How do you turn an eyesore into a prize-winning store in less than a year? Dave Visick meets the duo who did it

Never go back, they say: things will never be as good as the way you remembered them.
So when Nick Morrell visited the Spar store he used to manage in Stourport-on-Severn in Worcestershire and saw the dreadful state it had fallen into, he should have regretted the trip, but he didn't. He bought the store.
It's the kind of story that has the movie producers reaching for their chequebooks and, of course, there's a suitably Hollywood ending: after less then a year in business, Nick and his son Giles found themselves on stage in Birmingham to receive AF Blakemore's award for 'Store of the Year'.
"I joined Tates in 1996 and managed this store before it was sold off," Nick relates. "I stayed on under the new owner, but it became clear he didn't want to invest in it and I moved on." Turnover slumped from £12,000 a week to £6,500, as the owner chased falling sales by cutting back on ordering. By the time Nick and Giles walked into the store last summer, shelves were bare and the fittings were crumbling.
"We felt there was a real opportunity here," Nick says. "This is a relatively affluent residential area, about a mile from the centre of Stourport. There's a number of caravan parks nearby and a lot of visitors in the summer. I knew from my first stint here that I could make it work."
Giles, who worked for his dad before going to university, was keen to be a partner in the new project. "I had an IT degree and wanted to put that technical learning to use in retail," he says. "Dad and I spent some time looking for the right business to buy, and we both guessed that one day the Stourport store would come on the market, which is what happened in May last year.
"We knew that with my brains and Dad's wallet we could turn this place around," he laughs.
Stage one of the rejuvenation process was to get in touch with Blakemore for help in putting together a business plan to take to the bank. "It was the support of commercial director Terry Bourne that was the difference between us buying the store and carrying on working for others," says Nick. "Terry gathered information on local competition, sales performance, population demographics, customer numbers and spend, and gave us a viable financial model for the bank. It included category sales and margins and all cost expectations, including the cost of a refit. The bank said yes and the store was ours."
In fact, it wasn't so much a refit as a rebuild. The first plan specified by Blakemore's team came in at £102,000, which gave the Morrells heart palpitations; eventually some of the nice-to-haves were dropped and a more bank-manager friendly figure of £65,000 was agreed on. Closing for eight days wasn't a problem as turnover was so low they knew they wouldn't lose much.
Gutting the store only revealed further work. The electrics couldn't cope and had to go, and even the phone lines, unchanged in 20 years, had to be replaced. The floors and ceilings joined everything else in the skip.
It wasn't just the physical changes that needed to be addressed. Local perception of the store was so poor that when it closed for the refit many assumed it had gone for good. Nick and Giles knew that customers would love the store, but first they had to get them to come in. "Our message had to be 'This is different'," says Giles. "We put up signs and did a leaflet drop, but our main approach was to dazzle those who came in so they'd spread the word for us."
It worked. In the first week after reopening in October, turnover more than doubled to £14,000 and has gone up every week since. By late June it was £21,200 with the full summer trade still to come.
The first impression on entering the store is that it's absolutely immaculate: neat, tidy, spacious and light, and ever so slightly spooky. The reason for the latter is that the shelves are perfect, every item lovingly placed, every category beautifully ranged; it's like a 3D planogram in there.
Nick and Giles have stuck very closely to Blakemore's template - partly as a relic of Nick's days as a company man, but also because they trust the wholesaler's experience. There are fewer personal touches than you find in many stores, but the one that is there, the enormous silver Store of the Year trophy above the tills, suggests that the policy is a good one. And there's still room to respond to customers' wishes. "People tell us they can't get certain items in the local supermarkets and we make sure we stock them," Giles says.
Doing it by the book does create a few anomalies, though: Hobson's Ales, brewed 10 miles away in Cleobury Mortimer, goes up through the central distribution system and back to Stourport, which rather defeats the point of local sourcing.
It's a small quibble, though, in a great store. Take the tricks with its layout: newspapers and magazines have been separated, putting the papers halfway down the first aisle, where these destination purchases drag the customer into the rest of the shop. The Morrells stopped delivering newspapers after surveying customers and deciding that enough would come in to the store for their papers and make other purchases while they were there.
Apart from a couple of chest freezers which are listed for replacement, the only leftover of the previous regime is a few of the staff. "The staff were very unhappy and demoralised, and one or two admit they used to help themselves to Scratchcards," Nick says. "We gave them training and uniforms and involved them in the store. They're now as proud of it as we are. We give them a bit of flexibility in terms of hours and days off and they respond to that."
Talking of relationships, how does the father/son thing work, especially as the family all live together? "We've never had a row," they grin, although Giles adds there have been times when Nick's had to pop out for a smoke and he's busied himself on the far side of the store. And at home? "It's a big house."
In fact, Giles is that rarest of creatures, a retailer who enjoys paperwork, and Nick is happy to let him get on with it. He looks after staffing issues and both spend as much time on the shopfloor as they can.
After nine frantic months the duo might deserve a rest but, of course, they're not stopping there. "We're in the process of setting up an in-store bakery offer and adding food to go," says Giles, revealing the former store room which has been set aside as a preparation area for baguettes, bacon and sausage rolls, pasties and pies. "We will almost certainly install a cash machine before the year end and we're keen to expand our magazine and non-food sections. We may also have the opportunity to purchase an empty unit next door.
"Once again we'll be relying on the help and experience of Spar. We know we can improve our chilled food offering and are really excited about what food to go will bring. One thing's for certain; we aren't going to sit back and let it happen."


Nick's tips


Nick Morrell saw the store he once managed for Tates slip towards failure before grasping the reins and buying it himself. He has his own view on how a business can lose its way.
"I'd say the previous owner didn't continually look for new ranges and sales opportunities to give a point of difference. When we took over we kicked out lines that he couldn't sell 10 years ago. He hadn't moved with the times.
"Lack of investment left the store tired and understocked. Local perception and reputation are everything. We've reclaimed them but even now locals say they haven't been in for years because of the image they had of the store.
"You've got to continually look to improve your store's appearance - when we took over I swear there were the same fixtures, fittings and decorations from 10 years ago, and even the same graffiti was still on the toilet door from when I had managed the shop. I know because I wrote it!"

Fact file


Store: Spar Stourport-on-Severn
Owners: Nick and Giles Morrell
Size: 1,200sq ft
Staff: two full time, five part time
Turnover: £22,000
Average basket spend: £4.24

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