Amy Lanning made the trip to Devon to discover how a forecourt c-store plans to survive in the face of strong competition

There's something looming over Julian Holliss's Spar store in Townstal Road, Dartmouth, Devon. Just yards up the road from his forecourt shop, a building site and the orange-coloured banners that line the pathway are a daily reminder that Sainsbury's is on its way very, very soon.
But there's barely a glimmer of despondency in Julian or his partner Charlie's eyes - they've got a plan to fend off any negative impact, and it's well underway. They've been here before: Lidl opened up behind the store last September, and while certain categories took a knock, others flourished.
"We've repositioned ourselves with a more food-for-now offer," explains Julian. "There's now less expectation on us to be the neighbourhood store. We used to have four long gondolas but we've split them up to create two distinct areas - food for later at the back of the store, and food for now at the front. Shop sales remained where they were when Lidl arrived, but there's been a lot of movement across the categories. We really lost out in fresh produce - by about 50% - so we've reduced that range by a third, and we also lost in chilled, grocery and alcohol, but increased on food to go, tobacco, coffee, news and confectionery.
"When Lidl arrived it was a case of having to get on with it, so we tried to maintain a positive outlook and position ourselves to focus on what we do well. We haven't fought any planning applications because we thought that anything we said publicly would look like sour grapes. A decision was taken and it is sure to influence the long-term shopping future of Dartmouth, and because of our location and proximity, we are anticipating an increase in footfall when Sainsbury's opens."
Julian says they had always counted themselves fortunate in not having any multiples nearby, but knew it had to happen one day. "Our five years of trading since the development were very positive, but things change and you've got to move with those changes. We want to maintain a convenience offering and take advantage of our convenient position by going down a more food-for-now route."
They've rationalised their grocery, household, toiletries and pet food ranges down to four metres. Their hot food-to-go offer to the right of the tills is continuing to evolve and the Tim Hortons franchise adds to their point of difference. They were one of the first stores in the UK to take on Canada's coffee and doughnut brand, which is already big in Ireland, and it's proving a great success.
One huge selling point that the couple know they have wrapped up is their locally-sourced offer. While they've always sold a greater than average volume of local food and drink, their local sourcing policy has been ramped up a notch with the introduction of Food & Drink Devon's Love the Flavour franchise.
The Love the Flavour branding is used as a signpost to local products around the store, including one side of an island chiller for items to be eaten on the hoof, which is signed 'Love the Flavour to go'; two metres of ambient; and some chilled 'food for later' such as smoked fish, meats and cheeses along the back wall. Meat for barbecuing is on display now, but that switches to roast joints in the colder months. A small range of local frozen foods - burgers, ready meals and ice creams - is available, and Julian hopes to add frozen pizzas if he can find the right product.
The Love the Flavour 'shop within a shop' franchise is a pilot at the moment, but as a director of Food & Drink Devon - formerly known as South Hams Food & Drink but renamed when it expanded to take in more areas - Julian is confident it will roll out. He's increasing the number of local lines all the time, and sources from 25 suppliers. "Now we've expanded, we have so many more suppliers from other parts of the county. We've got suppliers coming forward all the time, and if I can stock a product I will."
The franchise was developed with the help of funding from Devon Renaissance - a not-for-profit partnership of the private sector, local authorities and community-based organisations in the county.
Retailers pay an annual fee of £1,000 for use of the branding. For that, Julian gets the best prices from suppliers and has full use of all point of sale and banners, as well as a stand of bags for life. He now charges 2p for every disposable bag customers take, and sells reusable plastic bags for 5p, and cotton bags for £1.50.
Food & Drink Devon is now working on a distribution project that will improve the supply chain and make local sourcing easier for suppliers and retailers. "The challenge for suppliers is that they're running around in a van distributing their products individually, at great cost. Food & Drink Devon is working with a local food wholesaler with a view to them helping us develop a distribution network. It's in test at the moment but it's working well. It makes a lot of common sense because it's one van with lots of different products, and there won't be so much of a challenge with case sizes. At the moment it's got to be worthwhile for them to deliver. From our point of view, relaxed minimum orders mean less wastage."
Being the first to trial Love the Flavour, Julian has received a lot of
publicity on the back of it. "We've been in Devon Today, Devon Life is doing a feature on us this month, and we've had full-page spreads in the Western Morning News, as well as a big article in their food and drink supplement. Such PR is great because it helps awareness. I think the awareness is there now but
ultimately people need to vote with their purchases in the long term. Only time will tell whether Love the Flavour's going to be a success when Sainsbury's opens. I guess this level of product would compete with its Taste the Difference range."
Despite the constant shadow of Sainsbury's, Julian and Charlie remain optimistic. "Obviously we're apprehensive about it but we can only focus on the positives," says Julian. "Sainsbury's is going to pull a lot of people into Dartmouth from the surrounding areas. There's no plans for it to have a petrol station - it's a very tight site over there. As a seasonal tourist town, our quiet months are November to March so we think we'll see an increase in footfall then, which will flatten out our seasonal curve. We've just got to continue our high store and customer-service standards, maintain good availability, and of course keep everything crossed."

Fundraising frenzy


On top of running three forecourts - one in Townstal Road in Dartmouth and two others in the South Hams area at California Cross and Totnes Cross - Julian Holliss has been busy raising more than £7,000 for Spar's nominated charity, the NSPCC. He's just come back from the 1,001km TransPortugal bike race in Portugal, and has completed six marathons this year alone. Last year he ran the Jurassic Coast Challenge of three marathons in three days, and the Endurancelife event that had him run, bike and kayak 128 miles, as well as an extreme iron man event in Norway, which included a 3.8km swim, a 200km bike across the largest mountain plateau in Europe, and a marathon. Julian's fundraising target is £10,000. If you'd like to sponsor him, go to www.justgiving.com/holliss4nspcc

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