A fast, friendly service is the driving force behind Robert Teal’s Vitesse store in Barnsley’s business and student district

The Yorkshire town of Barnsley is not usually associated with a rapid pace of life, but for local Lifestyle Express retailer Robert Teal, his business is all about being swift and nimble. In fact, he named his store Vitesse after the French word for speed, and prides himself on quick service and operational efficiency in a location where at particular intervals throughout the year the footfall levels and customer requirements change literally overnight.

Robert’s store is in the centre of Barnsley’s business district, but his most valuable customers are students. During term time he is practically overrun, with 1,300 students based in the building directly opposite, and a further 6,000 further up the road, but when C-Store drops by during late summer, the store and the town centre are barely stirring.

Fact File

Lifestyle Express Vitesse, Barnsley

Size: 400sq ft

Opening hours: 7.30am to 6pm Mon-Fri; 8.30am to 2pm Sat

Staff: three part-time

Services: free cash machine, home news delivery

“Overall, it’s great. Who would complain?” admits Robert sagely. “But it also means that when we are quiet, we are quiet.”

Robert puts the downtime to good use, using the summer months to install new software, complete essential maintenance and training, and take some well-deserved holiday. It’s also a good time to develop the store’s appearance and merchandising, and for a time there are more suppliers than customers in the shop, with a contractor working out how to erect some extra signage agreed with Landmark while the Ferrero rep updates the counter display of TicTacs. Red Bull are due in the following week to re-lay the soft drinks fixture.

“Our customers are young, early adopters,” says Robert. “They like novelties and new things, and I take pride in being the first place they will see some products.”

At 400sq ft or so, the L-shaped store is hardly massive, but compared to Robert’s previous outlet of 220sq ft it’s positively cavernous.

“I’ve been trading on this street for 11 years, but the previous shop had room for very little apart from news. Over time the news side declined, but we were unable to innovate and differentiate because we simply didn’t have the space.”

He found a neat solution. The occupier of his current premises wanted to downsize just as much as Robert wanted to expand, so they agreed to swap shops. The transaction was completed in January last year, and Robert’s former newsagents now sells printer cartridges.

The additional space meant Robert could stock alcohol and everyday grocery items such as bread for the first time, delivering an instant leap in profitability. But in the long-term, he explains, the main boost came from giving more space to products that the business already sold successfully. “We doubled our soft drinks display,” he points out.

The larger premises means that deliveries of 200 outers can be ordered if necessary, enabling the business to buy at better prices. Blakemore Wholesale is the primary supplier, but Robert admits he “takes advantage of deals from other suppliers, too”.

The range is carefully skewed, with American confectionery adding variety to the familiar big brand hanging bags of sweets, and distinctively premium soft drinks such as Fentiman’s breaking up the impressive wall of Rockstar and Red Bull. The soft drinks chiller is so well-shopped that Robert sees no need to fit energy-saving doors like he has on the alcohol fridge.

“The wide range is a point of difference for us,” he explains. “That’s the advantage we have as independents, to really understand what our customers want.”

The small magazine selection helps to prove his point, with three tattoo titles and a couple of specialist American art magazines for the trendiest of students sitting alongside more familiar covers. But not all the customers are youths: the shop is used by college staff and office workers too. Smaller suppliers help differentiate the range for all ages, with space found for lines from a local craft bakery and Cannon Hall Farm, which specialises in locally-made pies. The Vitesse team also prepare fresh filled rolls on site, sealed and labelled with the store’s own machine. “This is the future for us,” he says.

Robert has a clear view of the strengths of the business, as well as areas in which it can be improved. “The question to ask yourself is ‘why should people come to us?’,” he explains. “It can be a hard question, and you need to be really honest with yourself about the answer. But we chose the name Vitesse because serving people quickly is a theme for us. There is an awesome level of competition (a One Stop outlet and a Polish store are in close proximity), but we know how to differentiate ourselves.”

In his 25 years of retail he’s learned to take advice. “A few years ago I wouldn’t have allowed Red Bull to come into my store and re-merchandise it, I would just think I knew better. But I have learned that the best way is to choose partners carefully and work with them. These days I attend more meetings, and enjoy reading in C-Store how other retailers have put their business plans into action.”

His own business is neatly planned, with two computer systems - one for stock, pricing and scanning, the other for home news delivery - located behind the counter rather than in a back office. So orders from Blakemore’s and Menzies, staff training and cloud-based Sage accounting can all be done without leaving the counter, a particularly efficient way of working during the quieter weeks of the year.

He is not permanently behind the till, as three part-time staff also take their turns in store, but the scheduled leap in the national minimum wage next spring is causing a headache. “The manager’s rate will basically disappear, and without a reasonable differential it’ll be more difficult to recruit.”

A free cash machine built into the outer wall means the area benefits even when the store is closed. “There used to be a Barclays next door and when it closed, the cash machine went too. Every shop in the street suffered reduced takings, so I lobbied to bring it back. It’s an asset to the community.”

In line with other communities, competition has made the Barnsley shopper more price-savvy, so Robert runs more offers than he used to. Typically, he knows exactly how much stock (15%) is sold on some sort of discount, with much of it based around the Lifestyle Express symbol group’s promotional leaflets.The Lifestyle offers work particularly well when supported by posters he can put in the imposing doorway.

Robert is prepared to employ more direct methods as well, breaking off our conversation to shout good-naturedly to a potential customer lingering in the doorway: “We don’t charge to come in!”

“There are times when we’re quiet, but it’s not a bad business,” he concludes. “This time of year the cash flow is less and you have to manage it carefully, but it is predictable. It’s all about what do you do with the time.”