Running a convenience store during freshers’ week can be quite an education, but store manager Phil Battersby has learned exactly what to expect
A busy Manchester city centre store that regularly sees 12,000 customers come through its doors has to be at the top of its game. But when that busy store is close to two universities and it’s the start of a new term, the pressure really piles on. The team at Paul Stone’s Spar store at Oxford Road, however, take it all in their stride.
Located close to Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Manchester, the store is in a prime spot to capitalise on a rich student customer base. But manager Phil Battersby admits the first week of a new year can be tricky, as that’s when 15,000 ravenous first-year students arrive.
“On a normal week we’ll take about £85,000, but come freshers’ week that will push up to £100,000 and will carry on for the first month of the term, before levelling off,” he says. “During that first month we’ll do more than £10,000 in services a week, so even our tills will be working overtime to cope with the demand.”
On top of the extra customers, Phil also has to balance out staffing issues in the run-up to freshers’ week. “We’re open 24 hours so we need a lot of staff - 35 team members and six duty managers - to run the store,” he says. “A lot of these will be students starting at the university for their first year so they won’t have worked at the store before. In freshers’ week, nine new staff members will start and need to be trained on the till, so I have a busy couple of days!”
Store size: 2,000sq ft
Customer base: students, office workers
Weekly turnover: £85,000 including services
Average basket spend: £4.93
Key products: snacks, alcohol, food to go
Customer engagement: loyalty card, student offers for coffee shop
Energy efficiency: chiller doors on alcohol section
Last refit: 2010
According to Phil, the trick is to keep the new customers coming back to his store, a task which has been made even harder with a new Tesco Metro opening on the same road. “That first month is crucial for getting students in the habit of shopping with us,” he says. “There’s a lot of competition nearby and the Tesco did hurt us over the summer. Sales were down a little bit compared with last year, but given how close the new Tesco store is, we’re not doing too badly.”
To keep the customers loyal, the store has a range of Spar promotions, a lot of which are focused on £1 pricepoints to attract cash-conscious students. “We want to offer everyday items at good prices so that customers will recognise that we offer value and keep shopping with us,” says Phil. “It’s important to be competitive as students are savvy shoppers and have time to go elsewhere if they feel they can get better value somewhere else.”
As well as the Spar promotions, they also run some of their own. “Three-quarters of the promotions come from Spar and the rest are those we think will work well in the area,” says Phil. “We have Roberts bread on promotion at £1 to match the multiples as customers know exactly what everything costs and how much other stores are selling products for. We lose some of the margin on the product, but getting customers in the door is more important.”
Display units highlight deals on share-size snacks to tempt hungry students into putting one extra item into their basket.
Another draw is its opening hours. With the store being open every hour of the day and night, peak operating hours aren’t what you would see in your average c-store. An alcohol licence that runs till 3am means it can get hectic, especially at weekends. “Sunday morning at 2am is one of our busiest times,” says Phil. “There are so many people in at that time it’s the equivalent of a regular supermarket on a Saturday afternoon!”
At 3am the party’s over, however, and the alcohol section has to be closed off. Steel gates cover up the wine section and bolts are locked on the alcohol chillers, which doesn’t always go down well with customers. “We do get some disappointed customers after 3am but there’s nothing we can do and they generally end up buying some snacks anyway,” Phil says.
It isn’t all about booze and snacks for the students, though, and other categories are also in demand. To cater for the massive stationery requirement, Paul and Phil buy in reams of notepads, which are put on display right beside the door so there’s no excuse for students not being prepared.
They also cover all the incidentals that students never think of. “Every year it’s the same. All the new first-year students come in and they need tea towels, brooms - all the stuff that they took for granted at home,” says Phil. “We get a lot of foreign students at the university so we stock travel adaptors, too. We bought in 300 of them for this year and they’ll all sell out by the end of the first month of term. It’s those little things that people never think about that can really add to basket spend. We’ve been doing freshers’ week for a long time so we know the type of products that the students will be looking for.”
The store is also big on food to go to cater for those busy students who are rushing from class to class, as well as the many office workers who are in the area. This ensures there is a demand all year round, not just when the students are in town.
Out of term time the store manages to shift about £2,000-worth of sandwiches a week, which will rocket come term time. The store don’t just provide sandwiches, either, as it has an extensive range of wraps, salads and pastries, as well as a hot food offering that is complemented by a hot beverages machine.
Taking cues from the multiples, the store offers a £3 lunchtime meal deal which comprises a sandwich, drink and a snack, and a £2 breakfast meal deal which includes a hot drink and a sandwich, ensuring that as many meal occasions as possible are catered for.
Not satisfied with a top-quality food-to- go offering, Paul also owns a nearby coffee shop to attract those who want to relax while they have a drink and a snack instead of being constantly on the go. The Cheeky Coffee Co was once a temporary home for the store while building work was taking place, and then subsequently used as a store room for the shop. However, the team felt it could be more than that and renovated it into a modern coffee shop, while keeping a small amount of space for stock. Phil believes the sacrifice is worth it. “We’ve had to change how we hold stock - increasing the number of deliveries to two a week rather than one - but we didn’t need as much space as we had and this is a much better use for it,” he says.
Open every day from 7am till 9pm, the coffee shop is also used as a preparation area for the sandwiches and salads which are sold in Paul’s four Manchester stores, and staff are in there from 6am preparing for the day’s business.
As well as a loyalty card scheme designed to encourage repeat custom to the coffee shop, Paul attracts new students to both businesses by sending out welcome packs to halls of residence, containing some Spar products and a Cheeky Coffee Co-branded spoon that can be redeemed for a free hot beverage at the coffee shop.
With their impulsive shopping habits and irregular sleeping patterns, students can be challenging customers, but Paul and his staff have certainly done their homework to ensure another successful year.
Late Saturday night and early Sunday morning are the busiest times of the week for the team, who serve an average of 200 customers an hour at that time.
“Because our customer base is mostly made up of students, we run a bit differently to other stores,” says manager Phil Battersby. “We still have the early morning rush from office workers and students on their way to class, but we don’t slow down until about 4am, meaning we have a lot to do in less than three hours to make sure that the store is ready for the next morning.”