For a man who's managed the same store for 30 years, Geoff Garrad has all the enthusiasm of a retailer in his early days of trading. But, it appears, there's good reason for that. With countless awards under his belt - including Best Multiple Store in the 2008 Convenience Retail Awards - Geoff's Tates Spar store has never been better.
The man behind the success has witnessed plenty of change in his three decades as manager of the store in Terrace Road in the centre of Aberystwyth, West Wales. Owned by Tates for the past 12 years, the store has had many a fascia above its doors and started life as a discount outlet.
"Coming from a low-cost, discounter store, the move to convenience was a big change, but something I got used to pretty quickly," says Geoff. "You have to change, it's the nature of the business, but one of the biggest changes was the longer hours. We used to shut at 5pm and close all day Sunday, but when we went convenience, all that changed."
A handful of Geoff's existing staff have gone through all the changes by his side, with several having worked at the store for 20-25 years. A third of his staff are from Poland, and it was a Polish member of staff from Geoff's store, Sonia Walicka, who won Convenience Store's Sales Assistant of the Year Award last November.
The store has a strong fresh food offer, with almost one wall of the 2,950sq ft outlet dedicated to chilled, with a separate island of fresh produce, which is the first thing you see on entering the store. "We go for fresh in a much bigger way. We do grocery as more of a service now - we've got the range that anyone would expect, but just one or two options for each type, rather than lots of choice. You've got to go in for fresh and chilled if you want to survive. It accounts for a third of our business."
Being just 100 metres from the beach, you'd expect to see a huge boost during the summer, but the nearby university has greater influence. "We have about 10,000 students in the area during term time so that's our busiest period," says Geoff. "Change-over week is a nightmare."
The students alter the night trade as well. Says Geoff: "It's all those doing their social degrees around the pubs. Although we've lost some of the cigarette trade, we're trading up on alcohol, especially with the longer licensing hours."
As soon as the new Licensing Act came in, the store extended its alcohol trading hours until 1.30am. "Sales went up by 10% after that. There's a pub in the town that's open 24 hours - they only close for one hour between 7am and 8am to clean up and re-group - so there's always people in the town."
Despite the big boost students bring to trade, the store also has a good local trade that keeps them going all the year round. "The students coming was the icing on the cake. This store has always traded well, even as a low-cost store."
The last big refit for the store was 10 years ago, but a mini refit at the beginning of last year extended the chilled range, introduced a new island display for fresh produce and added a coffee-to-go machine as well as a seating area by the food-to-go section. The latter has been a big hit with the student crowd. "First thing in the morning after the pub, they come in for a bit of breakfast and contemplate what they did last night," Geoff muses.
It's this café culture that's helping to fuel trade, despite the increase in competition in the town. "The biggest thing over the past 10 years has been the opening of cafés, sandwich shops and coffee shops; there's been a real influx of those. Costa Coffee has arrived in the past few months, but we've got a lot of smaller cafés and sandwich shops nearby.
"It's just more competition, but I like to think that we are the competition and they are trying to trade against us. The local butcher has just started selling hot food, too. People look at the cake and all want a slice of it, so it's up to you to survive along with it. All convenience stores are going to find that these days."
And that's not the only competition. Geoff has on his doorstep Lidl, Iceland, Somerfield and Morrisons - with Aldi possibly on its way. But he's not phased by the rivals in the slightest. "I don't look at those as competition because it's not the same trade. Competition makes it all the more important to do the job right, as well."
Geoff stocks Polish, Chinese and Indian products, on top of a wide range of locally sourced Welsh items. "We do as much local stuff as we can," he says. "All the produce is centrally bought and delivered daily. That's one of the plus points of being part of a large company."
Blakemore's link with Welsh food group Blas-ar Fwyd has given him access to lots of local products and the store stocks everything from cheesecakes, soups, cheese and coleslaw in the chiller, to fresh bread, jams, tea, flour, lava bread and cakes in the ambient aisles, including two entire stands of Welsh waffles and Welsh cakes.
"The one drawback with a company store is that they need a continuous supply, so smaller suppliers really have a problem with supplying bigger companies. Local products are excellent for us so far. If you think about the competition, you won't find anything like it in their stores. They're trading in Wales, but where's the Welsh product?"
Food to go has become an integral part of the store's offer and Geoff has 10 members of staff who are dedicated to food to go and the bakery. One comes in for four or five hours a day to pack salads and sandwiches as well as bake all the bread. The hot food offer ranges from breakfast products in the morning to hot baguettes and meals such as curries, cottage pie or jacket potatoes for lunch and dinner. There's a self-serve area for shoppers who just want to grab a hot baguette or pastry and go, as well as a serve-over counter offering more substantial meals.
Never one to stand still or rest on his laurels, Geoff continues to keep his eye out for the next development. ""We're constantly looking for new ideas and new lines to stop people getting bored with the offer. We're always planning and looking for something different. At the moment we're considering adding a smoothie bar to the food-to-go area, and Kitsu Noodles. It's early days, though. You've got to keep moving all the time. I think that's easier for a company store than an independent, though. Not everything works, but unless you give it a try, you won't know."
Training is a priority and the store has been the starting point for several members of staff who have gone on to management jobs within Tates. "With my experience, I take more of a role of training staff up for their careers in retail. We've got a company training module that has to be done every month. We continue with training all the time."
While Geoff describes himself as "entering his twilight years", I wonder if he's been tempted to use his many years' experience to open up his own store, but he says: "I've always been happy with what I was doing and if you're happy in your job, why change it?"
Store: Tates Spar,
Aberystwyth, West Wales
Manager: Geoff Garrad
Size: 2,950sq ft
Staff: 24, rising to 40 during term time
Average basket spend: £4