A major expansion and extensive refit last year has put satisfying customer missions at the heart of Justin Whittaker’s Premier MJ’s store in Royton, Oldham.

With its tall windows and shiny bright fascia, you can’t miss MJ’s Premier on Richmond Avenue in Royton, Lancashire. Externally, the shop epitomises everything you would expect of a modern convenience store, with digital screens in the windows and LED backlit signs. But what also stands out on the store’s exterior is its commitment to the local community, with a humble message either side of the entrance’s automatic sliding door stating: ‘Proud to serve Royton’.

Even though a lot has changed at the former 700sq ft store since an extensive refit and expansion into a modern 2,000sqft store last September, the key focus has stayed the same. The store’s number one priority is its customers and how to best serve them.

Store facts

MJ’s Premier, Royton

Size: 2,000sq ft

Trading for: 27 years under current management

Opening hours: 6am - 9pm everyday

Year-on-year results: Frozen +44%, Confectionary +36%, Grocery +34.6%, Pet Care +18.7%, Dairy +12.9%, Alcohol +10.6%

Awards: Booker’s Premier Independent retailer of the year 2015

Because of its location in the centre of a residential area, the store attracts a lot of top-up customers who visit on a regular basis, sometimes even more than once in the same day. So it is no surprise that so many of the customers are familiar with its seven members of staff and owner, Justin Whittaker.

Justin has run the store since he was just 17 years old, when he took over the family business from his father. His vision to transform the store took six years to realise, but in 2015 he finally got planning permission after buying the land to enable expansion.

Since the store underwent the refit last year, it has seen sales go through the roof, up 20% year-on-year, while also attracting new customers.

The driving force behind the refit was to make the store larger so that it was better equipped to compete with some of the more innovative stores around and keep up with the ever-changing retail landscape. As the market continues to see the lines that separated the discount, convenience, supermarket and food service sectors blur into one, customers’ missions have changed.

Justin has a very clear ethos with his store: he wants to offer his customers big deals on big brands, while he has also designated areas targeting the most popular shopper missions: food-to-go, big night in and meals for tonight.

On first entering the store, this philosophy is immediately clear, with shelf-ends tipped with ‘Amazing Value’ messaging fronted with big brand products and a small food to go area with ‘Grab A Bite To Eat’ signage welcoming shoppers.

Food to go

The food to go area includes a hot food zone aimed at breakfast and lunch times and is restocked with freshly-prepared food in the morning and midday. The area is complemented by a Jack’s Beans coffee machine. As a result, Justin has seen an uplift in customers who are looking for food to go options. He also notes that shoppers who used to just pop in for their tobacco products and a newspaper are now buying an item of food to enjoy on the go and a coffee, taking basket spend to new highs. This has been driven by a breakfast meal deal of £3 for a bap and a regular hot drink.

Justin is currently looking into expanding the store’s meal offers by designing an evening meal time option on chilled and frozen.

Zonal design

The store has a ‘macro-space’ design that offers customers more aisle room and improved navigation, with clear category headings throughout the store.

Justin says: “In the past, customers were often unaware that we sold medicines and hygiene products, but since the category was clearly signposted and moved from behind the counter to near the till, sales have grown by 70%.” 

Justin believes strongly in high impact. One signposted area is ‘Big Night In’, where round pound items are prominently placed to encourage impulse buys. Justin believes in offering multiple facings of the key top-selling lines rather than lots of different variants, because he believes it makes the fixture stand out more and look more abundantly stocked.

The store has two metres of confectionery, offering a larger range of £1 PMP tablet-sized bars of chocolate rather than single serve bars, as Justin says shoppers want bigger products for decent prices as opposed to smaller portions – a move which has been vindicated by a 36% uplift in confectionery sales since the refit.

Justin has replaced a lot of his single packs of crisps for bigger sized bags and multipacks for £1 and £2. The same goes for soft drinks with fewer single serve cans and more multi-packs and large bottles of soft drinks. This ties in with the store’s ‘big brands and big value’ message, reflected in the store’s 17 promotional bays.

Wherever you look in this eye-catching Premier store it is obvious that the design has been planned innovatively from start to finish. There is a table top freezer that can be changed to a fridge on demand in the middle of the store that is used to promote meal ideas and special promotions. One offer on frozen chicken dippers saw Justin sell 14 cases in just two weeks, compared to the three or four he would usually get through in the same period.

The store has a five-metre-long chilled and dairy section and runs cross promotions on frozen and chilled products to inspire customers to match items up to make a meal for tonight. In just shy of one year, MJ’s has grown sales of frozen by a healthy 44%.

One of the store’s other success stories has been the introduction of its designated ‘Kids Zone’. With a self-service slushy machine that makes 70% margin and several deals on confectionery in one location, school children are often seen populating the space. After the slushy machine’s triumph, Justin is considering offering either an ice cream or milkshake self-service solution. 

Justin credits Booker with helping him to maximise the store’s potential. He says: “The support from Booker has been amazing, from help with merchandising the store to expert advice. I don’t think retailers could survive without being a part of a symbol group today, the support and guidance they provide is invaluable.”

As far as the future goes, he is not resting on his laurels and aims to continually adapt the shop and its offer. “There won’t be any structural changes for quite some time, but the store is re-merchandised on a bi-weekly basis and I am sure we will continue to re-merchandise extensively in the future in order to keep up with consumer trends,” he says. “We are looking to evolve all the time.”

From having a clear understanding of what his customers want and a clear policy on delivering it, Justin has definitely provided the local community of Royton with a convenience store to be proud of.


Exploring the beer cave

One area of the store that Justin is particularly proud of is the Heineken beer cave.

The ‘cave’ is actually a walk in chilled room that offers an extensive alcohol range from beers, ciders, spirits and wines with space for 300 cases of alcohol. An automatic door means the room maintains its chilly temperature and the Heineken-branded room has a light on the ceiling that projects images on the ground including the Heineken logo.

Justin says: “There is a big demand for alcohol products in the store and customers want cold beer to take away and enjoy as soon as they get through the door at home to watch the football or whatever it is.

“But traditional chillers can’t offer this much space or the capability to keep them all cold, so this added beer cave is great - not only does it impress the customers when they come in, it also gives them just what they want.”

Justin even uses the chilled room to set-up engaging promotional table displays. One particularly popular display was a Subbuteo table football table set up for customers to play with while they browsed - building excitement ahead of Euro 2016 earlier in the summer.


Safe and secure

Thieves looking to make off with goods from MJ’s Premier can certainly think again, because Justin’s store has some of the tightest security measures around.

To start with, the store has a total of 26 CCTV cameras dotted in and outside the store, including a high spec camera externally and one in the store’s chilled beer cave. The high spec camera system is able to zoom in on the finest of details, making the identification of criminals a straightforward task.

Each staff member also possesses a panic button on a specially designed wristband. When activated, a deafening master blaster sound system is set off and a smoke machine is deployed that covers the entire store with a thick fog in a matter of seconds to startle thieves.