Steve Jones knows his store and his customer base inside out and does everything in his power to meet their needs, seeing off stiff competition from the multiples right on his doorstep

Having Tesco, Aldi and Farmfoods within a five-minute walk of your store would have some retailers quaking in their boots. But Premier retailer Steve Jones of Fountain Shop & Bakery in Merthyr Tydfil takes these things in his stride and is positive he can work them to his advantage.

“Retailing isn’t a bed of roses, but it’s how you deal with your issues that makes you a successful retailer,” he asserts. “Farmfoods is competition, but it also draws people to the area. You have to know your business and work to your strengths.”

The jewel in the store’s crown is its vibrant food-to-go offering, which brings in an impressive £6,000 a week. “The girls make up baps and we buy in some from a local supplier. We sell 4,000 units a week,” says Steve. “We also offer popcorn chicken and jacket potatoes. This is what separates us from most stores. Not even the likes of Aldi or Tesco can compete.”

Store facts

The Fountain Shop, Merthyr Tydfil

Size: 1,800sq ft

Turnover: £48,000-£50,000 per week

Staff: 22

Energy efficiency: LED lighting, beer chillers on automatic timer, external lights on a daylight sensor and staff toilets on a movement sensor, LED lights in chillers and Chillscoops

Steve has expert knowledge of his customer demographics and uses this to his advantage. “Between 5am and 11pm you get guys finishing the nightshift and people starting work. The store has baguettes made up for them and a choice of pasties from The Lewis Pie & Pasty Company in Swansea. Their mini corned beef pasties and sausage roll packs are our best-sellers. We sell 720 packs of corned beef pasties a week. Everyone from kids from the skate park to rail workers buy them.”

Ensuring that the food-to-go products are affordable is vital. “Our baguettes are priced at between £1.70 and £3.20, much cheaper than Cardiff prices,” says Steve. “It’s really good value for money and a reason for people to come back.” He believes that keen pricing, coupled with high-quality produce, has made the store a crucial stop-off for those driving through. “We have a good reputation. People from Abergavenny or Bristol will stop by when they’re passing through. We chat to them and they’ll say they’re here because they’ve heard about our baguettes.”

And for those who can’t make it into the store, Steve brings it to them. “People haven’t got a lot of time in their lunch break so we tell them to phone their order through. We deliver to the local comprehensive five days a week for the kids’ lunches. We also deliver to the local hairdressers, nurseries, car garages, council offices and factory units.”

In his determination to meet the needs of his customers, Steve has become a stickler for gap zapping in a bid to maintain availability. His handheld scanner remains firmly in his palm for the bulk of our interview as he makes frequent orders while talking to C-Store. “I don’t want to sit at the computer ordering,” he says. “When you walk the floor you see more. Although we have stacks of Foster’s, I’m still scanning them for the order as I know we’ll sell quite a few tonight as they’re on offer at the moment.”

He believes taking control yourself can also highlight any stock being lost to pilfering. “If you just let the computer automatically re-order something you have only just ordered, when you get round to checking it out you could realise stock is being stolen.”

The store has deliveries Monday to Friday from Cardiff Booker, and Steve orders from Merthyr Booker for collection on Saturday and Sunday. “My availability is near 100%; Merthyr Booker is only just down the road, so I’ll go down and pick up what we need.”

He concedes that in the past he has made the trip to Merthyr Booker as many as three times a day to top up because he can’t bear to be out of stock. “I can’t leave a gap on shelf; it would do my bloody head in! If you’re a shopper going into a store and they haven’t got what you want after three visits, you’ll become disillusioned,” he says.

“We had 10 lines unavailable from Cardiff Booker this morning, but I’ll just go to Booker Merthyr to pick them up. That’s why our availability is better than most. We’re giving leaflets out to customers telling them about great products at great prices; we can’t have no stock. I can’t sell fresh air!”

The ear of the management

Steve isn’t afraid to take his availability concerns to the top. “Ice cream, pop and water all get hammered in good weather. When we had a few days of sunshine over the summer, I knew that Booker would run out, so I’d get in there early to order the stock. I’ve told [commercial director] Noel Heinz how many sales we were losing through lack of availability because someone hasn’t done their homework.”

Indeed, in his role as a member of the Premier Development Group panel - a position that he has held for the past eight years - Steve frequently speaks with Booker management. He has recently been discussing the potential of the chilled category within his store with sales director Steve Fox. “I was talking to Steve Fox and I don’t think that we’ll get a return on six metres of fresh produce in this store, not with Aldi and Tesco nearby. I’d sell bits and pieces, but people don’t look to us for that kind of product. We can’t improve a lot of areas so it’s about maximising what we have.”

But while extending fresh might be a non-starter, Steve is still keen to invest in the store. “Retail changes all the time and if you don’t move with it you’ll get left behind. If you want to save you have to outlay,” he says.

The store was treated to new LED lighting, LED chillers and Chillscoops last year in a bid to become more energy efficient, and now Steve is looking at new flooring. “Our ceramic tiles keep cracking and I can’t find replacements, so the next big thing for us will be flooring. I’m going to get commercial-type laminate with a smart design, and have different colours for different zones in store.”

He balks at the suggestion of buying a second store, claiming that his current store keeps him busy enough. “To buy a second store is a big move. I know what it takes to keep this business on its toes - you have to constantly view the store as a customer. I say to staff: ’If you can see stuff needs to be cleaned, then don’t wait for me to tell you - if you can see it, then the customer can too!”

And with that he’s off down the confectionery aisle to zap some more gaps.