Aidan Fortune visits a business whose fresh approach to selling chilled foods has helped turn it into an award-winning store

For a lot of retailers, when sales are ticking along nicely there is little incentive to shake things up and make life difficult. Not so for manager Hanley Higgins (left) and assistant manager Chris Hamilton (right) at forecourt store Spar Milestone, Ballyclare, in Newtownabbey.

The store underwent a major refit last May, following the Henderson Group’s ‘Famous for Fresh’ approach, taking the store and staff way out of their comfort zone.

As well as a chance to modernise the fixtures and fittings, the move gave the team an opportunity to rethink its merchandising and offer a tailored approach to fresh and chilled. Says Hanley: “Chilled used to be split up throughout the store. It was doing quite well, but the refit was a great opportunity to really push it to our customers.”

So fresh and chilled became a big focus for the business, with the new look for the store reflecting this. “We moved everything to the front of the store so as soon as customers walk in, they see the massive chilled display,” Hanley says. “We added four chillers to accommodate the improved range.”

Hendersons has high hopes for its fresh and chilled range, and gives each store targets for the category. “We’re close to those targets,” asserts Hanley. “A few more months and a couple of more tweaks and we’ll be there.”

Getting there has meant overcoming a few challenges along the way - buying the correct amount of stock was one of them. Hanley urges retailers considering focusing on chilled to make sure that they don’t overstock. “When we first extended the range, we filled the shelves up completely and we were left with a lot of wastage,” he explains. “Now we’re cleverer about it and don’t stock up all the way to the back of the shelf, just the front. The shelves look just as good and we’re not throwing out nearly as much produce.”

To make this job easier, Hendersons is about to introduce an Automatic Replenishment System ordering service that will help cut down on wastage. “It’ll keep a record of stock sold and when it reaches a certain level, it’ll order more in,” says Hanley. “As it’s linked to our epos system, it’ll keep stock down to a manageable level and hopefully save us some time.”

store profile

Spar Milestone, Ballyclare, Newtonabbey

Size: 2,863sq ft

Staff: six full-time nine part-time

Opening hours: 6am-12pm, Monday to Sunday

Additional services: PayPoint Subway ATM

Another issue Hanley and Chris faced when working with the new range was the sheer number of new products for both the staff and customers to get used to. “There were a few lines that just wouldn’t sell at first,” says Hanley. “And we were forced to discount them down to prevent waste. Items such as fresh fish were new to our customers. You wouldn’t really expect to see it in a forecourt, so it took six to eight weeks for customers to respond to it, but now it’s very popular. It shows that you have to persevere if you want them to be successful.”

Since the refit, the store’s retail turnover has grown from £31,000 to £34,000 per week, with a 26% uplift in dairy and a 60% uplift in fresh fruit and vegetables. “It’s exceeded our expectations completely,” says Chris. “We obviously knew that sales would grow when we changed around the store, but we never thought it would take off like this. We’re now pushing towards our next targets.”

Hanley and Chris ensure that the store maintains high standards by adhering to planograms strictly. The team follow them down to the very last detail so that the store looks its best at all times. The staff complete a ‘Would I Buy?’ check three times a day to make sure the fresh range is appealing to customers. Hanley stresses the importance of this: “It’s vital we have the best quality produce on display for our customers. After all, if we wouldn’t buy it, why would our customers?”

As well as putting the focus on chilled, the store has been redesigned to make it more of a destination shop. “We moved the aisles around so that it’s more customer-friendly and installed a new coffee machine that has improved our hot beverage sales by almost £300 a week,” Hanley explains.

Ever the entrepreneur, Hanley plans to extend his food to go offer and rent out an area to a local fast food company. “A lot of lorry drivers and white van men use the store and they want quick, hot snacks as they head off on their next job,” he says. “I’ve spoken to a couple of hot food stores in the town and they’re very interested in taking some space in the store.”

In order to accommodate this change, Hanley will have to cut back on his grocery range. “If it goes ahead I’ll have to lose one of the shelf units and trim back my canned range. But if they’re paying me rent every month, it’ll be more than worth it. You’d have to sell a lot of tins of beans to earn that sort of money.”

Spar Milestone’s success also lends a lot to its keen prices and works hard to change any perception that forecourts are more expensive than other stores. Colour co-ordinated shelving is used to spotlight deals, making sure that customers don’t miss them.

Making efficient use of pos material, the team have different tags for when a product is first put on shelf and when it is on offer so they can target customers looking for a deal, or for something new. “The pos really makes the products stand out and lets the customer know exactly what is on offer,” points out Hanley.

The two also like to tailor their displays to make the most of special events or seasonal changes. “When there was good weather recently, we were able to get some barbecue products on display quickly to make the most of it,” says Hanley. “At this time of year there’s plenty going on so we’ll keep the display looking fresh with whatever events are happening that week.”

Competition with an Asda a few miles down the road keeps the team on their toes, although Chris isn’t losing too much sleep over the threat. “People don’t want to drive all the way to that store, especially with the main road as busy as it is,” he says. “In fact, people on their way there will often stop to do their shopping here instead, as the traffic sometimes gets too bad.”

The store also attracts trade from people travelling to Belfast International Airport. “The stores are so expensive at the airport that people want to pick up snacks before they get there,” says Hanley. “And as we’re the closest shop along the way, we’re perfectly placed to capitalise on it.”

With a tailored range and the right location to poach the nearest supermarket’s trade, it’s little wonder the store was named Best Chilled Retailer at this year’s Convenience Retail Awards. ■

Best Chilled Retailer

Winner: Spar Milestone, Ballyclare, Northern Ireland

Judges felt that the chilled range at Spar Milestone was extremely well merchandised. They said the store demonstrated excellent brand blocking and had something to appeal to all budgets thanks to a good value range as well as premium options, and a wide range of consumer needs was met, including soya products for lactose intolerance sufferers. The judges were also impressed by the store’s efficient use of pos material, which gives the fixtures good stand-out and highlights key promotions.