Upon entering Spar Greystone in Coleraine, C-Store asks a young assistant to take us to see his manager, only for the lad to explain that he is the manager.

We are aghast. Could this fresh-faced university graduate really be at the helm of a store which has faced more than its fair share of security problems?

The store took home last year's Zero Tolerance Award, so it's no secret that it has had challenges. A target for armed robbery and incendiary devices, the shop's last manager ended up moving out of the area because her car window was smashed by youths she had banned from the store.

Within minutes of talking to Aidan, however, any concerns about his tender years are quashed. He doesn't seem to be remotely fazed by the threat of hoodies storming the aisles. "The rough area makes it interesting," he says. "The last manager, Laura McLean, took major steps to improve the situation, but even when they've already been barred, young crowds still come in here and try it on."

But rather than being intimidated, as many 23-year-olds would, Aidan positively thrives on the challenge. "They're kids so they just steal things like yogurts, crisps and drinks," he says. "They think that because the items are low value they won't be in as much trouble, but I have a zero tolerance approach."

He explains that he simply can't afford to take any other stance. "If I didn't take action against shoplifting straight away then the problem could easily get out of hand, and myself or a member of staff could get hurt," he says.

Having heard Aidan's no-nonsense attitude to crime, it isn't surprising to find that he has studied law. "I got my law degree, but I knew before I graduated that I wanted to go into retail," he says. "I started as a customer advisor at Greystone seven years ago part-time, and then when I was at university I became a senior customer advisor. I like retail because it's just so dynamic I have a real passion for it."

In fact, he's so enthusiastic about retail that he wants to inspire others by setting up an area in the back office dedicated to training and customer service. "We have a very good training department at Hendersons," he says.

Employees' achievements are given pride of place in a hallway bedecked with their framed certificates. "Our training hallway allows staff to take pride in their achievements and helps to make them realise that retailing is a proper career," says Aidan.

A quick tour of the store shows that staff are clearly taking their roles seriously, with each shelf boasting immaculately faced-up products, backed up with complementary pos material.

Last month the store's efforts were rewarded when Aidan picked up a Convenience Retail Award for his chilled section (see panel, p50). "We have nine bays of chilled and we make £9,000-worth of sales a week," he beams.

But he still has plenty of plans for the category. "We're looking to grow dairy with new lines. So many people want healthier foods these days that I think there are opportunities in chilled to sell more functional yogurt drinks."

Food to go is another focus for the store. "We want a bigger food-to-go area. We have two girls on the counter six days a week, but we're going to make it seven and have roast deliveries on Sunday as our competitors have tried it out and it's proving popular."

There is certainly plenty of competition for Greystone, with a 24-hour Tesco and a recently rebranded Nisa nearby, as well as a new Asda opening in May. But true to form, Aidan is coolheaded.

"I don't think the new Asda will damage us too much," he says. "We're in a good location, between three primary schools, and we get a lot of mums buying kids' lunches and a few food-to-go items for themselves. Some customers even do a full shop here."

The store's fruit and veg section helps to give it the edge, notes Aidan. "People come here because it's so fresh and well looked after it's not boxes lying on top of boxes like in a supermarket. Sales are 5-6% up year on year and have been for the past two years."

Aidan keeps each category in check by holding regular staff meetings. "I meet with the fresh department head every Monday to discuss targets, wastage and any forthcoming events," he says. "Sales have grown massively up 10% over three years. The space dedicated to the section hasn't changed, but we're getting more out it."

And how do his staff feel about having a boss who's in his early Twenties? "I think I'm overly conscious about how I come across to people because I'm younger I never talk down to people," he says. "I had only been assistant manager for a year when I took over from Laura and had to be confident in my ability to do the job. You just have to throw yourself into it."

He claims that starting from the bottom of the career ladder also helped him to gain acceptance. "Because I worked my way up the staff have a bit of respect for me. I'd never ask anyone to do something that I wouldn't do myself."

Despite his managerial position, he remains very hands-on. "I spend the first half of the day doing admin, and the second on the shopfloor. The shopfloor gives the satisfaction that the paperwork doesn't. I enjoy setting up the pos, merchandising and keeping up good cleanliness. I'm on the tills a fair while as well, so I enjoy a good bit of banter with the customers."

And after seven months as store manager, Aidan has no regrets about turning his back on law. "I love retailing you get real satisfaction from seeing a decision through," he says. Case closed.
Best Chilled Food Retailer
Convenience Retail Awards judges were highly impressed with Spar Greystone's chilled offering, crowning the store Best Chilled Food Retailer at last month's ceremony. Staff have used their industry knowledge to identify a number of sales opportunities. They have acknowledged that 'Tonight's Tea' is one of the key convenience shopper drivers and Greystone has a one-metre bay dedicated to ready meals, which include branded offerings such as Denny pies and Rustlers burgers, in addition to Spar's own label meals. And for consumers willing to spend a little more time in the kitchen, there is a strong meat offering with the in-store butchery providing chicken, mince, steak pieces, gammon and sausages. The store has promoted linked purchases by positioning its ambient range of cooking sauces and pastas near the fresh meat bay and encouraging consumers to create their own dishes. Local sourcing plays a key role at the store with twice weekly deliveries of coleslaws, potato salads and meat pies from local butcher Barr's Country Kitchen. In addition, local firm Asher's Bakery supplies a selection of luxury fresh cream products on a daily basis. The store communicates its commitment to local produce using a variety of pos, including custom-made 'Spar Supporting Local' shelf-edge labelling. Pre-packed sandwiches are another big seller, with sandwiches, subs and bagels available throughout the day, not just at lunchtime. The store recently increased its on-shelf presence to three shelves and introduced a fourth delivery each week to improve availability. As a result of the changes, sandwich sales have increased to more than £300. As well as its ability to maintain good availability and freshness, it was the way that staff at the store took the initiative and really honed in on every opportunity that made Spar Greystone a worthy award winner.
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Spar Greystone, Coleraine Size: 3,500sq ft Staff: 16 full-time, 16 part-time Opening hours: 8am9pm Additional services: PayPoint, free ATM, in-store butchery, free home delivery