British American Tobacco’s head of trade Barry Cann spends a day at McColl’s Notting Hill store in London to get a taste of working on the front line

Stepping into the role of head of trade for British American Tobacco (BAT) UK earlier this year, Barry Cann made a pledge: "To further enhance BAT's relationship with retailers". By the end of this feature, we're pretty sure that you'll agree he's well on his way to honouring it.

Having previously worked in a newsagents as a teenager and beginning his career in the tobacco industry as a sales rep, Barry wasn't exactly a stranger to the shop floor. However, even with 20 years' experience, he soon discovered that there was plenty to learn in today's fast-paced retail climate.

And they don't come much faster than McColl's Notting Hill store in London, managed by Gavin Calthorpe. This store's customer churn is enough to make you motion sick. "We are a stone's throw from Notting Hill tube station and right outside a busy bus stop," explains Gavin. "Customers enter the store in waves, and it's not uncommon to have queues right down the central aisle." On the day of Barry's visit it was more like a tsunami and he was thrown straight in at the deep end, behind the counter.

"The first thing I noticed watching Gavin on the till was just how much technology had evolved over the years," says Barry. "I was really impressed with the touch-screen till. It's all about speeding up the transaction process, which in a store as busy as this is clearly key."

During the working week Gavin estimates that he serves more than 4,000 customers. "It's a small store so there's only ever myself and one other member of staff, who will be stocking up while I'm on the till, or visa versa," he says.

After taking Barry on a whistlestop tour of underaged sales procedures (a new member of staff would not be let loose on the till before a rigorous training process has taken place), it is Barry's turn to serve. This is no mean feat considering that the store also offers bill payments, mobile top-ups, bus passes and, most popular of all, Oyster Card top-ups. "I'm really surprised by the number of products and services that are sold from behind the counter," Barry says. "It's funny that this tiny space is actually the most profitable part of the store." Gavin estimates that 60% of all sales come from products and services behind the counter, with tobacco alone racking up £6,000-worth of sales a week.

Working behind the till, Barry also gets a taste of another important part of Gavin's job: acting as a translator. "We see a huge number of tourists, and if they're not asking directions to the market, they're trying to find the front door to Hugh Grant's abode when he starred in the Notting Hill movie," grins Gavin.

"Spending a day at the coalface has given me a much deeper insight into the challenges that retailers face"

Barry Cann
British American Tobacco headof trade
The ability to communicate with lots of different people is something that Barry strongly identifies with. "One thing that Gavin and I clearly have in common is that we are both people orientated," he says. "Both of our roles require us to get on with a wide range of different people. For Gary, that means his staff as well as his customers, and he's clearly doing a good job. I've also been really impressed with his depth of local knowledge and ability to meet the needs of his local customers. He knows which tobacco brands they will ask for before they even arrive at the counter. It's a skill that I honed in my days as a sales rep and is vital in my role today," he says.

After his till time, Barry moves on to his next job of the day stock checks and gap filling and with the stock room located down a steep staircase in a converted cellar, stocking up in Gavin's store is challenging, to say the least.

"You certainly have to be fit in this job, constantly barrelling it up and down those stairs," laughs Gavin. Barry, a keen sportsman, takes the steps in his stride, though, and is equally enthusiastic about the store's new epos system, which allows him to get an instant idea of stock levels. "The handheld epos is incredible. It can do so much, including printing new labels at the touch of a button, while gap scans feed immediately back to central office. Not only does it save Gavin time, but it also means that he can drive every last sale," he says.

Another thing that Gavin and Barry find they have in common is an early start. A typical day for Gavin begins at 4am. "I aim to get to the store by 4.30am, ahead of the newspaper deliveries as I've had problems with them being stolen if they are left outside. I don't mind the early start, though. It means that I can get everything done before we open at 6am. The busiest time of day for me is between 8am and 11am, but I love the rush for me, it's the best part of the job."

The love of a challenge is something that Barry, whose working day also begins in the small hours, identifies with. "I get a huge amount of satisfaction from taking something from one level to another, whether it's bringing the best out of an employee, launching a new product, or driving sales. I can understand why Gavin is so proud of this store," he says.

"Spending a day at the coalface has given me a much deeper insight into the challenges that retailers face daily, from age verification to shop theft and a whole host more. The knowledge will undoubtedly help me in my role."