Here's today's starter for 10: why is a small village in Cambridgeshire, with one food store and a couple of thousand not-particularly-wealthy residents, home to top-notch car dealerships for Aston Martin and Porsche?

Park that for a moment while we meet Del and Manjit Benney, the brothers who learned their trade at their parents' store in Ely before buying Harston PO Stores, a few miles outside Cambridge, in 2000. Since then they've stripped out much of the original building, added 400sq ft to the floorspace and transformed a neglected business into a thriving c-store.

Having used Palmer & Harvey as a secondary supplier for some years, the Benneys recently joined its Mace symbol group and took advantage of the wholesaler's experience to assess the store, work out what sells and what doesn't, create a better shopping environment and add a gleaming new blue-and-white fascia to the front. (There's a clue in there, by the way.)

Del (pictured right), who is the kind of dedicated retailer who is prepared to say at home and mind the business while the whole family are away celebrating Manjit's marriage in India, explains how a new layout has helped drive a 10% lift in turnover since joining Mace a few months ago. "When we took this place over it was all higgledy-piggledy, with the shelving in a square in the middle," he says. "We soon changed that, but when we joined Mace we went up another gear. Their team spent two days remerchandising the store, turning some of the shelves around and creating a logical flow through the aisles."

As any retailer knows, it's incremental sales which are the cream on the cake for c-stores; bombarding each customer who comes in with reasons to buy a couple of items more than they expected to is the key to success in impulse. Get the footfall and the sales will follow.

So here's why Porsche and Aston Martin are so keen on Harston. Visibility. The more people who pass your shop, the more will see your offer, and the more will come in. Let's call this tyrefall.

Running through the village is the A10, which winds its way to London but, more importantly, provides thousands of commuters from the wilds of Cambridgeshire with their main route into the city.

To say it's busy is an understatement. When C-Store visited on a Wednesday lunchtime, it took a full minute to get a gap long enough to cross the road.

This is what brought Del and Manjit to Harston. The store is in the middle of a long straight, with parking laybys on both sides of the road. With up to 50 cars a minute streaming slowly by, drivers have time to spot the shop, make the decision to stop and pull into a convenient parking space and wander in, to be enticed by the footfall drivers inside.

"The new fascia has made an incredible difference," Del says, and it's certainly hard to miss with its distinctive Mace colours. Under the 'Whenever, Whatever' banner, the storefront reminds the passing traffic of the great reasons to pull up and pop in, with a series of slogans and bright, attractive graphics.

'When you've run out of life's essentials'; 'When you want a bottle of the good stuff'; 'When you want the latest news' and 'When you need something more filling' give the simple and uncluttered message of top-up, treats and eats all the convenience staples. The idea is to promote the shopping missions rather than the products themselves. The sizzle not the sausage, if you like.

It's at night when the shopfront really earns its keep, with the rush-hour crowd dazzled by its brilliance. Del jokes that people have been driving out from Cambridge just to see where the lights in the sky are coming from. Hundreds of people every day cannot fail to notice there's a handy Mace store on the way home where they can grab a bottle of wine or a last-minute gift.

The store's on the heading-home side of the road and the area immediately inside the door caters for evening customers with an alcohol section. A DVD rack is combined with snacks and wines and beers to create a Big Night In section.

Despite the store's illustrious neighbours, Del's decided not to build his offer around premium ranges as the nearest supermarket, a Waitrose a couple of miles up the road, caters for that local need. Instead, he's chosen to tempt customers queueing for the till with heavily promoted wines, such as red, white and rosé Sapori at two for £5. Similarly, in the breads and cakes section it's tried-and-tested best-sellers in the mid- to lower-price bracket that win out over premium or locally sourced lines.

Also available for the quick grab-and-go are newspapers on a freestanding rack, soft drinks and a small Bake and Bite unit on the counter. A new addition, part of the Mace revamp, is an aisle-end promotion bay, cleverly picked out with spotlights to draw the eye, and the customer, further into the store.

The post office is tucked away with the stationery and household goods, and an unusually wide range of electrical bits and pieces, DIY essentials and baby and toddler requirements remind you that, despite its appeal to passing trade, this is still a village shop at heart.

There are a couple of residential homes for disabled people nearby, and one of the principles of the redesign of the store was to ensure they had easy access throughout so the aisles are wide enough for a wheelchair, there are few dumpbins to clutter them up, and there's never any stock directly on the floor. Despite the requirements of the Disability Act, this is an area often overlooked in refurbishment.

Lean machine

The Mace makeover brought some order to the fresh and chilled section and made best use of the available space. Working with the P&H team, Del and Manjit looked at sales data and trimmed their stock to the best-performing lines. That's something the wholesaler encourages with its PREP (Promoting Retail Excellence) programme which rewards retailers with up to £2,500 for keeping best-sellers on the shelves.

There's not a lot of fat on the Benney's business. They employ only two full-time and one part-time staff members, and prefer to put in the hours on the shop floor themselves. "We're still young," Del says, "there will be plenty of time to relax when we're older." There are advantages to a smaller team, of course; less need for training, and with experienced cashiers at the tills, less chance of unfortunate slips like underage sales. By paying a little over the odds to retain good staff, the brothers have built a team they can trust.

With Palmer & Harvey delivering three times a week, Del's been spared the frequent dashes to the cash & carry, but there's a more fundamental saving in the regular deliveries. "We're carrying so much less stock, which means we have a lot less cash tied up," Del says. "Even better, with so much less space needed for storage, we're thinking of getting rid of our storeroom altogether and introducing a food-to-go area. There isn't a takeaway food outlet in the village, but we haven't had the space to take advantage of that until now.

"Our next project is to look at taking down a wall and extending into the storeroom with a serve-over counter for hot food."

The symbol group has also helped them get the best out of promotions, something which Del admits the store has been poor at in the past, and margins are, he says, "really good".

When Del is reluctantly pulled outside onto the pavement to have his picture taken, it becomes clear from the laughter, comments and good-natured abuse from customers that he's something of a local celebrity. Very much the model of a village retailer, he's on the Parish Council and makes sure the store gives a little back to its community.

Other people are also watching our little photo shoot. The roar of traffic behind the camera reveals that car after car of curious commuters are looking on, wondering why the owner of that sparkling new-looking store is having his picture taken and making a mental note to pull in on the way home to see what all the fuss is about.
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Halston PO and Stores Size: 1,300sq ft Staff: two full time, one part time Open: 6.30am-8pm Mon-Fri; 7am-8pm weekends


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