John Cuthbertson’s encyclopaedic knowledge of every product category is crucial when managing the fast-changing demands of his student customer base.

He knows his product categories better than some people know their own children, and he’s in his element reeling off sales figures, which are recorded with military precision. He’ll number crunch, meticulously checking for any spikes, and if he spots anything of interest, he’ll dig deeper until he finds out the wheres, whys and hows. John Cuthbertson, who runs a Premier at Dundee University, says simply: “I use epos a lot.”

It provides John with sales data for the day, the margins made, and a breakdown of each category. He also analyses weekly sales by product and highlights things of interest. “For example, our healthy eating nuts had sales of £600 recently,” he points out.

John notes each trend and ensures shelves are stocked accordingly. “Energy drinks is our fastest growing sub-category. We sell more than 50 cases a week of Euroshopper energy drink. Students consume a lot of energy drinks and Pro-Plus to keep them alert when studying. Interestingly, the sugar-free variant is becoming popular - the ratio between that and the standard version is almost 50/50.”

Shop profile

Premier, Dundee University

Opening hours: Monday to Friday: 8.30am-10pm Saturday to Sunday 10am-10pm

Turnover: average of £50,000 a week

Staff: 25, 11 of which are students who work only at evenings and on weekends

Size: 1,700sq ft

It’s his nose for sniffing out trends that stands John in good stead for managing this university store (as well as another three sites). He’s worked out that shoppers’ requirements are partly dependent on what year they are in at university. “What you find is in the first year, they start with food that is very easy to make, such as pizza and pasta, but as they progress, they’ll learn more skills and staff will give them advice on cooking.”

John and his staff make sure there’s plenty of frozen meals for the freshmen, fresh veg and proteins for older students and, of course, enough alcohol for everyone. “Our busiest trading day of the year is Saint Patrick’s, followed by Halloween,” says John. “Not everyone is Irish, but they all want any excuse to celebrate!”

Students’ love of partying means that the alcohol fixture is a focal point. A £21,000 investment in refrigeration two years ago means that there is now enough chiller space to ensure that every brand of beer is available cold. “We do £8,500 a week from a 2.4m bay,” says John. Lager is the biggest alcohol seller, but there is also a selection of ales available to satisfy the English students, who make up 30% of the student-base.

“Cider is also a big seller. In a week of hot weather we sold 337 bottles of regular Magners and 321 pear variants. That’s more than 50 cases,” he says. “I think it’s become so popular because wine prices are creeping up so people are turning to it as an alternative.”

Another major category is sandwiches. “We sell more than 1,000 baguettes a week, and I’m Booker’s biggest customer for Rustlers in the UK,” says John. There is row upon row of sandwiches, rolls and wraps from national brands such as Urban Eat, as well as Dundee’s Clark’s Bakery, and as many fillings as you can imagine, from best-selling tuna mayo, to feta, salami and salad. All needs are catered for many products are halal-approved and, rather than being stuck with egg mayo sandwiches, veggies are treated to Houmungously Crunchy and Rockafeta variants from vegetarian specialist Cranks. There’s also cous cous, lentil and three bean salads, and vegetarian pasties from Jordan Valley. It might seem like a lot of niche products, but the appetising profits make it worthwhile. “Sandwiches are profitable - there’s a 40% plus margin,” says John.

It’s not just sarnies that are raking in the profits. The store’s on-campus location means it’s often the first stop for those all-important stationery top-ups. “We carry a large range of stationery - pads, folders, pens and so on. Pads are the biggest line, which is good as they have a 50% margin.” John has picked up on students’ leaning towards brands. “I can’t sell cheap pens to students. They want branded ones such as Pilot and Staedtler. They’ll easily spend £2.59 on a pen.”

Knowing what students want is a core part of running the store. “The biggest challenge is keeping up with the trends,” he says. “I regularly check the latest Booker promotions and launches. You have to keep an eye on NPD and decide if it’s a good fit. For instance, I think the new Euroshopper energy bar will be really well received here.”

Product knowledge also has to be combined with footfall trends and staff efficiency so that when employees aren’t busy serving, they’re stocking shelves. “We get a delivery at 8am daily and it’s on shelf by 10am. By noon we’re ordering for the next day. We’re lucky as it means we can use Booker as our warehouse, so the only products we really need in the stockroom are soft drinks, which constantly need topping up,” says John. “I employ someone in the afternoons to re-fill the soft drinks. Students drink a lot of water when they’re going into exams, so we need the shelves to be full. Highland Spring is the best seller.”

On a typical lunchtime the store has five tills open and sometimes there are still queues, but John claims that they move quickly because people are usually only buying one or two items. Ensuring that no one has to queue for long is especially important as it gives the store a key point of difference from the nearby Tesco. “Our store is at the centre of the campus, but when the Tesco Express opened two years ago on the edge of campus, it took 5% of our turnover. We have now recovered because Tesco has three self-service tills and it slows things down as a supervisor has to okay all alcohol sales.”

The store faces another potential threat in the form of a planning application from Sainsbury’s, but John isn’t worried as he doesn’t think it will be able to cope with the seasonality of university trade. “A number of our staff are on a 32-week contract in keeping with student holidays. If a Sainsbury’s Local opens up they’ll get their nose bloodied as there isn’t the trade outside of term-time.”

John’s expertise is clear so it’s no surprise to find he has plenty of retail experience prior to working at the university. “In my earlier career, I worked for Fine Fare, Gateway and Asda, then I managed Makro and another cash & carry.”

What is surprising is that John chooses to manage a store rather than own it. “People say why don’t you run your own store, but I still get eight weeks holiday a year. I see the problems you have as an independent store owner, and it wouldn’t suit me.”

While he prefers to leave the stress of owning the business to the university, he certainly ensures that he has his say in how it is run. “I am one of 14 retailers who make up the Premier Development Group. We meet with Booker head office twice a year. They appreciate the fact we are feeding them back information and we all get a lot out of it,” he says. “We’ll give them a hard time as well. I’ve brought up having a chilled distribution service.”

He might be able to dissect retail mechanics with robotic precision, but there is nothing cold or calculating about John when it comes to his customers. His face immediately warms into a smile when he starts talking about the students. “I enjoy the mix of nationalities,” he says. “This store is a really fun place to work the students are great and the staff enjoy working with them.”

As a cluster of youths enters the store and makes a beeline for the energy drinks, it’s clear that John’s homework is paying off. He definitely gets a first-class degree in category management from C-Store.