Old meets new at Nigel and Joanne Owen's Londis store in the quaint village of Malpas, nestled in the countryside of South Cheshire. The extent of the store is deceiving from the outside - few expect such a sprawling interior with a broad product mix. Everything you would expect from a modern convenience store is here, alongside traditional fare such as weigh-out sweets and a retro card and gift shop.
Nigel and Joanne bought the store nine years ago from Joanne's parents, who had run the shop for 14 years. She had worked with her parents for several years after leaving school and then joined wholesaler Nurdin & Peacock for three years before going back to the family business. Nigel was working for his dad's building company when the couple decided to take over the shop. "One day Joanne came home and said her mum and dad wanted to sell the shop," explains Nigel. "We had to decide whether I would leave my parents' business and go into the shop, or if Joanne looked for another job."
Nigel chose the former and has never looked back. "It was a good move but completely different from the building trade. The biggest shock was going from working entirely with men to working entirely with women," he remembers. "My customer relations skills needed refining at first. It was scary because in the building trade you meet one customer a day, but here you can be dealing with 1,000 customers every day. I got used to it, though - my wife was great and got me through the first few months."
But Nigel's previous career in the building trade put them in good stead for their store extension last year. "It was great as when we expanded we could do it ourselves. My dad is still a builder so he helped a lot. We knew what the building costs would be and we stayed trading throughout, so there were a few dusty days. The extension took eight weeks from when we started to demolish the sheds round the back, which were used as storage. We removed the back wall where the fridges were and carried on as normal."
The extension and refit in March/April last year increased the store's selling space by 850sq ft. "It's now 1,800sq ft and fitted out to the Genesis standard. It's been fantastic. Our offering now is a complete range, which we couldn't do before."
One of the biggest sea changes for the Owens was a move into fresh food. "We've got a good range of Londis fruit and veg and a lot of local products such as sausages, bacon and cheese. The quality from our supplier is fantastic.
"We introduced the local produce as soon as we did the refit. There was a supplier in the village, but he said he didn't sell to shops, only farmers' markets. After he'd spoken to his people, though, he said he would give it a try. Now we do £600 a week in local food, which is all from that one supplier, so he's pleased he changed his mind."
Turnover is now £28,000-£30,000, up from £20,000-£22,000 on a good week, says Nigel. In fact, within two months of the refit sales were up 50%, with fresh and chilled now contributing £8,000 a week. But Nigel admits that moving into fresh food has been a bit of culture shock. "We have to take more of a look at the whole business and need good staff to look after certain areas, whereas before we could generally look after everything ourselves.
"We also didn't know what people would want so we put a suggestion box on the counter to find out. The suggestions were phenomenal, some quite unusual. Some of the things I'd never heard of, like pearl barley. But 10 people wanted it so we went ahead - and it's selling.
"A suggestion box is a great idea for retailers. We must have had 500 suggestions. It's important to let the community have their say. It's like carrying out market research without going outside the shop."
The unusual doesn't stop at the stock, either. The store has a number of quirky features, including a novel way of holding news and magazines. Every customer who orders newspapers or magazines for collection has their own folder in a giant filing cabinet-like display stand. "It's a bit of an ugly thing and takes up a lot of space, but it helps to draw customers in every day. Half of our newstrade is what we class 'casual' sales and the other half is ordered - 70% of which is delivered and 30% shop saved."
Another interesting feature is the card and gift shop, which has its own area off to the left of the store. "It's been there ever since we've had the shop, but we refitted it three years ago. The space was originally part of the living accommodation, then it was a café, then converted back to living accommodation. There used to be a stationery shop in the village, but it was going to close so we decided it was the right time to open up and expand the card range."
The developments last year follow in a long line of improvements over the years. "The card shop was the last extension before our big one, and the in-laws extended 20 years ago. We've just kept moving the back wall further back. The biggest development was six years ago when we bought the post office down the road. It was closing because the postmaster had wanted to retire. We brought it into the store, using the office space to accommodate it. It was a good move because it's a great footfall driver and cements you in the community."
With two children who go to the local school, getting involved in the community has come easy to the Owens. Henry, 10, and Lucy, 6, help out in the shop, too. "We take part in a lot of things. We sponsor the local football team and provide prizes for the various bingo nights and draws - it seems like we do this almost daily. Our children are bingo fanatics so we send them along to the community hall once a fortnight - it's all for different causes. It's funny because my dad will say 'I won a packet of biscuits' and I'll reply 'I know - I donated them this morning!'"
Nigel and Joanne's customers are mainly locals from Malpas and the surrounding areas. Population in the village is 1,800 over-18s, and there's a junior school with 200 children, a high school with 1,200 pupils and a three-mile radius catchment area of another 1,800 or so people. But there's also an awful lot of retail competition. In the single high street there's the Owens' Londis, a Spar store that specialises in bakery a few doors down, a Co-op further down the hill, and a Nisa Local shop on a forecourt at the end of the high street.
Nigel isn't worried, though. "We offer a good service and concentrate on giving people what they want for a fair price and get them serviced as quickly as we can. After the refit we were struggling with the long queues, so we had another till put in. On busy nights - when the lottery is on - we can get people through as quickly as possible."
When the Owens were weighing up when to do their refit after getting planning permission, their decision was quickly made for them: they heard the Co-op was coming to town.
Nigel says: "We were trying to decide when we would do the extension and then heard that the Co-op had bought another shop in the village. When we found out we hesitated about spending any more money - we were frightened about a big player coming in. But our Londis regional sales manager came to see us and persuaded us that it was the right time to do it. We took his advice and it was the best thing we could have done."
The Co-op store opened in April last year - about the same time the Owens finished their refit. But they haven't been concerned. "In our opinion, the store is nothing like it used to be when it was independently owned," says Nigel.
Next on the agenda for Nigel and Joanne is a bake-off section and a bigger fridge for local meats and the new Londis meat and fish range. And they want to double the size of their fruit and veg area. There's certainly no standing still in this store.