Amy Lanning catches up with a retailing family for whom being the heart of the community is a 365- days-a-year job

I doubt there are many c-stores that could boast they have traded for nearly 40 years without closing for a single day. But the Costcutter store in Skegness, Lincolnshire can. Today operated by Karl Rasmussen, his wife Annette and Karl's parents, the store was opened for business in February 1968 by Chris, Karl's father. Even Christmas Day is a trading day like any other, and something the Rasmussens pride themselves on.
"When he first opened, dad's philosophy was to always be here when the customer wanted us so we opened till 10pm seven days a week," says Karl. "The decision to open Christmas Day came because he couldn't afford to shut it for a day at first. He'd sold his bungalow to invest in the shop and was working all the hours to get what he could, and Christmas Day became like any other day."
Now, the shop is a lifeline for hundreds of the local residents and businesses on Christmas Day, and in just two hours of trading, the Rasmussens can take £2,000 and have around 1,000 people come through the doors. "We get phone calls on Christmas morning to ask if we are open," says Annette. "We used to advertise that we open but we don't need to now. Some other stores have tried it but we still have queues outside waiting for us to open every year. The customers are the nicest on Christmas Day - there's no grumbling."
Customer requests on Christmas Day never fail to surprise the Rasmussens. "We've had the local hospital come in for carrots for the patients' Christmas dinner, hotels running out of bacon, and Butlins coming in for brandy," says Karl. "We've had people asking for a thawed turkey because they've forgotten to take theirs out of the freezer. The biggest seller is batteries, though. We've got the ordering about right - it's not that often we have to turn people away because we've sold out. But if a hotel comes in and clears the shelves of cranberry sauce or bread sauce, then you can't foresee that - you can't have two dozen jars of cranberry sauce out the back just in case."
The Rasmussens always decorate the front and inside of the store at Christmas to give it a festive feel, and New Year's Eve is a big trading night as well. "We're very busy because a lot of people have parties at home now because they don't want to get pushed around in pubs," says Karl. "It's a fun night because everyone goes out in fancy dress in Skeggy."
Karl has been in the business for 27 years since leaving school at 15, and while his parents are still very much involved, he has done the main running of the store for the past 15 years. His dad comes in in the mornings to prepare all the sandwiches, baguettes and wraps that are made fresh every day - more than 1,000 are sold each week - and his mum does all the paperwork. "Dad will never fully retire; it's his life," says Karl. "I'm more hands-on - I'd rather be in the shop, meeting the customers. It's important to know the customers and to be approachable. They know Dad as well. When he had a stroke, everyone was asking after him. He's a big part of the community and is always there.
"We have always run the business as a service to the community. If you don't provide good service, the community won't support you. They like the more personal service. We have elderly customers who ring through their orders and we deliver for them. They talk to the same person every week so we build a rapport with them. We tell them about the offers we have on that week, and we know when certain customers are going to want seasonal products so we'll remind them to buy their selection boxes for Christmas. They appreciate it and it shows that we're not just out to get what we can off customers. At the till, we'll always say, 'did you know that's buy one get one free?', you don't get that in the multiples."

