Spar retailer Justin Taylor has taken the first step towards transforming his Somerset forecourt store into a c-store that “happens to sell petrol”

You could say that Justin Taylor was ahead of his time, as several years ago he realised the conditions were right to begin transforming his Spar forecourt store into a destination convenience store. After all, most trade was repeat rather than transient; he had the parking space to accommodate more shoppers; and a number of stores had closed in the neighbouring Somerset villages over the past decade or so. Furthermore, the food-to-go offer was going from strength to strength.

The family business in Winford, a few miles south of Bristol, was first established as a garage by Justin’s father in 1967. When the filling station was added the store operated from a “tiny Portakabin”, until they joined Spar 10 years ago and expanded. But the time had come to adapt to the changing market, so towards the end of 2012 Justin invested in a £30,000 refit, adding about 300sq ft to the store. “We did very well with food to go before the refit, but it was a serve-over which was time-consuming for the staff, and we were limited by the amount of space we had,” says Justin.

Store facts

Spar Winford, Bristol

Size: 1,250 sq ft

Staff: 14 part time

Opening hours: Monday to Sunday, 7am-10pm

Average basket spend: £4.29

Services: National Lottery

“We knew we could sell a lot more. We wanted to go to turbo service to stop staff having to come off the till, which created queues. We also wanted a Costa machine as we only had a Nescafé solution.”

And so the new-look store re-opened in January 2013. The food-to-go area, including the Costa machine, replaces news and mags at the store entrance. The prep area was brought into the store, behind the counter, to add some theatre. An extra person was brought in to focus solely on preparation, while the other staff are now freed up from serving food to go.

“One of the things I really like is having the food-to-go preparation out on show; it adds to the energy and bustle,” Justin says.

Customers now have a consistent choice of pies, pasties, baguettes, burgers and baps, filled with local ingredients including bacon, sausages and cheese, in the hot section, which is flanked by sandwiches in the chiller, the bakery and a Costa machine.

“Breakfast baguettes before weren’t consistent; people couldn’t guarantee that the products would be there. We’d cook some, then be out in the shop, then cook some more. So the upturn in breakfast baps has been huge,” Justin explains. “Now we can do them for lunch as well, when previously there were just sandwiches.”

The results have been impressive: sales of food to go are up 60% year on year and still growing. “There are about 25 people who we know will come in the first half hour of the day and buy breakfast and lunch. I would say 80% is local trade, maybe higher. The demand comes from consistency and from people having confidence that there’ll be choice whenever they come in,” he says.

The refit also allowed Justin to increase chilled and “allow us to do those key areas in a much more defined way”. The aisles have been widened to provide more shopping space, and a meat chiller has been installed for the first time, stocking local hams and bacon to complement Spar own brand and branded options.

Spar distributor Appleby Westward supplies the sizeable fruit and veg section, but Justin is keen to move to a local, loose offering rather than pre-packed, to cut down on waste. “Wastage was painful to start with, but it’s getting better; it will be easier with loose. It takes a bit of trial and error about what works and what doesn’t. But there are some ingredients you can use in food to go, such as salad items.”

Key to the new chilled offering is meal solutions. “It’s about having the range for people to buy the ingredients for a meal, rather than buying a red curry with some frozen peas with it,” Justin says. However, a range of Spar ready meals is also on offer, with the Italian range selling particularly well and another new range of Indian meals showing plenty of promise. “The new Indian’s selling well, and it’s only been on sale a few weeks. It’ll be on TV soon so it’ll be interesting to see how that goes,” he adds.

In the far corner sits the alcohol section, which is a vital category for the shop given there isn’t an off licence locally. “Our off licence is one of the reasons late afternoon is so busy. We really promoted it after the refit.” Justin was also aware that he had competition from a nearby Co-op, which had also upped its game in beers, wines and spirits.

The Co-op in question, a couple of miles down the road in Chew Magna, coincidentally embarked on their own refit a week after Spar Winford’s had finished. The 3,000sq ft store also offers food to go and Costa coffee, but Justin believes his store has a key point of difference. “Parking is an issue at the Co-op. It’s all about haste in the morning and you can spend five or 10 minutes looking for a space down there, whereas one of our biggest bonuses is that we’ve got plenty of parking,” he says. “I’m certain we’ve taken customers from the Co-op since the refit.”

Justin also believes he made the right choice by not installing chillers with doors, partly due to space constraints. “I’ve been to shops where the aisles aren’t massive, and if you’ve got the door open it becomes too squashed. We widened the aisles so people could have more space,” he says. “The Co-op went down the chiller door route and has had negative feedback for those reasons, and a lot of older customers say they find it hard with their basket in one hand and the other trying to open the door.”

He may have forsaken the eco-friendly benefits of chillers with doors, but he has managed to save energy with the installation of 18kw of solar panels, which saves him about £3,500 a year and covers about a third of the shop’s energy usage.

Justin intends to expand the site further next year as he looks to continue the transformation to a destination shop, but without jeopardising its community credentials. “We’ve got a very stable workforce here, with a number who have been here more than 10 years. They know the customers, so you get banter and a different type of atmosphere. The shop lends itself to that,” he says. “In truth, one of the things I’m most concerned about if we expand is losing that theatre.”

The store worked hard to engage with community events, including an annual scarecrow trail to raise money for a local child with a rare form of cancer. It also sponsors a local rugby team and a ‘Marafun’, in which participants run a marathon as part of a team.

With sales showing healthy growth, and the community on side, there is every chance Justin will fully realise his vision with the next project. “The refit was a stepping stone and it’s given us the confidence to go a couple of stages further next year and go over the line so we’re a shop that happens to sell fuel, rather than a forecourt that happens to sell fruit and veg,” he says.

Positive results

The refit, which was completed in January 2013, has had a significant effect on turnover. For the year to June, sales increased by 13% to £1.05m - averaging at just over £20,000 a week - while year-on-year growth for the previous year was 9%.

Chilled sales grew by 20% to £115,000 in the latest annual results, while fruit and veg went up by 19% to just over £19,000.

Food to go is the big winner, with sales for August up 60% on the previous year to £1,830. Basket spend has increased from £4.03 to £4.29 and footfall has increased by 6%.