Walking down Sheringham high street to Jinx Hundle and Paul Burnell's Budgens store gives you a strange sense of déjà vu. It's so recognisable from the intense media attention the town has attracted surrounding its 10-year fight with Tesco over a planning application that it's impossible not to feel like you've been there before.
Sheringham, on the Norfolk coast, has a traditional high street with rows of independent stores including greengrocers, butchers, bakeries, ironmongers and fishmongers. Jinx, who jointly owns the Budgens store with business partner Paul, is worried what Tesco's arrival will do to their town. "Tesco will wipe out half of them," he says. "The Tesco site is on the outskirts of the town centre, but there's so many good independent businesses here and we exist in harmony with all of them. It's a proper old English town."
Sheringham is poised to hear its fate, which hinges on the results of a public consultation on the council's Local Development Framework that states the town needs a supermarket no larger than 7,500sq ft. Tesco's application is for a 15,000sq ft store. "The Tesco application is hanging over Sheringham," says Jinx. "There was supposed to be a planning meeting on June 8 but it was cancelled - again. There are rumours that the council may change the Local Development Framework, which could mean that Tesco's 15,000sq ft store will be allowed. There's no doubt that the town will benefit from having a Tesco, but we don't need one of that size."
Jinx and Paul are nevertheless taking the Tesco wrangle in their stride. "It's about knowing your place in the market," says Jinx. "We have to make people aware that they can buy local products and can ask for whatever they want in our store, which is not what they're going to get in Tesco. There will always be a place for us."
Like the Tesco furore, Paul, 29, and Jinx, 30, have had a few twists and turns of their own to get to Norfolk. Both had been working for Musgrave in Ireland when they made the leap to purchase a Budgens corporate store in the UK. Paul was financial controller for foodservice at Musgrave, while Jinx held positions in logistics for foodservice, and most recently as operations manager for wholesale services.
Jinx was close to signing up for a Centra store in Dublin but put that on hold when he heard about the Budgens divestment. Paul took an interest as well and they decided to do a joint venture. "We joined Musgrave at about the same time and were thrown into various projects together so we lived in each other's pockets. We had to travel a lot all over Ireland, but we never had a cross word," says Jinx.
"Paul is strong on the financial side and I'm more operational," he adds. "When I heard MBL was divesting stores I thought I would find out more. The MD gave us a contact in the UK, and when we met with Martin Hyson we said we were only interested in freehold stores - for us, this is a long-term commitment. That dictated the location and most tended to be in and around Norfolk or Lincolnshire."
The pair were given a list of 12 stores to look at. "Sheringham and Cromer really stuck out," says Jinx. "There was a buzz around the Sheringham store and it's a lovely town. We wanted two close by to make them easier to manage. Sheringham also had one of the highest sales per square foot in the Budgens estate. The plan was to take over Sheringham first because we needed to be in before the summer and get our feet under the table there."
Jinx and Paul took over the 2,200sq ft store on May 17 last year, and Cromer on March 7 this year. "Because we were coming into summer when we took Sheringham over, we didn't want to make too many changes so we just introduced some new ranges and got suggestions from the staff," says Jinx. "It was a big learning curve for us. We couldn't have picked a better place in the country. The customers have taken to us very well. The place is very much like Ireland, although retailing in Ireland is very different."
Their experience of Irish retailing is likely to influence their operations in the UK. "Ireland very much sets the standard in Europe - all other countries are following Ireland's lead," says Jinx. "Food to go is getting bigger and bigger, and that's one of the trends that's really taking off here now, but in Ireland it's really big business. You can't go wrong with hot food to go."
When Paul and Jinx introduced hot food to their established deli counter, they admit people were sceptical. "The demographic of the population in Sheringham is a lot older, but it's doing really well," says Jinx. "We're going to add a rotisserie for cooked chickens next. We thought it would be the younger people who went for hot food but the older customers really like it."
After a year of trading as an independent store, they undertook a refit at the cost of £100,000, but not before finding out exactly what their customers thought of the store. "The main feedback we had from the start was that prices were too high," explains Paul. "Now we have a banner outside saying that we've reduced the prices of 500 products. For items such as milk and bread we're now matching the big supermarkets. It will hit us in the pocket a bit but it stops people from leaving the town.