store developments

In the early days, the store was a quarter of the size it is now, as it's had many extensions and upgrades over the years. "We got permission to build beyond the building line for the shop front 20 years ago - they probably wouldn't allow that now. The last refit was two or three years ago when Tesco was on its way to Skegness.
"We did our major refit a week before Tesco opened and Costcutter wanted us to close during that but we wouldn't agree to it. We have always maintained that we must be open, even during refits. Two years after opening, dad had to have all new concrete flooring because it was wooden so they did that in sections and he moved everything around to stay open.
"You've got to keep upgrading the store," adds Karl. "Customers expect more these days, standards are higher, and they expect more choice. Some convenience store groups are going too far down the convenience line and cutting groceries back to a bare minimum. Grocery is still a big part of our business."
While the Rasmussens have extended the store as far as they can - it's now 2,100 sq ft - they continue to develop the shop in other ways. "You've got to keep your finger on the pulse," says Annette. "For example, cider is the drink of the moment so we've taken out some of the beers that weren't so popular and replaced them with cider. You need to be ahead of the game and allocate the right space for the right products."
Karl adds that supporting your symbol group is equally important. "What makes me mad is that people join a symbol group and don't support it. We do support Costcutter - if we can buy it through the group we will. Some retailers don't realise the amount of time they spend searching for products elsewhere to save a little bit of money. The only time we use a cash and carry is if we run out of something and are desperate. But we have deliveries six days a week from Nisa Chill and Nisa Freeze, and two days a week for ambient.
"Retailers not supporting their group impacts on those who do because suppliers come along with promotions and if some retailers don't support them, they won't give us such keen prices. With the multiples encroaching on our territory, we've got to fight them, and good promotions are one way. If all retailers supported them, there would be a lot more benefits there for everyone to enjoy. I think we compete with the multiples quite well but Costcutter has got a good promotional base and pricing policy."

success story

The Rasmussens have a big success story with the lottery - store sales are double the national average for a c-store. Fresh foods are also a key focus. "Over the years there've been a lot of changes," says Karl.
"We have more of an emphasis on dairy and ready meals, but we've always had fruit and veg. We used to have a big butchery counter but with foot and mouth, salmonella, and BSE, that more or less wiped out the fresh meat business so we took the decision to go all pre-packed."
Responsible retailing plays a big role in the Rasmussens' community ethos. "We, and our staff, are all pretty hot on age-related sales. In the past five years, we've had five letters from Trading Standards saying that they've done a test purchase at our store and we've passed," says Annette. "There was a big sting here recently and a lot of stores failed."
Karl adds: "Our policy is no ID, no sale, no buts. We went through a spell a while back of youngsters trying to get people to buy alcohol for them. We would watch what was going on and if an adult agreed, we would refuse to serve them and tell them that they're committing an offence by buying for minors. I think it would be ideal if they brought in national ID cards. It's important to be responsible and to show other customers that you're being responsible. It takes years to build a reputation but minutes to ruin it."
While the Rasmussens operate just the one store now, they have run two other c-stores and a couple of smaller seasonal shops in the past. "We had a shop in Boston and another in Hardcastle but the lease ran out in Hardcastle and there was a dispute between the two brothers who owned them, so the court ordered them to sell it," explains Karl. "At Boston, we had a manager who had worked for my father since leaving school. He was coming up to his 40th birthday and said that he didn't want to work for someone else all his life and that he was going to look for a business of his own. It would have meant us finding a new manager, and finding good staff is such a pain, so dad sold him the store."
It was staffing difficulties and the changing nature of holidaymakers that prompted the Rasmussens to give up on the seasonal shops. "We had one seasonal shop for 12 years but the rents kept going up, and when we first started running seasonal shops, people would come to Skegness by train, but then they started to come by car so would bring food with them, or go to the big shops when the multiples came along," adds Karl. "I think they would be okay if you could run them yourselves but they're not viable now if you have to employ staff. It's a lot easier running one shop but I still think that if something else came up - another c-store for instance - then I might take a look."
But, for now, their next big milestone will be in February 2008 when the store celebrates its 40th birthday. "We're having a 60s weekend," says Annette. "Staff will dress up in 60s gear and we'll have 60s music playing and raffles and giveaways - we won't have 60s prices though unfortunately. Costcutter is speaking to some suppliers for raffle prizes and they're having a brainstorm to help with marketing around the 60s theme. We're looking at a Heart Beat theme, with us being the heart of the community."

Fact file

Store: Costcutter, Skegness
Size: 2,100sq ft
Turnover: £26,000 a week
Staff: 15 part time
Services: National Lottery, Paypoint, hot coffee to go, freshly made sandwiches