myCostcutter Insch has made the successful transition from traditional village shop to premium c-store. Sarah Britton reports.

With a recent refit, a strong focus on local produce, and an award-winning milk display, myCostcutter Insch in Aberdeen ticks all the right boxes. An elegant clock hanging over the shop’s doorway is the first sign that this is not your average store. And while the store boasts the smart black, green and red colourways of the new myCostcutter fascia, the Kelly of Cults window vinyls above reassure customers that the store is still in the hands of the well-loved independent local business, originally established in 1902.

Manager Lesley Ovington has worked at the store for 25 years, having been promoted from sales assistant to manager when Nicholas Kelly bought the business six years ago. She is delighted with the store’s latest transformation, which started in February 2012 and was completed last July. “We were only closed for three-and-a-half days during the whole time. While the work was going on we had girls on the floor acting as runners to fetch products from the closed sections for customers!”

The refit involved a new look for the store, with swanky dark tiles and black ceilings replacing the terracotta and pine fittings. “The refit meant we were able to plan the shop’s layout better and install a post office,” says Lesley. She is also delighted with her new office, as previously things were a little cramped. “My office used to be tucked away - like Harry Potter under the stairs!” she giggles.

store profile

Costcutter Insch, Aberdeen

Staff: eight full-time and 15 part-time

Opening hours: Monday-Friday 7am-9pm Saturday 7am-8pm Sunday 8.30am-8pm

Additional services: PO, ATM, lottery, hot drinks to go, off-licence

The transformation meant the number of chillers could be doubled. “We have an alcohol chiller, a new soft drinks chiller, which is much larger than the last one, and a larger chilled area for fruit and veg, which is so popular that we are considering expanding again,” says Lesley. “Before, we had a 1m standalone unit for beer - now we have 3m of chilled alcohol with chilled wines, beers and alcopops.”

Impulse items also have more room, with a single Coke chiller being replaced with 3m of chilled sandwiches, snacks and impulse soft drinks. “Before, sandwiches were at the other end of the shop and moving them closer has increased sales because people tend to buy them together,” says Lesley.

The chillers all have doors, which had caused Lesley some concerns, but she claims that sales have not been negatively affected. “We were apprehensive, but the chillers with doors have been accepted really well by customers.”

But it isn’t just the look and feel of the store that customers love, it’s the shop’s dedication to the local area which keeps them coming back. “There’s a real community feel here,” says Lesley. “We do a lot of fundraising, raffles and sponsorship. We sponsored football bags for a local team and we gave £500 to a cancer unit in Aberdeen.”

They also raised £1,000 for the Friends of Insch hospital by saving the reward vouchers given to staff by sales reps. They used the vouchers to buy a TV, a six-seat patio set, a foot spa and an Xbox, which were used as prizes in a raffle. “The customers are our business, so you have to give back,” Lesley acknowledges.

As well as fundraising for local causes, the store also supports the local economy with a long list of local producers supplying the store. Gracing the shelves are: Walkers Shortbread biscuits sandwiches from nearby Keith pet treats from Fochabers fish from Banff and turnips from a farmer down the road. “Local suppliers work closely with us, they are as reliable as the big guys,” says Lesley.

Supporting local producers is a decision that makes good business sense, says Lesley. “Local produce is in high demand from customers. A lot of the brands are well-known in the area and the produce sells itself. And the benefit of using local suppliers is that they don’t have a minimum order.” This means that she can offer her customers lots more options to choose from, and will often unveil surprise hits. “With our locally sourced pet treats, we can get a few of each different type and give customers real variety. We got through 30 packs of pigs ears in a week!”

The store is now so well known for its support of local produce that suppliers often make the first move when it comes to getting in touch. “Downies of Whitehills Fish approached us about supplying the store,” says Lesley. “They provide us with different types of products, depending on the time of year. Cod and haddock roe are popular in March, while fresh tuna is in season in the summer - the supplier advises us on what will work best. He suggested we try herring in oatmeal and it’s really taken off.”

The refit also involved removing the store’s old deli counter. “We cut it back until we were stocking just a few cuts of meat, but we were still ending up with a lot of wastage. It’s now been replaced with a larger range of pre-packed cold meat.” As a result, Speyside Specialities is one of the shop’s newest suppliers, offering specialist premium beef lorne and sliced polony.

And, of course, there are plenty of products from parent company Kelly of Cults, which has its own butchery and bakery.

Selling local goods offers high margins, but for Lesley it’s not the main benefit. “We could make a higher margin, but I pass a lot of the savings to customers to keep them loyal,” she says.

She is well aware that keeping customers happy is at the heart of every successful store, and is a self-confessed stickler for etiquette. “Manners are a big thing with me - a please, a thank you, a hello and a goodbye.” But she’s no stick-in-the-mud when it comes to having fun: “We tell customers the cheek’s free in here! There’s great banter.”

It’s her down-to-earth attitude that makes Lesley a great boss. “When I became a manager, they wanted me to be addressed as Mrs Ovington, but because I used to be a sales assistant I felt it wouldn’t be right. If you’re on an even keel with everyone then problems get sorted quicker as people see you as approachable. You also have to be flexible with staff - sometimes people with young kids need time off. If I’m flexible with them, then I find they’re flexible with me as well and they’ll come in when we’re short-staffed.”

Her personable approach is clearly reflected in the store’s low staff turnover. “One lady is coming up for 45 years’ service in July, and another is nearing 40 - even one of my juniors has been here for six years!” she beams. “The team is my second family.”

She may be sentimental when it comes to her customers and staff, but when it comes to making changes to the store, Lesley has no qualms. “You have to move with the times,” she says. “Things that were popular three or four years ago change, and you have to listen to what people want and adapt. That’s what I like about retail, every day is different.” •

Best Milk Retailer

Winner: myCostcutter Insch

A strong range of milk, including 1%, flavoured, goats’ milk, organic and soy variants, coupled with excellent availability, helped Costcutter Insch to seal the deal at the Convenience Retail Awards in March, where the store picked up the Best Milk Retailer Award.

The store has a good understanding of the importance of the milk category and has three members of staff dedicated to the area. In order to increase sales, roundels are put by the tea and coffee and cereal departments to remind customers to pick up their milk.

Staff are astute when it comes to managing the ordering. “We make daily orders as you don’t want waste and you don’t want to run out,” says manager Lesley Ovington. “You have to keep an eye on the weather as if it’s bad then we’ll have a higher footfall and we’ll have to double up the order.”

Awards judge, Müller Wiseman sales and marketing development manager Barry Cuthbertson, said: “myCostcutter Insch does a great job of ensuring strong availability across a wide range of milks. Congratulations on a well-deserved award.”