John and Jean Fleet’s decision to expand their Norfolk village Spar store has helped their community in more ways than one

In the four months it took to nearly double the size of John and Jean Fleet’s rural Spar store earlier this year, the couple lost all of half-an-hour’s trading. “And that was because we were fed up!” laughs John. But their determination to serve their customers throughout an extensive £150,000 renovation epitomises their dedication to their Norfolk community. “I can’t let people down, I’m not that type of person,” asserts Jean.

For John and Jean, opting to put their customers first is a no-brainer. The decision to expand their store and stick with their symbol group required much more deliberation, however. The story began about 16 years ago, when the couple bought the then 800sq ft store in the village of Emneth, after returning from John’s native South Africa with their young family.

Over the years they had various ideas about improving the store, including changing symbol group, and by last year their focus started to set on the One Stop franchise programme. “It all came about because my daughter visited a One Stop shop and was really impressed and showed it to me,” says Jean. “We contacted One Stop Franchise and they said we were the bottom line they would work with. They put an offer on the table and we signed a pre-contract agreement.”

Store facts

Spar Emneth

Size: 1,500sq ft

Staff: 10, all part-time

Basket size: £5.80

In-store services: Lottery, PayPoint, Payzone, home deliveries to elderly customers

At the time the couple had become disillusioned with Spar. “We were tired of it. We weren’t happy with the service, the fees were too high, the whole package really. So we called Spar and told them that we were thinking of leaving, so the area manager asked for two weeks,” says Jean. They weren’t convinced by the subsequent presentation from Spar, yet at the same time decided that One Stop wasn’t for them. “Also, some customers found out we wanted to move to One Stop and said we didn’t want to do that, they’re part of Tesco,” she adds. “We also looked at going to Premier, and they were very keen to have us, but they couldn’t match Spar’s range.”

So they remained Spar retailers, but they still weren’t satisfied. “Then I said that I’d always thought about extending - as soon as you have a bigger shop, you have a bigger audience,” says John. “I realised it was the right thing to do.”

They approached area manager John Bowman, who agreed to put their case forward to Spar distributor Blakemore for co-investment. “It went to the board and they agreed to put in £32,000. They organised everything, they were meticulous. I couldn’t fault them,” Jean enthuses. They’d had reservations resulting from a small refit they did six years ago. “That was a nightmare, everything was so expensive. They hadn’t got their act together then, but there is no comparison now,” John adds.

Work started on the refit at the end of March this year. “For the first eight weeks nothing changed because all the work was being done outside. It was only when they knocked through that we had to halve the selling space. Something One Stop insisted was that we close for two weeks, and I didn’t want to do that,” Jean says.

The upheaval has proved worthwhile, though, as the expansion enabled the couple to significantly increase the amount of chilled products it stocks, in response to growing demand. “People want to cook from scratch more, so we’ve also noticed a decline in tinned food,” says Jean. As such they installed high-tech chillers with doors, as well as low-energy LED lighting throughout. “Our chilled range has really taken off since the refit. We’ve always done well with it, but it’s so much more nicely displayed now,” she adds.

Their local offer encompasses some fruit and veg - including an abundance of strawberries in the summer - eggs, products from the nearby bakery, and sausages. They have installed a Tchibo coffee machine to enhance the extensive food-to-go offer, with breakfast deal offers of a coffee and freshly-baked bacon, sausage and sausage and egg roll for £3. “These go well, particularly with our farming community as our local farm or land workers are usually an early morning customer,” she says.

The store also offers hot pies, sausage rolls (which are particularly popular with schoolchildren) and a range of self-baked bread and fresh rolls.

Since the refit turnover has increased by 17% and basket size has nearly doubled to about £5.80. A number of people, especially the elderly, are now using the store for their weekly shops, instead of the Morrisons about four miles away.

Says Jean: “We have two shopping trollies now, and it’s lovely to see older people coming to us to do their weekly shop. But nowadays I think people are shopping daily more - little and often.”

They also attract shoppers from nearby villages that lack a local grocery store, and the impact has not gone unnoticed by residents of Emneth. “I’ve heard so many people say: ‘Thank you, you’ve increased our house prices’. There are not many villages around here with this. People are always coming in for a chat - our staff are without doubt our main point of difference.”

Local causes

John and Jean’s local fundraising efforts also set them apart. They used the store relaunch back in the summer to kick off a recent campaign to raise money for a local girl called Evie, who has severe disabilities. “The family didn’t have much money and they were trying to raise about £7,000 for a sensory room in their garden - she’s going to have to be home educated - and there’s not much money in the house with the other children. We raised about £800 from collections, starting at the store re-opening.”

They have also started charging 5p for plastic bags in order to raise money for additional causes. “We had a few moans at first, and were told we were breaking the law, but it’s worked out well,” Jean says. They change charities every three months, and invite local charities to apply for the proceeds of the bag levy via a sign in the window. “At the moment we’re raising money for a local lady called Sarah who’s been given less than a year to live. We dropped off £82 last week for the first month’s proceeds. She told me she was going to Harrods for tea,” Jean says.

The couple also put together about 60 hampers every Christmas for a charitable fund for widowers left to the village by a former resident, Claud Coates, and they regularly hold raffles for local schools.

Emneth is a tight-knit community which John and Jean do much to embrace. However, like all communities, it is not without its problems. A store in a nearby village was ram-raided a couple of weeks before C-Store visited, so the couple took the pre-emptive step of installing a bollard in front of the entrance. But their biggest challenge is staff costs, especially with next year’s National Living Wage looming. “I’m considering whether I’ll need to cut hours; it depends on turnover,” says Jean. “Around here everyone is on minimum wage, no one is on £9 or £10 an hour. It’s going to hit people hard. There are only so many hours you can do yourself, and our own hourly earnings work out well below the minimum wage.”

Nevertheless, they are looking to the future with optimism and with a keen eye on the ever-evolving convenience market. They have asked Spar for guidance on remerchandising e-cigarettes, which have taken off and are providing better margins than tobacco. They also want to embrace technology more. “I’d like to do more online; I’ve set up a Facebook account. We have to move with technology, we’re a bit behind.”

They’re certainly not behind on community engagement, which they want to do more of. And then, in a few years’ time, they hope to take a step back and let the staff do more. They would be more out of sight, perhaps, but definitely not out of mind.