As unexpected phone calls go, it was one of the strangest. How would you like to spend your bank holiday weekend building, running and then closing down a 2,400sq ft convenience store?
The retailer who took the call from Londis regional sales director Paul Courtney last December was Raj Chandegra, who owns four stores in West London. His answer, after a moment's hesitation, was - "I'll have to think about that."
Courtney had been contacted by The Caravan Club, which was making arrangements for its annual rally in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, over four days of the May bank holiday. The site is a good walk from the nearest town and, with more than 15,000 members expected to celebrate the Club's centenary, the organisers felt an on-site convenience store was needed.
"I said to Paul, 'Let's have a look at it'," says Raj. "I wasn't going to rush into setting up a temporary store 60 miles from my base. The Caravan Club had some rough sales data from previous years, but it was basic stuff such as 'We did well on papers' and so on."
Raj eventually calculated an average spend for the expected number of visitors and built his budget from there. "I didn't want to commit unless I knew I could do the job properly - if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well. And it would be nice to walk away with something to show for all our efforts," he says.
Londis regional sales manager Kevin Whitehouse says the Club offered to provide a 15m x 15m marquee, complete with flooring and an electricity supply. "Everything else would be down to us," he says. "We knew we'd need a really good retailer to front the project and we immediately thought of Raj as he's a true entrepreneur."
Raj's first job was to rustle up the tills, shelving and cabinets needed. Acting on contacts provided by the Londis trading team, he got in touch with various suppliers and found them willing to lend equipment to the project.
"You can't exactly go out and buy equipment for a store that's only open for a long weekend," he says. "I started calling round the suppliers and the response was astonishing. So many of them promised to do all they could to help."
GlaxoSmithKline, Coca-Cola and Robert Wiseman Dairies all contributed to the total of 21 chiller cabinets and three freezers. Cuisine de France promised a bake-off counter and Gallaher weighed in with the tobacco gantry. Raj also spoke to a couple of shopfitters he had worked with and asked if they were currently doing any store refurbishments - if so, could he borrow the old shelf units?
Stocking the store proved equally painless. "Suppliers went out of their way to help," says Raj. "I was proud to be working with them, they were so helpful." One or two suppliers, however, wanted nothing to do with the project. "I remember who they are, too," Raj adds, ominously.
Although he could afford to be a bit cavalier with ordering ambient goods, as any overstock could be taken back to his London stores, Raj was more cautious with fresh produce. "Fortunately, the suppliers were happy to restock as we went along and some gave me sale or return on fresh items."
The team at the Londis headquarters were right behind Raj - especially when, four days before he was due to open, he realised he wouldn't cope with manual tills and called to see if they could put together a three-lane wireless system with full back-office capability. Two hours later they rang back; yes, they could do it. "I was so relieved," says Raj, "We'd have died without it."
Kevin Whitehouse was on site on the Tuesday before the event as the first deliveries started to arrive, bringing with them the first hiccup. Raj had ordered the goods from one of his London stores and the electronic ordering systems couldn't cope with the suggestion that the shipment should be delivered to a field. "This is where the human side came in," says Raj. "Usually everything has to be done the way the system dictates, but in this case everyone said 'forget the systems'."
Once over that hurdle, the set-up was reasonably smooth, with electricians taking care of lighting and refrigeration. "We decided to use about a third of the marquee as storage," says Whitehouse, "but we didn't have a dividing wall, so we set up a line of fixtures across the tent."
In the event, they ended up piling the product high on the shelves to keep up with demand. "Looking back, we could probably have got away with less storage and increased the floor space, as we also had a refrigerated truck on loan, and Raj brought his van, too," Whitehouse adds.
