Mike Gosnay is a butcher. He grew up behind the block in a family business which has served the Cleveland town of Saltburn-by-the-Sea for over 100 years, and he's never happier than when he's sharing a joke with the customers over the sirloin and sausages.

But Mike is also a shrewd businessman who understands that no independent can afford to stand still. That's why, when you walk through the original door to the shop, you can't help noticing that what was once a tiny butchers has now expanded, Tardis-style, into a splendid Spar c-store.

So if Mike's busy in the butchers, who's running the 3,000sq ft store behind it? Step forward Rachael Gosnay, Mike's daughter, who at just 21 is both something of a veteran retailer and one of the sector's brightest rising stars.

Having worked in the store since she was 13, Rachael somehow managed to gain a first-class honours degree, even while turning in 40-hour weeks while at college. She has now taken on the day-to-day running of the store, while Dad wields his sharp knives behind the meat counter.

Despite competition from a Somerfield supermarket directly opposite, the store has thrived under the father-and-daughter team. They have embraced opportunities, such as the closure of the local newsagent, which opened up a route into home news delivery and a wider magazine range. They are also enthusiastic participants in a local voluntary scheme, which prevents sales of alcohol to under-21s after 6pm at weekends.

As well as the impressive display of fresh meat in the butchers, there's a food-to-go counter with plenty of healthy options and a dedicated area for Spar's soon-to-be-updated Extra Value range. Rachael sticks fairly closely to the group's suggested planograms, with a few local variations.

The alcohol section is particularly neat and well presented and despite the weekend age restrictions, beer sales have gone up 10% in a year, against the national trend, as a result of some skilful exploitation of promotions.

Mike is heavily involved in a local business association, which aims to get the residents of Saltburn to recognise the value of independent businesses and promote the town's charms. The group has tackled issues like chewing gum on the town's streets and the opening times of the public toilets. It's a logical extension of Mike's role as an established community retailer.

Saltburn isn't the only small town having a tough time of it at the moment and, despite past successes, the Gosnays know that one characteristic of all the best stores is the reluctance to rest on one's laurels. A year or so ago, Mike and Rachael identified one area of the business they felt they could spruce up - customer service.

"We know the majority of our customers as friends, rather than simply shoppers," Rachael says. "They don't just call in to buy their groceries - they come for a chat." Locals are clearly charmed by the store's staff - customers of a nearby Sainsbury's Local, which was forced to shut for a week for refurbishment, found their way to the Spar and haven't gone back.

Even so, Rachael wasn't satisfied. "We realised that there were things that could be improved - even the smallest things may have an impact on the service our customers receive, encouraging them to buy a little more, or ensuring they return," she says.

"We also felt that not all of our staff provided the best customer service at all times. The longer-serving staff thought they knew everything, and the younger ones didn't necessarily want to learn."

Taking their lead from Spar's Sparkling Service initiative, Rachael and supervisor Bev devised a plan to involve the staff in their own development.

"The training itself consisted of a number of modules, delivered in team meetings," Rachael explains. "It wasn't just your typical chalk and talk, with everyone listening to me; it was an opportunity to improve communication and morale, as well as customer service.

"I had spent some time beforehand coming up with lots of examples for the sessions, in case the staff were a bit quiet. But I needn't have worried - even the most die-hard 'you can't teach me anything about customer service' staff members got something out of it, and contributed. Everyone admitted they had become a little complacent, and that they could all do something to raise their game."

Over several hour-long sessions, in groups of five, the team discussed aspects of service under headings like Our Personality; Thinking Like a Customer; Our Place in the Community; and Silent Selling. They started with the basics, ridding themselves of the notion that 'I'm just a shelf stacker' and agreeing that the answer to the question 'How much of your time is spent on customer service?' had to be "All of it".

"Everyone had a different idea of what their job was, but we soon came up with loads of ideas that have changed the way we think of our roles," Rachael says. They picked up on the smallest details, like wiping down plastic bottles of milk before they go to the shelf, and getting deliveries off the shop floor as quickly as possible.

A simple but effective idea, which arose from the sessions, was to ask customers if they had brought in their own plastic bags, and then say: "Give it to me, I'll pack it for you."

The exercise really caught the staff's imagination, and their enthusiasm for it was reflected in comments made in feedback after the sessions. "This is a super shop with excellent staff and bosses. We must always try to keep on the ball," one said. And another: "I am more aware of everything I do and how it affects our customers. I think the training has benefited us as a team."

"The results were amazing," Rachael says. "Customers noticed an improvement in the level of service they received - what had been good before suddenly became great! We lost track of the positive comments we got."

The change had tangible benefits as well. "The improved interaction with customers meant we were able to deliver more of what they wanted," Rachael says. "Staff approached me with products our customers wanted, and I was able to add them to our range, which ultimately meant more money in the tills.

"Sparkling Service is a key part of the way we operate now - I train all new members of the team, and we even re-visit modules with everyone involved."

Mike is thrilled with the results: "The staff love it; the customers love it; and it is having an impact on our bottom line."

Rachael is keen to explore the template of inclusive training in other areas of the business, and she's aware that as the company becomes more successful they will be hoping for supervisors and managers to emerge from within.

"I'll eventually need Dad to transfer his skills to a new manager," she says. "I want to ensure we can consolidate everything we have done so far, to keep everyone motivated towards improving our sales and standards, while maintaining our excellent level of customer service.

"We have invested our time and money to tune into our best asset - our staff," says Rachael, "and in turn they are paying us back by tuning into our customers."
shop profile
Spar, Saltburn-by-the-Sea, Cleveland

Staff: 22

Opening times: 5.30am-11pm, seven days a week

Topics