Pub closures in Portsmouth have provided opportunities for retailers such as Jeremy Van Laun, who spent £200,000 converting one site

When Jeremy Van Laun decided to open a second convenience store in the Portsmouth area, he knew exactly what type of premises to look for. “The best value properties seemed to be closed-down pubs,” he says. “There’s a tradition of pubs here given the naval heritage, but only so many can be supported now and so there have been closures everywhere.”

Aside from their high cost, Jeremy found he couldn’t get what he wanted from regular retail units, while pub units were generally in good locations, well-sized and more likely to offer car parking space.

He was first inspired to expand after affiliating his Portsmouth store to Spar about four years ago. “It’s always a gamble joining a symbol group your prices are a bit dearer and there are weekly fees and so on. But at the end of the day the name Spar helps draw people in, and with what Appleby Westward offers in return, I think it’s worthwhile.”

Store profile: Spar, Brockhurst Road, Gosport

Size: 1,500sq ft 
Opening hours: 6am-10pm, seven days a week 
Staff: three full time, eight part time 
Services: National Lottery, ATM, PayPoint, off licence, DVD rental, news and magazines

The family had owned the Portsmouth store since 1992, but things really took off after joining Spar. “We doubled the size of the shop and doubled the takings.” So with renewed confidence, he began looking for new premises but he wasn’t the only one on the hunt.

He was initially outbid on two sites in Portsmouth, one by the Co-op and the other by a property developer, until he spotted the Old Kings Head, a closed-down pub on the main thoroughfare into nearby Gosport. It was third time lucky. He bought the site in April last year and set about converting the interior into one more suitable for a convenience store.

The pub format provided plenty of options for storage and for a prep room to facilitate a food-to-go offering but there was nevertheless plenty of work to be done. It cost £80,000 and took 15 skips to clear out the pub, and a further £120,000 to install the shop-fittings, including refrigeration, false ceiling, and tiling. The resulting shop floor is bright and spacious, with wide aisles and a useful seating area in front of the large pub windows.

But despite the transformation inside, the traditional pub exterior was untouched. “We would’ve put a shop front in, but it’s a locally listed building so we weren’t allowed to change it,” says Jeremy. The result has proved popular with many customers who like the pub look, but some people struggle to realise that times have changed. “You’d have thought it was obvious, but some people come in and say: ‘I thought you were still a pub’. That’s the only drawback of having a shop front like ours.”

Up and running
The new store opened at the end of August last year and growth has been steady ever since. Footfall has doubled since the first few weeks from about 200 to 400 customers per day, and Jeremy’s ambition is to reach the 600 mark. He says that getting new customers is his biggest challenge, but it is one he is gradually overcoming. His nearest competitor is a Co-op further down the road, and some of the nearby residents have transferred their loyalties to him. “People are commenting how nice the store is,” he says. But aside from aesthetics, he is targeting both residents and passing trade with a range of services. His bake-off includes bread and hot pies, which are all baked in the prep room every morning, and a coffee machine and a seating area also cater for on-the-go customers.

Regulars benefit from an in-store Rent It Here DVD unit, which has 150 members to date. It is free to join and free for the first DVD, with prices ranging from £1 to £2.99 thereafter. Members can reserve DVDs online before picking them up in the store and can borrow them for up to three days.

Across all categories, Jeremy tries to put on as many offers as possible, especially on alcohol. “People are struggling around here so we’re trying to make our prices as affordable as possible,” he says. “With alcohol we do lots of multi-buy deals, such as three bottles of cider for a fiver, or three bottles of wine for £10, or two for £5. Red wine sells especially well.”

Spar’s new S Budget range is located in one visible area at the end of an aisle. Jeremy says it is doing much better than the previous budget range, and commends the packaging and advertising for the brand.

He says he is constantly reviewing his product range, and gains inspiration from the Costcutter and Co-op in his home village outside Portsmouth. “I’m planning to sell more locally produced products and improve my fruit and veg range. But I’ll do it on a gradual basis as controlling wastage is an issue.”

He also aims to boost footfall by advertising in the local newspaper and producing more leaflets. He admits that he should have started earlier on marketing the store. “I should’ve been promoting the shop much more than I did in the few months between buying the store and opening it.”

He is planning to make up for it now with special events, beginning with a Christmas-themed day involving mulled wine and mince pies and perhaps even a reindeer which could be on show outside the shop. “Things like that could bring more interest,” he asserts.

Jeremy wouldn’t be averse to another spell of snow this winter, either. “Footfall more than doubled during last winter’s bad weather, and it really raised awareness.”

Family matters
Being a family-run business is a source of pride for Jeremy, and a fact that appeals to customers and staff, he says. “We talk a lot to the customers and like them to know that we care. If we don’t have what they’re looking for, we’ll always endeavour to stock up on it for the next time within reason.” It is a relationship which has brought its benefits. “Customers suggested to my staff that we move the eggs, cake mixes and sugar so they were opposite the milk. We did so and sales have now gone up.”

He has a trusting relationship with his staff, some of whom are family. “We ask their advice, and how they would perceive the shop if they were a customer,” he says. “It’s good to get the staff involved in decision-making, particularly as they’re on the shop floor more often than me. They like to get involved, especially when they see the sales go up as a result.”

When the store first opened, wine theft was a problem, but the staff’s vigilance has helped tackle this. “We try to prevent it from happening. You tend to spot them because they act quite suspiciously and they’re looking around for where your staff are. But the staff will subtly close in on them so eventually they’ll leave.” He also got the police involved and the theft is now more under control. “The local policewoman pops in now and again and we give her a call if there are any problems, but we haven’t needed to for a while,” he says.

Planning ahead
Once the store is more established, Jeremy plans to build a car park on the land behind the premises at present there is only parking space at the front. He is already expanding the spirits and alcohol section, which he expects most growth from, and plans to improve his food to go offering, which he says “has more potential”. He’s also looking into installing LED lighting in his chiller to reduce costs, having been inspired by an article he read in Convenience Store. “But we never have to use the two air conditioning units because of the chillers and the thick pub walls, which keep the store cool in the summer. We save a bit through that.”

At some point within the next couple of years he wants to open another store within a 20-mile radius, possibly on the site of another ex-pub. “Four or five other pubs in the area have been turned into c-stores. There are sites out there, but it’s harder to find them now, given the competition from the likes of Co-op and other independents to snap up suitable-sized premises,” he says, “but I’m always looking.”

The sad loss of the local pub industry is at least one independent retailer’s gain.