"Queuing was a massive issue as well and there was a general feeling that people weren't that happy with the store because it was quite cramped and dingy," adds Paul. "We've eliminated the three things people always complained about so it's now an enjoyable experience for us to walk around the store and talk to customers. The feedback since the refit has been excellent. It's about getting people to feel confident that they can get what they want at a price they want."
As well as adding more checkout space, updating the fixtures and fittings and making better use of lighting, they've reduced the frozen food range to concentrate more on fresh and chilled, and added a chiller for beers and wines. Paul is expecting an uplift in sales of at least 20% as a result of the latter.
He is also remaining positive about the smoking ban: "We expect more people to stay at home for barbecues and home entertaining so we wanted to be ready for that."
Turnover is strong all year round, but it can peak to £67,000 a week during the summer when tourists flock to the camping and caravan sites in the local area. "The first thing people do when they arrive is stock up on the essentials and then they keep coming back to buy stuff for barbecues and picnics on the beach. We struggle to keep items like bread rolls, prepacked salads and cooked meats on the shelves during the summer because they sell so well," says Paul.
The nearest supermarket competition is Morrisons and Rainbow Foodstore four-and-a-half miles away in Cromer, an Asda in Norwich, which is about 27 miles away, and a Budgens six miles away in Holt, plus their own Budgens store in Cromer. "About 80-90% of Sheringham will use Morrisons for their weekly shop and Budgens as a top-up shop during the week," says Jinx. "People come up from Norwich to Sheringham probably because it's one of the last quaint towns in this part of Norfolk. That's why there's such an anti-Tesco feeling here."
Jinx and Paul feel very strongly about supporting the local community and economy. They stock a wide array of local products from cheese, bread and cakes to cider and wine, and they sell tubs of the same ice cream sold in the specialist ice cream shop down the road. "That's got great brand recognition in the town," says Paul. "A lot of people talk about food miles and that's very important for fresh food. Besides that, local products keep the local economy going. If you can support local suppliers it means there's more employment in the community, which means more residents, which means more customers. No one wants to go to a town where there's one supermarket and all the food is flown in."
They believe their local produce will give them a point of difference if Tesco comes to town, and even their refit was done using local shopfitters. "If we're loyal to local suppliers, they will be loyal to us," explains Paul. "It's all about the local economy and our shopfitters were only up the road so it was easy for us to communicate with them. All the big work was done out of hours."
Next on their agenda is a home shopping service. "We've got quite an elderly population who would really like a home delivery service," says Paul. "We want to offer a service where they can come in and choose what they want and leave it in the shop for us to deliver, or they can phone in and we will take their order. There's a taxi rank just across the road and so many customers come in and do their shop, then go straight across to the taxi. And when we see a supermarket delivery van we think 'that could be our customers'
shopping'. We want to stop people from feeling that they have to leave the community and go to a supermarket."
They are also looking to strike a deal with Age Concern. "They have their own minibus so we're hoping that if we sponsor them, they'll lend us the minibus and we'll provide them with a service where we bring their sheltered housing residents in to do their shopping. We're hoping to introduce that this summer."
While Jinx and Paul had some invaluable experience to draw on, they know that taking the store into independent ownership could have been a lot tougher if it hadn't been for their staff. "We're blessed with two very good teams," says Jinx. "Our staff are very local and most have been working here for years. We've got people coming up to 25 years and 19 years in both stores. The staff have really made it for us - it's like a family in Sheringham."
Taking ownership of the former corporate store was made easier by the support package from MBL. "They gave us a lot of expertise," says Paul. "They knew they would have 200 retailers so they went to Barclays and Royal Bank of
Scotland for a pot of funding that we could tap into and that was also at preferential rates."
Both Jinx and Paul are very happy to finally be their own bosses. "I love the freedom to make the big decisions," says Paul. "We don't have someone at board level telling us what to do. It's a lot of hard work, but very rewarding."
Store: Budgens, Sheringham, Norfolk
Size: 2,200sq ft
Opening hours: 8am to 8pm, seven days a week
Turnover: average £43,000 a week