Life-long retailers Matt and Sally Croft tell Gaelle Walker about their life in the fast lane, operating in the shadows of Silverstone

Monday nights for most children (and many grown men) of the 1970s meant one thing and one thing only: Charlie’s Angels on TV. However, for little Matt and Sally Croft, Monday nights heralded quite another thing entirely. Fresh out of the school gates, brother and sister were whisked down to the local cash and carry to help their father replenish the family-owned convenience store for the week ahead.

“We didn’t have a ‘normal’ childhood compared with some of our school friends,” Sally says, “but that’s not a bad thing it was just different. While most kids learned nursery rhymes, we learned sayings such as ‘you can’t sell thin air’. We were also very good at maths!”

However, while Matt and Sally recall those early days with wry eye rolls, it’s clear that the experience didn’t scar them too badly, otherwise more than 30 years later the pair wouldn’t be in the position they are today: the proud owners of Croft Stores at the heart of the picturesque village of Stocks Hill, Silverstone, in Northamptonshire.

The business, which just last year joined the Nisa symbol group, has undergone a radical process of evolution since their father bought it in 1966, and Matt and Sally took it over in 1998.

store profile

Croft Stores, Stocks Hill, Silverstone

Size: 2,700sq ft

Staff: 15 part-time

Opening Hours: Monday to Saturday 5.30am-7pm Sunday 5.30am-1pm

Services: Licensed stockists of Calor Gas, PayPoint, mobile phone top-up, Collect+, fax, photocopying, shoe repair and dry-cleaning, DVD rental collection, post office

Ranges, services and layouts are regularly revised to ensure that the store meets its shoppers’ ever-evolving needs. It’s no walk in the park, either, given that the store also happens to be a spanner’s throw away from the legendary Silverstone racing circuit.

While playing host to a broad range of functions, exhibitions, driving days and more throughout the year, Silverstone is most famous for the annual British Grand Prix. Each summer thousands of spectators flock to the normally quaint and quiet village for the three-day event, completely transforming the store’s customer base. And this year was certainly no exception, as the circuit racked up its third-highest ever attendance with more than 120,000 spectators.

However, their years of experience mean that Matt and Sally have a well-rehearsed action plan to make the very most of the opportunity.

While opening hours, deliveries and staffing levels are all augmented to help meet the surge in demand, some of the most vivid changes are those made to the store’s ranging and layout.

“The Grand Prix heralds a huge shift in our clientele, and we have to tailor it to them,” explains Sally.

“It’s not as family orientated as it used to be. Recent years have seen the emergence of a much younger male element, and far fewer women attending, so we try to match the store’s offer to this customer base.” And that means BBQ foods, snacks, chilled beers, ice and, believe it or not, bottled water. “We sell pallets of the stuff,” explains Matt.

As licensed stockists of Calor Gas the pair also increase their range and volume of gas bottles to cater for the thousands of people who pitch tents in the racetrack’s surrounding campsites.

“Gas,” explains Matt, “is a huge seller, as is tubing and, funnily enough, spatulas. You’d be amazed at how many people go camping and forget the spatula to turn the bacon over with! We introduce special shelves of camping essentials for the race, with all kinds of things that people tend to forget or need, such as thermos flasks and plastic ponchos.

“These are working men - they aren’t made of money - which means that offering good deals is also really important, and that’s something that joining Nisa has really helped us with,” he adds. “Prices are pretty steep on the racetrack and it’s surprising how many people will leave throughout the day, and particularly in the evening, to visit us for their drinks and snacks rather than buying it there.”

The store’s layout is also given a makeover prior to the hordes descending. “It’s like when you have a party in your living room you put your best glasses away,” laughs Sally.

“We take out all the card spinners, dump bins and any obstacles, and try to get the store as streamlined as possible as it gets so busy.”

However, despite the surge in footfall, which this year resulted in the store’s sales more than doubling, the pair are always keen to attract more business.

As such they employ a number of awareness-boosting marketing tactics, not least with their new Nisa-branded plastic bags.

“This year we bought in an extra 10,000 Nisa-branded plastic bags as these really help to raise awareness as people invariably ask each other, ‘where did you get that’? We give out as many bags as we can - we’ll even bag single newspapers. I know it’s a bit wasteful, and it’s certainly not a policy we employ throughout the rest of the year, but during the three-day event it’s a really effective way of driving footfall to the store,” explains Matt.

The pair’s amicable relationship with the local campsite owners also stands them in good stead. “Each year we give a nice gift hamper to the site managers and in exchange they hand out promotional leaflets featuring the store’s name and address, a map, opening times and the key categories we sell. The flyers really help. It only costs £250 to print 6,000, which is a drop in the ocean when you consider how many people they bring in who wouldn’t otherwise know we were here,” explains Matt.

“Next year we will make the flyer work even harder by advertising all the additional services that we offer, such as ATM, PayPoint, lottery, dry-cleaning and more. Anyone can sell a Mars bar on the circuit, but having the extra services is a point of difference. Coupling them with good price points and attentive customer service will make people walk the extra mile to buy from us.”

And despite their tanked up focus on the Grand Prix, the store’s regular local customers are certainly not left in the dust.

In fact, it was the desire to better cater for their locals’ needs that led Matt and Sally to make the jump from non-affiliation to symbol group membership last November. While the promise of better prices, expert category management advice and national marketing campaigns all acted as key lures, it was Nisa’s commitment to local good causes via its Making a Difference Locally charity that sealed the deal, Matt says.

The move to Nisa was very closely followed by a large-scale extension into what was the family home immediately next door to the store, and a refit, which would allow the store to almost double its fresh and chilled lines.

“We are lucky in that we don’t have another grocery store within walking distance of our store. However, that doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. We have to keep on giving our local shoppers a reason to come to us and not get in the car to drive to the supermarket. Offering a well-priced, comprehensive chilled range is key to that, as is an interesting and evolving range of local products.

“We now offer shoppers a full meal solution at incredible prices. We used to just sell bacon and sausages. Now we have a full fresh meat offer which is complemented by a wide range of fruit, vegetables and interesting deli offerings which are helping to boost our sales all year round. People are buying meals now, and not just top-up. Three years ago, the fifth or sixth basket down would be dusty, now they are gleaming because they are in constant use. Our average basket before the move to Nisa and refit was about £4 it’s now £7.23 and rising.”

And the work is far from over. “Prior to the refit we visited lots of other symbol and unaffiliated stores to get ideas, and one thing that surprised us was the number of stores that had undergone refits and then just stopped trying, as though a refit would answer all their problems,” explains Sally. “Getting customers through the door, and keeping them there, is about so much more than having a nice-looking store. In our opinion a refit is just the start, not the end, of that process.”

Looking ahead to the autumn, the pair are planning to relaunch the store’s website to better advertise its promotions and additional services, which they hope will soon include home delivery for locals.

“We are also looking ahead to Christmas and all the promotional activity that brings,” says Sally. “We used to do a themed day in the run-up to Christmas where we put on lots of local product tastings and promotions, but this year we’ll be doing a week-long programme of celebrations, including a wine and cheese evening to really get local people into the festive spirit.

“We are also trying to help people plan their Christmas celebrations better by setting up an early ordering system so that nothing gets forgotten. We are always open to new ideas and are keen to keep on learning, even after all our years in this industry. I don’t ever want to feel that we’ve reached our pinnacle. Having more mountain left to climb is a good thing, it’s motivating.”■