Staffing the store presented its own problems. Raj took one or two members of staff from each of his stores, and with family and friends joining in managed to find 24 helpers. They still ended up working 15-hour shifts, though. Raj booked a hotel for off-duty staff but wishes he'd taken up the organiser's offer of a couple of caravan berths. "It would have given the staff somewhere to have a rest on site, and it would have kept my staff costs down. I'd budgeted £3,000 for staff costs and it came to nearer £8,000," he says.
With the first caravaners arriving on Thursday evening, the race was on to get the doors open. The Caravan Club had sent out a leaflet informing members that there would be a Londis on site, and as they arrived they were handed a voucher with an invitation to visit the store and pick up a goody bag of free samples provided by manufacturers including Cadbury, Mars and Danone. The sprawling site offered various entertainments, including bars, and there were several burger vans and fast food stalls dotted about, but most of the holidaymakers had planned a self-catering weekend and were soon in search of supplies.
By Friday morning customers were coming thick and fast. Bread, milk, fresh meat and soft drinks were the big movers, and at points the queue for the three scanning tills stretched across the store. Raj dealt with the busiest moments by grabbing a float from the till and sorting out the single-item cash transactions from the shop floor. All the items in the store were sold at full price - it was felt that promotions were unnecessary with a captive market; long-term repeat business wasn't a factor, either. "In fact, we could have charged more," says Whitehouse. "We were selling 500ml Coca-Cola at £1 and the vendors in vans were offering them at £1.50, so in comparison we were good value."
The Cuisine de France bake-off did exceptional business and 300 sandwiches a day flew off the shelves. Raj even found room for a few of Blenheim Palace's own Champagnes and wines. The staff operated in teams of 12, including four on the tills, four on the floor and one dedicated to the bake-off - a non-stop job.
One obvious drawback of a canvas-constructed store is security, and although Caravan Club members are among the most trustworthy, Raj arranged for two staff to stay in the store overnight and locked the more expensive items in the vehicles.
As the weekend was a bank holiday, it was always going to rain - and rain it did. The first fear was that the marquee would leak, but it held out against Sunday's deluge and trading continued as normal. However, customer requirements had changed radically - the demand for meat plunged as the downpour washed out campers' plans for barbecues, and suddenly soups and pasta sauces were the must-have items. Forced to retreat into their shells, the caravan dwellers abandoned any elaborate meal plans and went for the basics.
"The weather was atrocious on Sunday and Monday," says Raj. "I'd stocked up on barbecue items and suddenly we couldn't shift them." "We sold far less fresh produce once the rain came in," confirms Whitehouse. Comfort foods like cake and biscuits suddenly started to outsell cold drinks and ice creams.
The change in buying habits meant a hasty call to Londis for some emergency restocking. The order, which went in at 10pm on Sunday, turned up on site 12 hours later - a pretty impressive turnaround for a bank holiday weekend.
The prospect of a dreary day in a muddy field brought the caravaners into the store in search of diversion, too. "People started buying three or four newspapers. We sold 3,000 copies of the Daily Mail, and the Daily Express was gone within two hours," Whitehouse says. Raj adds that the local newstrade wholesaler performed miracles in finding him extra copies at short notice.
Looking back on the experience a month later, Raj is cagey about the exact financial benefit of the project, although Kevin Whitehouse hints that "the store did as much business in three days as the busiest store in my region does in a week".
Raj prefers to remember the "out of this world" service he got from Londis and his suppliers. "I'll never forget how far they were prepared to go to help," he says. If he did the same thing again he would increase the range of products and know how to plan staffing levels - but these are lessons learnt with hindsight.
He's still buzzing over the response of the grateful customers. The icing on the cake came when he was summoned into the site's big top to receive the award for Best Retail Outlet from 3,000 Caravan Club members. "They were really appreciative of all efforts - some said our store was better than their local supermarket," he says. "People kept coming up and saying, 'In 25 years of caravan rallies we've never seen anything like this, will you be back next year?'"
And Raj's reply? "I'll have to think about that..."
Store size: 2,400sq ft
Established: May 2007
Number of lines: 500