As claims to fame go, inventing Mars Bar pasties and producing and starring in a Calendar Girls-style charity calendar are right up there for novelty.
But while Sue Sharrinton, who runs a Spar store in the Cornish town of Helston with husband Chris, has won national publicity for her cheeky calendar and local renown as the originator of the Mars Bar pasty, the husband-and-wife team have been busy away from the limelight, transforming their business into the first of the new-format Spar stores in the west of England.
Since the pair acquired the store in 1989 from Chris's father Brian, who had owned it since 1976, they've been at the forefront of retailing trends. They first got into hot food and bake off in 1995 when they brought in Bakers Corner, which comprised a hot display cabinet selling pasties and pies.
"It was very rudimentary compared with what we have now, but we knew it was right for the store's progression and it proved very successful," says Chris.
"At that point we also knew Tesco was coming and would take our grocery trade. Although we were Eight Till Late, we weren't what I would call fully convenience, so I thought that if we put in Bakers Corner and sold these products at a higher margin, we wouldn't have to make much to maintain profit because margins on grocery are so small."
Tesco took 25% of the Sharrintons' business straightaway, but Bakers Corner proved the ideal temporary antidote. "It didn't offset turnover, but it offset profitability," says Chris.
However, the duo knew they had to do more. "We knew we had to find another niche market so we then developed the convenience part of the business and managed to claw back that 25% over the following 18 months."
Business ticked over until 2000, when Sue and Chris decided that the bakery had to take a bigger role. "We wanted to make it a self-contained unit with its own staff and make it a focal point of the business," says Chris. "In the following years we had some very good times. We were seeing 16% growth and couldn't put a foot wrong."
That is, until trade inexplicably started to decline between 2004 and 2005. "We weren't doing anything different, but we saw a 12-15% decline in turnover," explains Chris. "The store was becoming a bit tired so we realised we had to do something. John Hart from Appleby Westward came down and suggested that we should do something different, so Sue and I went to look at lots of progressive retailers such as Wild Bean Café. We decided we wanted to expand and go for a complete refit."
At that time, Spar was trialling new store formats and looking for willing retailers. "We initially thought our store fell into the neighbourhood affluent category, but the demographics told us different. Helston isn't an affluent area when you run it through the system - it proved to be quite different."
Instead, they set about transforming the store into Spar's neighbourhood value format. "That influenced the way we laid it out, what the offer should be, and how we should present it in terms of range and pricing," says Chris.
The pair decided to extend selling space by 400sq ft to 2,500sq ft and building work kicked off in January this year. They wanted to remain open throughout, so the builders cut a new doorway in the shop, allowing them to continue trading. "Trade didn't drop dramatically, and after Easter we were able to trade through the new shop front. The shop was then fitted in two halves so we could trade out of the half that wasn't being worked on."
The transformation was completed by the end of May, just in time for the Bank Holiday. "Then we got rid of the decline and started to get growth, initially by 3-4%, and it continued to grow throughout the summer. We went above the target figures quite dramatically. Some weeks we had 14-15% growth year on year."
Before the redevelopment, weekly turnover was averaging £29,300, but afterwards it rose to an average of £41,500, smashing the target of £32,300. In fact, the pair smashed all their targets, with actual basket spend rising to £4.50, compared with a target of £3.80; weekly footfall at 9,250 against a 8,500 target; and pounds per square feet rising to £17.50, exceeding the £13.59 target.
The store has been laid out in shopping missions - food to go, tonight's tea, off licence, top-up essentials and daily life, such as newspapers. "It's not the way you would usually lay out a shop, but the figures prove that it works and the customers like it," says Chris. "People used to say that you put the milk at the back of the shop so people have to walk past lots of other products, but that can annoy customers. They're more likely to come in if they can find what they want and get out quickly."
The store now has 250 more lines, and prices of 250 everyday products have been reduced or put on promotion. "This has encouraged customers to spend more and it says to people that they can get value for money here. Even if we don't sell any more of those products than we did before the refit, it will have cost us £35 a week and I reckon that's good marketing money. Some lines go better than others, but we're selling nearly double of some products."
Spar butter is on promotion at two for £1.50 or 89p for one, and rate of sale has gone from an average of 9.4 units a week to 25.3. Sales of Tetley tea bags have risen from 2.4 units to 12.3, and Jaffa Cakes have gone from 1.8 units a week to 7.3. "On some lines we've reduced prices by as little as a penny but we highlight it and make it look like good value for money."
Sue and Chris have put a focus on local sourcing, and highlight local products by putting Cornish flags on the shelf edge. They have also increased fruit and veg sales by 120% in sales value. "We used to have two fridges for fresh produce, but we now have three, plus one ambient one-metre bay," says Chris. "We got strawberries from the farm a mile away and sold 500 punnets in one week by putting them on the till point and marketing them as a one-off buy. Now we've got a good relationship with local farmers."
Other developments include a plasma screen TV promoting the Real Deal promotions on a Powerpoint presentation, and an Out and About area next to the till, which displays tourist information and maps.
But one of the biggest changes has been the complete revamp of the food-to-go offer. Sales from this area have increased by a huge 25%. "We gutted what we had and brought in new equipment, increased the size of the area and the range," says Sue. "Breakfast trade has increased because we display it better - it's in their face now. But, traditionally, everything starts to look a bit sad as you go into the afternoon, so we're trying to change that by offering a tea-time solution."
They've added pizzas and curries, hot baguettes and healthier lines such as salads and pasta pots, plus a chicken offer similar to Kentucky Fried Chicken but oven baked instead of deep fried. "It's equally as tasty, but trying to get that across to customers is difficult," admits Sue.
Investment in a TurboChef oven means that products are cooked to order quickly. Chicken takes two or three minutes, burgers one minute, and a hot baguette 45 seconds.
Other additions to the food-to-go area include smoothies made from frozen fruit, and Fairtrade bean-to-cup coffee from the Cornish Coffee Company, but this is an area they're looking to improve. "We need to change the way it's presented," says Chris. "It's just hovering at 20 cups a day, but should be 100 given the number of van drivers that come in."
With the benefit of six months' trading under the new format, Sue and Chris are ready to develop the food-to-go area even further. "We know that it's got to change," says Sue. "With the equipment we've got, we can't do the tonight's tea offer properly - but we can't just offer pizza and curry. We have an expensive area which is shut for a third of the time we are trading, so we've got to develop it.
"We also need to look at the way we display products," she adds, "and if we change the equipment we can progress into other hot food products such as sausage and mash, lasagne and chilli."
In the rest of the store, says Chris, it's just a question of fine-tuning. "We're monitoring the value lines and will review how they're performing. And we just did some consumer research where we spoke to 20 people a day over seven days. We're waiting for those results and will compare them with the research we did in October last year before the transformation."
What's clear is that Sue and Chris have learnt from their past mistakes. "You must invest all the time because if you don't the business looks tired - you don't reap the benefits if you're not looking after it," says Chris.
"The demographic of the country is changing and so too is the way people eat. More and more people are living on their own and more meals are purchased ready made. If retailers get complacent, you get a business that's going backwards. You have to invest or come away. If we hadn't transformed our store we would have come out of the business.
"It isn't easy - this is hard work -but you will reap the rewards. We've extended our hours and so we've needed new staff, which is all extra training. It's been pretty hectic, but it's fun," adds Chris.
That just leaves one last important question to be answered. Will Sue and her colleagues be revealing not-quite-all for another Calendar Girls-style calendar? "There's talk of doing it again next year," she says. "It'll be different next time but I'm keeping that under wraps."