Fifteen Spar retailers from the Birmingham area recently graduated from a unique apprenticeship scheme specifically for the convenience retail market. Robin Mannering reports

Staff training is a win-win scenario for all involved: the store owner usually ends up with more confident, capable and enthusiastic employees, who themselves will gain invaluable new skills and a step up the retail career ladder, while the customer benefits from a better shopping experience. The other winner, of course, is the store’s bottom line.

The first 15 graduates of the Level 3 Advanced Apprenticeship in Retail Management programme are unanimous about the impact of their training - whether store owners, managers or assistant managers, they all agree thanks to the training they are now better at their jobs and more confident in their professional abilities.

AF Blakemore’s Guild Academy launched the scheme last year with the aim of providing bespoke retail training, and ultimately a nationally recognised and respected qualification.

Melanie Walker, who heads up the scheme, says the training provides an opportunity for those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access such a programme. “A number of the graduates left school without qualifications, so the scheme can completely change a person’s perception of themselves,” she adds. “In a way, the confidence it gives people outweighs the business element.”

However, despite the “wide doors” upon entry to the course, candidates are required to have GCSE passes in Maths and English, meaning a couple of the graduates went to night school prior to taking part in the programme.
The course consists of carefully tailored modules “which we felt would be right for a store manager,” Walker says. They comprise health and safety, legislation, stock control, loss prevention, team effectiveness and retail selling, which are delivered in one- and two-day workshops over 12 months.

Convenience Store caught up with the proud graduates in Birmingham last month. Participant Rebecca Sparkes, store owner and director at Norton House Retailing, says: “It’s important to always move forward and enhance your skills. Since doing the course I have better perspective on in-store problems.”

She says that the training gave her the time to look at the business in depth, with positive results. One store manager took on the toiletries section for the project, and doubled sales. “We realised the category was under threat so we introduced a £1 range to raise the perception of better value for money. We implemented a lot of pos and deleted unselling products,” Rebecca says. “On a personal level, I have learnt to have trust and belief in the abilities of my staff.”

Denise Buchanan, food-to-go manager at Spar Drakes Cross, says the training helped her better deal with wastage. “It has also helped my management skills, such as drawing up staff rotas, and generally helped me grow into my job role.” Denise, who is 72 and has worked at the store for 15 years, adds: “It proves you’re never too old to learn.”

Resham Singh, store owner of Spar Chelmsley Wood, has also improved his wastage control after the course, which has translated into “definite financial gain”. Like Rebecca, he now has greater confidence in staff and delegates more. He says his store managers Tracy and Sam, who also took part in the training, are now more confident and their attitude is more positive and enthusiastic, “which has increased the store standards and general working practices”.

Store manager Tracy Humphries vindicates her boss’ confidence, saying that she now feels on top of everything. “It has given us all a refresher course,” she adds.

Says Resham: “The fact that it is bespoke to a retail environment and requires a hands-on approach has meant that the techniques learnt in the course can be immediately applied on the shop floor.”

Three more groups have now enrolled on the programme, from the North Wales, Mid Wales and East Midlands areas. The East Midlands group is signed up and the other two groups are currently being assessed to ensure eligibility.

Walker says three people are working full time in converting other parts of the country, with the long term-aim for the scheme to roll out to all Spar stores. Her energy and passion for the project should ensure the dream eventually becomes a reality. Her belief in the programme’s potential to transform retailers’ careers, and even lives, can be summed up in the five words she always repeats to people: “Wide doors and tall ceilings.”