Two stores stand a few yards apart on Imperial Avenue in Maylandsea, bookending the Essex village's short row of shops and neatly demonstrating the remarkable journey that retailers David Nice and Paul Miller have taken since deciding to overhaul their business a few years ago.

To the left, their former 1,500sq ft Freshway Stores stands abandoned, and a glimpse through its dusty windows reveals the cramped counter, hand-written price labels, caged post office and scuffed chest freezers of a run-of-the-mill village shop.

To the right, a gleaming Nisa Local fascia reveals its replacement: twice the size, and a world away in appearance and appeal. Opened by the pair four months ago, the new store is not only attracting attention locally, where it's the pride and joy of the village, but also nationally as the flagship for a new Nisa format.

Sitting in the new store's still-unfinished back office, David explains how he and Paul picked themselves out of the comfortable life of managing two shops - the other is in Canvey Island - and plunged into the massive investment of a new build,

state-of-the-art store.

"We didn't own the old store here," he says, "and the landlord was a bit problematic, so we were never able to expand the way we would have liked. When the post office on this site closed, we took the counter on, but I also had my eye on the land. We put in a bid

for it and everything took off from that point."

With no supermarkets within 15 minutes' drive, and a catchment of about 10,000 residents bolstered through the warmer months by hundreds of holidaymakers, David drew up the business case for a larger store and set off to the bank.

Finance and planning permission took some organising for the project, which included five flats above the store that David planned to sell or rent to keep the backers happy. But once the structure was in place, David and Paul turned to their wholesaler for help in fitting the store out.

"Nisa-Today's supplied our old store, but it was never right to be part of the symbol group," David says. "But I sit on the Nisa Group retailers' advisory committee and when [group symbol director] John Heagney said they were looking for a store to try out a new design concept, I was first to raise my hand."

Heagney says the group's vision was for a store with a consistent visual narrative, from the fascia to the shelf ticket barkers. "Customers will immediately be aware that they are in a Nisa store," he says. "It is not just about Nisa's promotions and careful ranging, but about customers recognising the store as being part of a large, professional retail operation."

David puts it another way: "We wanted the look and slickness of a multiple, with the flexibility of an independent and the community feel of a village shop." He reflects on this. "We wanted it all, really," he laughs.

Walking into the store, it's clear that everything the customer comes into contact with has been thoroughly thought through, and the result is a bright, friendly and contemporary environment with a logical flow to navigate the shopper through the store.

"It's a convenience store within a supermarket," says David, describing the front third of the store, which is brightly lit with wider aisles housing newspapers, snacks, tobacco and confectionery - the typical grab-and-go purchases. Interestingly, though, there are none of the usual impulse buys such as gum and confectionery at the point of sale, giving the stylish wood-panelled till area an airy, uncluttered feel.

The alcohol section is also near the front, as is a small cakes and pastries display and, unexpectedly close to the tills, a well-stocked loose fresh fruit and veg offer. The idea here is to encourage healthy impulse purchases, Nisa says.

Chilled food and drink make up about a quarter of the total floorspace, but it's planned wisely. Only the smaller drinks sizes are chilled - you won't find a 2ltr PET wastefully held at drinking temperature.

Further in, Nisa has introduced some clever tricks designed to create a cooler, more relaxed atmosphere in which to browse the general groceries, frozen foods and household products. Soft lighting and paler floor panels, plus Nisa's in-house radio, make for a very pleasant environment, and spotlights brilliantly emphasise the special offer areas at the end of the aisles. The wheeled baskets have also gone down a treat with shoppers.

At the back, the post office has a low, open counter, so much more approachable than the old bars-and-grills style.

Somewhat against the trend, there's no hot food-to-go section, but there's a reason for that. "There's a chip shop and a bakery close by and we're not looking to take business off them," David says. "That wouldn't send the right message to the community."

David's not afraid to admit that not everything's quite right yet. The store is, after all, intended to trial new concepts. "We've made a few mistakes," he says. "We've put the milk right at the back of the store, and I'm not sure that fits with the quick in-and-out approach. And we delisted quite a lot of items, which we are now realising are wanted in the village, so we've got a book behind the counter and every time someone asks for something we haven't got, it goes on the list."

There have been teething problems with ordering, too. The new building is all shopfloor; there's very little storage, a deliberate choice because David is confident he'll get a good regular service from Nisa. But with various members of staff learning to take responsibility for categories around the store, and some initial scanning problems, there have been a few gaps on the shelves in these first few months. David's not worried, though.

"Giving staff responsibility shows how we value them, and I think they enjoy being such an important part of a big, professional business," he says.

Staff are encouraged to retain the village store vibe by taking the time to chat with customers, and David is asking local residents to nominate good causes to which the store can donate money raised through Nisa's Making a Difference Locally fundraising initiative.

This community link is vital to the success of the store. The salary from the post office, David says, covers its running costs and not much more, but he's kept it on as a service for the village. He looked at dropping unprofitable newspaper deliveries, too, but realised how much they were valued locally.

One bold promise they made to customers was that prices in the new store, for all its glamour, would be cheaper than the old one. But even with that stipulation, David's seen a 50% increase over last year's sales figures, with almost every week this year bringing a new record turnover. With more staff working fewer hours, he's reduced the wage overhead as well.

"I want to be part of a store that the staff are proud to work in and customers are proud to call their local shop. We're nearly there - come back in a year and you'll see something very special."
Time for a change
"If any retailer is wondering whether to take the plunge and go for a major refit like we did, I can only say, you should see my figures," says David Nice. "I understand the reluctance to invest, from both the retailers and the banks, but if you've got a good proposition, such as this store concept, now is a great time to do it.

"You've got to invest in your business, because you can be sure the Big Boys will keep throwing money into theirs, and you will have to spend to keep up.

"We're still learning here, but we can already see that the investment we've made is money well spent."
shop profile
Freshway Imperial Avenue, Maylandsea, Essex

Floorspace: 3,000sq ft

Staff: 24

Turnover: "Increasing every week"

Services: Post Office, free ATM, news delivery, e-payment, Lottery