Dan Cock has turned around a flagging village store, building a business that locals are proud of, and tourists flock to
In a little over six years, first-time retailer Dan Cock and his team have fashioned a business the like of which others have taken a lifetime to hone. The 1,000sq ft store has changed almost beyond recognition, from a loss-making enterprise that local people used to pass by, to a vibrant, award-winning community hub that they now make a point of pulling over for.
Located in the middle of a rural agricultural community, on the main thoroughfare between Bude and Launceston, the store in Holsworthy has always been perfectly placed to entice locals, commuters and tourists. However, it is Premier Whitstone Stores’ innovative range, competitive prices, helpful services and attentive staff that keep them coming back again and again. The figures speak for themselves. Footfall is up 12% year on year, and turnover and margins have also risen each year since Dan bought the store in 2007.
Premier Whitstone Stores, Holsworthy Devon
Store size: 1,000sq ft
Weekly turnover £15,000
Average basket spend: £6-plus
Energy efficiency: LED lighting, Chill Scoops in chillers
Community engagement: Charity ambassadors for Bristol Children’s Hospital, local football team sponsorship, school breakfast club snacks supplier
Getting the sales mix and ranging right has played a key role in helping to turn the business around. The core range itself is a sales-spinning mix of value goods and more premium local products, which has grown to include an increasing volume of fresh and chilled goods, in line with shopper demand.
The store’s rural location also means that non-food items play a key role, with hardware and pet food up there among some of its best-selling categories.
Margin-rich local foods are the star of the show, though, accounting for almost 25% of sales and growing steadily. That’s great news, says Dan, given the ever-increasing cost burden being shouldered by local stores.
Working with more than 60 local suppliers, top-selling local lines include fresh meats, cheeses, fruit and vegetables as well as ales and, of course, locally-made Cornish pasties, of which Dan sells almost 50 a day.
Local goods are also incredibly popular with the tourists, with sales increasing by more than 30% in the summer months.
“Local products are fantastic for boosting sales and margins, but as costs such as energy and the National Minimum Wage continue to rise I’m on the hunt for other high-margin categories which can sit alongside local and help us maintain our overall margin and net profit, which is currently 21.5%,” Dan adds.
Emerging categories such as electronic cigarettes are likely to play a role in Dan’s quest, as is food to go. In fact, he’s hoping to develop the latter further this month with a new Rollover Hot Dog machine alongside his existing offer of hot local pies and pasties to go.
As with all aspects of Dan’s business, any decisions made will be cross-checked with his customers first. “While analysing your epos data is crucial, listening to customers can be just as effective,” Dan explains.
And it’s here that his trusted employees come into their own. Aside from the genuinely warm welcome that is afforded to all of their customers - tourists and locals alike - Dan’s team is adept at garnering shopper feedback.
The knowledge - acquired through shop floor and till-point chats, as well as customer listening groups (normally held at the local pub) - is then used to inform Dan’s ranging decisions. “A glass or two of wine always helps to get people talking,” laughs Dan. “We ask them what they like and what they don’t, what they need and value and what they have no use for. We can then implement these changes straight away.”
One area on which he will certainly be seeking his customers’ opinion is reducing crossover. “It seems to me that convenience is becoming increasingly polarised,” Dan explains. “In my store, customers are demanding a mix of premium products and value products, while brands and those products that sit in the middle ground seem to confuse them.
“Three years ago a ‘good, better, best approach’ worked, but now I’m not so sure and I’m planning to remove mid-priced items from some areas. I don’t think we need Heinz Baked Beans, Euroshopper beans and Happy Shopper beans - just Heinz and Euroshopper.”
One facet of the business where Dan won’t be looking to nip and tuck is staff costs. “Staff costs are rising all the time, but that’s one bill I’m happy to pay. I tend to remunerate above the minimum wage as I think my staff deserve it. Each member of staff has ownership of a particular category or job, which takes the pressure off me and I’m grateful for it,” Dan says.
His staff are also motivated with an annual bonus and additional training courses. “Customer service is only as good as your team, which is why we invest so much in our staff, and we have a great time in the process. The team tell me that it’s a great place to work. We pay well and provide bonuses and are always looking at ways to develop their skills.”
Dan’s investment in technology and social media will also escape any cost-cutting drive. The store’s website, www.whitstonestores.co.uk, is constantly being developed, and now includes exclusive coupons for shoppers to print off. Premier Whitstone Stores also boasts a lively Facebook page complete with more than 1,000 likes. The page is updated at least daily with promotions, new products, recipe ideas, traffic information and news of local events.
The store has also started to use Facebook advertising tools to target messages at specific customers - for example, hot food to go to passing trade and in-store payment services to those with lower means and no access to transport. Screens at the till point also stream a selection of slides to boost awareness of special offers, products and services.
At the rear of the store Dan has also installed a free-to-use computer with internet access. While it’s certainly put to good use by local people, Dan anticipates it will come into its own this summer when the droves of tourists staying in holiday cottages and campsites without access to wifi make the most of it. Sited just downwind of the store’s Tchibo coffee machine and freshly baked bread and cake counter, we’re sure they won’t leave empty-handed, either.
Other customer services include a free -to-use ATM, photocopier, post office, DVD rental, prescription drop-off and collection, including vets’ prescriptions, and parcel collection.
“We are the only store in the village, and for miles around, which means we have to be there for our customers, offer them everything that they need, and try to be part of their lives,” Dan explains. “I’m also a school governor, and always try to attend parish council meetings.”
The store provides snacks including fruit, vegetables and milk for the local school’s breakfast club. In return, the store’s logo has pride of place on the school uniform.
“The key thing is to not get complacent,” Dan concludes. “Complacency is the number one threat to the convenience store trade, not the supermarkets, or even legislation. In this day and age you need to be constantly thinking about the next new thing, or you run the risk of going stale. What happens to pubs that don’t change their menus? Customers get bored, and so does the landlord.”
Team of the Year
The 2014 Convenience Retail Awards saw Dan and his team win the Team of The Year accolade.
The judge who visited the store reported a warm and friendly welcome, and it was clear from the outset that staff enjoy their work and are proud of the categories that they look after.
They relish having the responsibility for helping to create a store that perfectly meets the needs of its varied customer base, the judge added.
Their efforts do not go unrewarded. Dan has recently introduced a ‘gold star scheme’ acknowledging employees who do outstanding work with a cash prize, a move which Dan says has helped to boost morale, motivation and self-management.