Vic Price relocated from the West Midlands to rural Devon where he returned to his Spar roots and established himself at the heart of the local community

Vic Price was a West Midlands Spar retailer for about 20 years before seeking a gentler pace of life in rural East Devon. He moved to the small town of Colyton nearly four years ago to take over the local Londis store and, while his transition to the South West was seamless, he found himself missing his Spar retail roots.

“The store was a Londis when we first bought it, so I thought why not try them? I assumed they’d be very similar to Spar, but I was slightly wrong. They were going through their own period of transition, though; it was before the Booker buyout,” he says.

So after a rather static year with Londis, which Vic concedes was bad timing for the symbol group, it was a natural choice to contact Appleby Westward, Spar’s distributor for the South West.

“We’ve never looked back. They’ve been exceptional, I’d recommend them to anybody,” he says.

Appleby converted the store to the Spar brand and carried out a full refit, installing LED lighting and chillers with doors. Footfall and sales immediately increased, with the store complementing the nearby Premier store, which is smaller but incorporates the local post office.

Store facts

Spar Colyton

Size: 1,200sq ft

Staff: 10

Turnover: Up 12% year on year

Services: Lottery, Payzone, dry-cleaning agent, home deliveries, food to go, My Hermes parcel collection, free ATM

It turned out that the people of Colyton were equally at home with Spar as Vic. “The Premier up the road had been a Spar for 20 years, then a family took it over five years ago who didn’t like Spar, so they changed. People missed the Spar brand. In fact, one of my customers said the other day: ‘Have you noticed I shop here a lot more now you’ve changed to Spar?’.”

What he has noticed is that own brand is more popular than ever. “We sell more Spar cornflakes than Kellogg’s cornflakes. It’s the same story with biscuits and beans.”

Sales are up about 12% year on year, with fresh being the big category grower, although the top seller in store is Shy Pig wine, which is distributed by Appleby. “Everyone comments on the price and the quality of the product,” he enthuses. He also provides hot and cold food to go, including Country Choice lines and Spar sandwiches, while he sells about 30 cups of coffee daily from the Jack’s Beans coffee machine.

Local products are also an increasingly important element to the store. Vic wanted to create a “farm shop feel” by engaging with suppliers from across the region. The spectrum of local products includes seasonal fruit and veg, exemplified by a case of cooking apples dropped off by a farmer the day before C-Store’s visit, meat, bread, coffee from Dorset Coffee Co, biscuits, milk, porridge, cereal and ale. Vic even sells Christmas cards painted by a local artist and, always one to spot an opportunity, he recently introduced DIY lines after the local hardware shop closed down. “They sell really well. It’s trial and error, though. If they don’t sell well I chuck them in the reductions bin,” he explains.

Ultimately, he aims to be at the heart of the community, which is a particularly friendly one. “One of the nice things about Colyton is that because everyone talks to each other, you have to talk back, and the staff know that,” he says. “You know at least one in two customers by name. In my old Redditch store I knew about one in 10.”

Vic realised just how charitable the town was when one of his staff, a man in his fifties, was diagnosed with cancer. “We organised a collection to get him an electric wheelchair and raised just over £700 for it,” he says proudly. “He’s hopefully going to pull through and be back here by January.” He also initiated fundraising for a defibrillator outside the front of store, with similar success. “It took us just under four months to raise the funds, £2,500. They had one down at the playing field, but I thought that’s no good if you’re around the town.” The store also charges 5p for plastic bags, with the proceeds going to alternating local causes.

But beyond the pleasures of community retailing, Vic faces the same financial challenges as any other store owner at the tail end of 2016, with the National Living Wage at the forefront of his mind. “There’s a big difference between Tesco looking after thousands of staff, and just a few of you. I’ve just had to cut 23 hours a week from the rota as the holiday season’s come to an end and a lot of people leave. Local houses shut down for the winter. There’s at least a 30% increase in turnover in the summer,” he says. “My annoyance with the government is that they can’t see that small businesses can’t be compared with the likes of Tesco.”

However, he does not discriminate against people aged 25 and over - who are eligible for the NLW rate of £7.20 per hour - because he believes they are worth the extra. “The saving you make in employing people under 25 you unfortunately lose out on the work ethic, which is completely different. You’re better off paying someone a couple of quid more an hour. It’s definitely something that has changed over the years,” he claims.

He is also critical of the government on banking. “The Lloyds Bank branch in the village shut in October so I’ve had to move to Santander to get post office banking,” he says. “Unbeknownst to me, they keep your cash - if I pay it in on Monday, it won’t reach my account until the Friday, so that affects my cash flow. We probably do 60% cash/40% card transactions, whereas five years ago it was probably 80/20. The banks aren’t helping - they charged you for it but they don’t give you easy access to your own cash. Again, the government do nothing about it.”

But on local issues, Vic has proven the value of political engagement. Perhaps unusually for a retailer, free parking near the store has hampered trade. “What happens is people park their car and sometimes leave it there for days. It gets to the point when people can’t even shop because they’ve got nowhere to park, and they often drive off again.”

So he recently approached his MP Neil Parish in an attempt to harness his influence. “What we’re trying to do - with the Premier and butchers round the corner - is limit parking to an hour,” he explains.

“Fair dos, the MP has written back and brought it up with East Devon council. They’re going to review it for next year’s budget. We haven’t got there yet, but it’s a great start.”

In the meantime, Vic is constantly “tweaking and changing” to bring in footfall. He offers a number of services in a bid to attarct more trade, including My Hermes parcel collections, a dry-cleaning collection and drop-off service, on demand grocery deliveries which is popular among older customers, Payzone, and the National Lottery - even though the £50 monthly cost of the new Lotto machine means he only just breaks even.

Yet he says the biggest challenge is what it’s always been, which is “the way the market changes”.

“It’s gone from being total convenience, to being slightly convenience but more fresh,” he explains. “And I think I’m rising to that challenge.” And judging by Vic’s plans to expand the store by 1,000sq ft in to the store room, he is thriving on the challenge, too.