 years running a local c-store, you can’t argue that Tim hasn’t gained the experience to back up his claim.

Not that he would have been in that position if it wasn’t for a stolen car and a family background in retailing.
Tim continues: “I was actually invalided out of the force after being run over by a stolen car and was looking around for a new career. My dad had been a village sub postmaster and the idea of going into retailing appealed to me from there. Carey and I started looking for a suitable site in the South East from 1991, and went to a franchise show that summer to see what packages different retail groups had to offer.”

After two years the couple picked the site, on a small shopping parade.

Tim says: “We are located in a residential area that’s within a half-mile radius of two schools, a university college and an industrial estate so we attract a mix of young and old, families and workers.”

The next step was choosing a package to match the location.

Tim decided to take up a franchise offer with local newspaper group Portsmouth Publishing and Printing (PPP), which traded under the One Stop fascia, and the store finally opened in 1993.

“PPP knew the area and that local feel seem to fit the store,” says Tim. “Being a franchisee also allowed us to have our independence, so we could get on with running the store how we wanted.

“Over the 12 years, we have always followed our own path in trying to make the store a success, and being independent has allowed us to do that. Someone working in a head office in another part of the country wouldn’t know what we need here at ground level. And being in a big group doesn’t give you the flexibility to adapt quickly to consumers’ needs at store level.”
While Tim and Carey continued to find their way in retail, sales started to grow year on year, as a result of them trialling many different products and services.
Then, in May 1999, T&S Stores bought the One Stop business. “It was weird - it was like they didn’t know we franchisees existed - and I don’t think they knew what to do with us. They pretty much left to our own devices, which suited us perfectly,” says Tim

Customer feedback and a gradual increase in turnover gave the couple an instinctive feeling they were going in the right direction.

Their business took another turn in January 2003, when Tesco acquired T&S.

Tim explains: “When Tesco took over nothing really changed because, like T&S, I don’t think they knew what to do with us or the two other stores that I knew of who were franchised outlets.

“Tesco taking over did allow us, though, to think about having a complete change and we quickly made the decision to look around at other opportunities.”
The next move for the Lakes was to hold what Tim refers to as a “beauty parade” of the symbol and facia group operators that the couple were interested in joining.

Having supplied the store with its frozen and chilled requirements since it opened, Palmer & Harvey McLane (P&H) had a head start. The fact that it could deliver “straight through the front door”, as Tim puts it, made it the obvious choice.

An amicable agreement to leave Tesco followed and the Lakes joined P&H’s symbol fascia Mace in late 2003; the other two franchised One Stop retailers moved to Mace at the same time. “The Mace deal allows us to be independent, but with a professional looking fascia and package supporting us,” says Tim.
“I was impressed by the fact that P&H has people designated to take care of each store category and who can be called on to give specific advice - Winerite, on alcohol, for example.”

In May this year the store underwent a complete refurbishment, putting the new look from Mace in place. Tim says it has kicked the store on to a new level and has generated positive feedback.

“All our customers have commented on our new look, saying how much it stands out,” he says. “It has added a more professional feel to the place and makes us really visible on the parade to catch passing traffic.”
The parade itself comprises a Chinese takeaway, a bathroom appliances store, and a café. There are also a number of tough competitors nearby.

As Tim explains: “Ironically, within a mile of us either way, we have two One Stop stores and also a Co-op store which help to focus our minds on keeping our regular customers happy.

“We get on with all of the other retailers on the parade and have purposely not gone down the route of selling hot food in our store because the café is there.”
To catch as many customers as possible the store opens every day at 5.30am.

Tim explains: “People working on the nearby industrial estate often work shifts and many start at 6am. They come in here for their papers and a quick snack before they head to work.

“Opening early not only allows us to pick up that custom but also get set for the rest of the day before the morning rush really begins and all the kids head off to school and college.”

Helping Tim and Carey keep that local trade happy are 13 members of staff. Tim proudly confirms that 70% of them have been with the store for more than eight years. As a result there is a truly relaxed atmosphere on the store floor between the Lakes, their staff and their customers.

Tim says: “We have been very lucky with our staff. They all live within walking distance of the store, which has become a sort of store policy, and they all add to what the store is about.

“We realise we have to be flexible if they have kids or if things come up and they can’t make a shift, but they appreciate that and repay the faith by taking pride in the store.”

Tim and Carey split the running of store 50/50; Tim looks after all the store’s paperwork and finances while Carey oversees day-to-day operations on the store floor.

It’s a partnership that works; the store’s average weekly turnover has risen from £9,000 to £25,000 in the 12 years the couple have been at the site. At the core of that success, Tim says, are alcohol sales and local deliveries.

He confirms: “P&H is very strong on alcohol through its Winerite divsion and we also shop around at the local cash & carries to get the best deals. We have also invested in a new chiller to offer more cold drinks, and it really took off over the summer months.”

The recent installation of an epos system has also allowed the couple to see what areas require further improvement and which area to concentrate on next.
With the store’s success under their belt the couple admit that they have been tempted to look at expanding to another site, but Tim says they still have lots to learn with their current outlet.

He confirms: “It has occurred to us to buy another store but we don’t want to overstretch ourselves.

“We are very proud of this store and believe that the sales haven’t yet reached a plateau. Although it is getting harder to maintain the year-on-year increases in turnover, it is a challenge we relish.”

Location: Fareham, Hampshire
Size: 1,500sq ft
Staff: 13 part time
Average weekly turnover: £25,000
Opening hours: 5.30am-10.30pm, seven days a week
Points of interest: Local deliveries, chilled alcohol section.

Tim’s former career as a policeman has also helped the store when it comes to security. State of the art CCTV in-store is coupled with a warm welcome for the local beat officer. Detail of each incident that takes place inside or outside of the store is carefully logged.
Tim says: “I would urge every retailer to try and make contact with their local beat officer. We invite ours in for tea now and again. It gives us the opportunity to talk about certain things in the area and to hand over the detailed dossier we have kept on certain troublemakers.

“There’s no point calling on the police for every incident but by building up a portfolio on certain troublemakers you can get them to step in.”