The B&B that C-Store stays at the night before visiting Sleaford Spar is eight miles away from the shop itself, but the landlady is quick to sing its praises. "It's an excellent store - I do all my top-up shops there," she claims.

After such a glowing report, expectations are high, but the Lincolnshire store lives up to its reputation and, inside, each shelf is filled with impeccably faced-up produce. However, manager Julie Sharpe is nowhere to be seen.

C-Store finds her at the back of the store, where she has her hands full unloading goods. "Please can you wait a minute?" she asks. "I just want everything to be perfect!" She needn't worry; there isn't so much as a yogurt pot out of place in this swanky Spar Store of the Future.

When Julie hears about the B&B landlady's comments, she's ecstatic. "Customers paying compliments really makes my day," she beams. "This is an enjoyable job, but it's not easy and something like that can really lift you."

Business has been particularly brisk of late because of the good weather. "It's absolutely manic in here over Easter," explains Julie. "If it's sunny, barbecues, fresh meat and beer just fly off the shelves. On Easter Sunday I increased my sales by 15%."

Julie has worked in retail all of her life. Her first job was as a cashier at a Liptons store, where she worked her way through the ranks to become assistant manager.

After having children, Julie joined Spar Hykeham as a sales assistant. Within six months, she was promoted to supervisor and, two years later, she became manager.

She went on to run a Grimsby Spar before regional manager Chris Bacon convinced her to take on Sleaford. "The staff needed a good leader and someone who would treat them fairly," says Bacon. "I'd worked with Julie for a long time and I knew that she would do a great job."

But it wasn't plain sailing by any means when Julie first picked up the reins at Sleaford five years ago. "There were a lot of staffing problems," she explains. "The previous manager had died suddenly, so many of the staff were upset and demotivated. There were also a number of training issues."

Julie threw herself into getting the store shipshape again. "I monitored the staff, held meetings with them, praised them for what they were doing right and trained them in the grey areas," she says. "I do criticise them if I'm not happy with something, but I do it in a nice way, so that they take it on the chin and they learn from it.

"I get them to work alongside me so that they can see how things are meant to be done and build up their confidence. This approach made the staff 100% supportive of me and they began to be much more creative. I have very low staff turnover."

You don't need to look far to see evidence of Julie's hard work. Take Karen - when she first started at Sleaford she was a cleaner, then she worked in the warehouse and before long Julie had convinced her to have a go at working the shop floor. "She had no idea what to do at first, but working with me she has learnt to design her own displays, she does till training and is a stand-in supervisor," says Julie. "She's upped her weekly hours from 18 to 32 and she's my eyes and ears when I'm not around."

Julie explains that she can't resist a challenge. "If I can see that little bit extra in someone, then I try to give them extra opportunities to boost them," she says. "Karen didn't want to work on the tills or become a supervisor, but I knew that she had it in her, so I coached her. I'm always setting challenges for myself and I think my positive attitude rubs off on the staff."

Last year it was decided that a major refit would take the store to the next level. The tills were moved from one end of the store to the other, the fresh and chilled section was vastly expanded, and the shop's warehouse was converted into a food-to-go area.

"I knew we had the potential to run a successful business in food to go because the shop was already very busy with sandwich sales," says Julie. She was right - the new area opened in September 2008 and has gone from strength to strength, taking home C-Store's Food-to-go Retailer of the Year Award in March.

But the real challenge from Julie's perspective was running the store during the refit. "I was determined that the store would stay open while the work went on," she says. "It was hard, but with each week that went by we were surviving, and customers were grateful we stayed open."

Julie made it her goal to maintain the store's sales figures, even though half of the shop was closed for refurbishment. "We always told customers, if they couldn't find something they were looking for, then just give us a shout and we'd help them - I didn't want to lose any sales," she claims.

Adjusting to a much larger fresh and chilled range took some getting used to. "Before we just dabbled in meat, but now we have a local butcher, Keith Anderson, who supplies us with a full range of products," says Julie.

"Ordering is a big challenge," she adds. "With fresh, you either lose sales or create high wastage if you get it wrong, so I spend a lot of time making sure I'm accurate. It's all about knowing your products and what sells. Since the new food-to-go counter we're getting a different type of customer and some people come in just to buy fresh food now."

Despite being rushed off her feet keeping the store in order, Julie is adamant that the customer still comes first. "The point of difference in our store is the customer service. We meet and greet all our customers and always ask if they need a hand," she says. "That little bit extra goes a long way."

Bacon is certainly impressed with Julie's efforts. "I can't praise Julie and her team enough for what they've done," he says. "They are fantastically supportive and maintain excellent standards."
shop profile
Tates Spar, Sleaford

Opening hours: 5am-midnight

Members of staff: 28 (20 part-time, eight full-time)

Size: 3,000sq ft

Services: PayPoint, Payzone, national lottery, ATM, food to go
Food-to-go focus
How did you end up here? I used to be manager at another store and I came here for the assistant manager's job as it was a bigger shop. I had no idea that the extension was going to be as big as this, though.

What's your best-seller? Sizzlers - our breakfast sandwiches - are very popular.

Have there been any surprise successes? When we first launched our Italian range, we were constantly having to reduce prices to get products to sell. But now that people know they are there, sales have really lifted over the past two months. It's the same with our fruit salad bowls - we used to always reduce them, but now we're making four lots a week. It's all about people getting the chance to buy a product and, once they enjoy it, you'll get repeat sales.

What's been your biggest challenge? It's totally different working here compared with on the shop floor. Availability is key and managing wastage can be a challenge as we have to estimate what will sell and monitor demand. Rather than making 12 of one product, you do six and then check on them later in the day and see what's sold. Little and often means less wastage and fresher products.

What results have you seen? Last week was a record for us, but sales have been healthy since the word go. We're very proud of the area.

How does the food-to-go area fit in with the rest of the store? It's a good team effort. In some stores it becomes a bit 'them and us' between different departments, but here we all pull together and it works brilliantly.

Topics