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Liam Cross

Liam Cross has been managing family owned Spar Dersingham in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, for seven years and has worked for Blakemore prior to that. “I’ve seen the multiples side of it and the independent side,” says Liam. “There’s a lot more freedom here to mould the store to how I want it and how it best serves the customers, rather than being restricted to working in a certain way, which has been really nice.” 

He had always dreamed of making big changes at the store, which is owned by James Thaxter and family. “Ever since I took over in 2016 I wanted to do something with our food to go [FTG] to give it a refresh because it was getting dated and we wanted to improve what was on offer.”

Around the time he was looking at quotes and ideas for the FTG offer, the business was approached by AF Blakemore offering to co-invest in the Spar Market concept. “We have a good participation of fresh sales so it definitely suits the store, so we twinned the two together - when we did our food to go refresh, we went with the Spar Market concept at the same time. It worked out really well to do the two alongside each other and gave the whole store a brand new look.” 

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Prior to the refresh, the store’s food to go department had one long run of hot cabinets, so Liam decided to switch things up with Daily Deli branding, a new food prep area and a new front of house display including a self-serve area, plus Tango Ice Blast and Costa Coffee machines. “We went for more of a Greggs’ feel to it with multi level shelving,” he explains. “We were anxious at first at how it would work - would we be able to fit all the products in there that we want?” 

He needn’t have worried. “Having the sausage rolls on shelf, as opposed to laying flat in a hot cabinet, meant we gained more space and more flexibility to try new things,” says Liam. “We’ve introduced a vegan bake and vegan sausage roll.”

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The store’s popular rotisserie chickens also benefited from the upgrade. “We changed our hot chickens to self-serve, so we wondered how that was going to be received by customers. 

“If anything, the chicken stays fresher when bagged up. Chickens out in the open, not in a bag, they just dry out, whereas in a bag they stay nice and fresh and juicy. We can cook them and pop them up throughout the day as we have a rotisserie chicken oven where people can see them cooking in front of their eyes.

“We now sell about 120 cooked chickens a week, up from 100 before. It’s the display of it that makes the difference. We source them from a local farm. They’re a good ‘tonight’s tea’ option - consumers will buy meal accompaniments from the chiller and then just grab a chicken. The two complement each other nicely.” 

Meals made in store have also reaped the rewards of the investment. “We’ve been able to do more Meals of the Day, which are especially popular with our elderly customers,” says Liam.

“There are also things like chicken nuggets, chips, wedges and chicken wings for people to choose from. Before, we had less display area for the meals, but they’re more prominent now, and the rear of the serveover unit is a reflective surface which makes it look more appealing.” 

He felt that retaining the serveover element was important in order to keep the personal touch for those who want it. “We decided not to go full self service - A) because we didn’t want to introduce more unnecessary plastic packaging, but B) because with things like the sausage rolls, people still like to order from a human being on our counter, they like to have a chat and be served,” he says. 

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Improved visibility, a broader range and more attractive display have all helped to drive food to go sales, which is encouraging shoppers to spend more overall, and a five star hygiene rating only serves to further bolster customer confidence.

“When it comes to basket mix, more people are picking up hot food which is boosting basket spend,” says Liam.

The FTG counter also provides the store with more options for displaying HFSS products. “Having a food to go serveover counter gives us an advantage as there’s no exemptions from having any confectionery around there because it’s not classed as a checkout so we can put impulse things around there, which is helpful and we can use that to our advantage,” he explains.

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In addition to the FTG upgrade, the Spar Market revamp saw improvements throughout the store, including a smart new fascia and new shelving bays to highlight the store’s exceptional fresh food offer. Liam believes it has truly elevated the store’s fruit and veg. “It really stands out nicely and makes a good display of the products,” says Liam. “If you’ve got smaller slower selling lines you can put dividers into the displays, such as with lemons and limes. It’s been really well received.” 

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Customers now see the store as more of a shopping destination, claims Liam. “I’ve seen more people filling baskets and trolleys, rather than using it as a distress purchase,” he says. “Giving it a refresh makes it more exciting to come here.”

Liam claims that the Thaxter family paid the lion’s share of the costs. “The investment was £90,000,” he says. “We put most of it up, but Blakemore invested about 20% of the total and gave all the support - merchandising, graphics etc. Every decision was primarily ours, but we had all the relevant advice , planograms, range advice and that kind of thing.” 

The results speak for themselves. “Food to go sales are up year-on-year by nearly a grand a week,” says Liam. “Margin-wise we’ve seen a healthy uplift. The food to go margin before the refit was hovering around 45%, now it’s over 50%.

“On the store as a whole, it [the average margin] was previously around 23-24%, now it’s in the high 20s.”

The store team responded extremely positively to the changes too. “The staff really got behind it, it gave them a new lease of life - it motivated them,” says Liam. “You get tired of the same fixtures and range - for the staff and the customers it was like opening a new store with all the best bits we already had.”