Ian Bell, general manager of Parfetts' Somercotes depot, is no stranger to manure - tonnes of it.

When he's not walking the aisles of his cash & carry, he's at home with his wife, helping her run the family business - a riding school and livery with 45 horses.

However, his days off are less likely to be spent mucking out and more likely mucking about on his karaoke machine with his grandchildren.

It's exactly this spirit of fun that makes Bell, general manager for the past two and a half years, such a hit with his customers and 70-strong team - many of whom have worked at the Derbyshire depot for more than 20 years.

It's a cold and dreary December day one week before Christmas when The Grocer visits Somercotes, but inside the atmosphere is warm and buzzing.

"One of the best things about this depot is the relationship the staff have with the retailers and our other customers," he says.

"Unlike other managers, I spend nearly all my time on the floor having a natter with customers about their businesses and trying to offer help and advice wherever I can.

"At Parfetts we recognise the importance of helping customers to develop, as our future depends absolutely on their success."

Bell is on first-name terms with all his customers, the majority of whom run small convenience stores or off-licences. The depot has won awards for its proactive approach to customer service, something Bell is particularly proud of.

He also likes to keep a close eye on the market to ensure his offer is in line with ever-changing consumer trends. He is currently developing an extended Polish food and drink range, as well as bolstering the depot's bottled ale offer.

Business was buoyant in the run-up to the festive season, with Bell and his team eagerly anticipating Christmas Eve - one of its busiest days.

"Retailers don't want to sit on a lot of stock and most of them don't have the capital to do so anyway, so they tend to buy in dribs and drabs, but there is always a rush on Christmas Eve before the depot closes for Christmas Day," he says.

However, Christmas also has downsides. The lure of larger sums of money and bolstered stock levels, particularly tobacco and alcohol, acts like a magnet to opportunist thieves.

"We have to be extra vigilant at Christmas and warn our customers to be as well. We've had cases where criminals have followed retailers with fully laden cars out of the depot and targeted them while they were unloading at the back at their stores."

Eagle-eyed depot staff and security cameras keep watch over the depot's car park "looking for something different" to try and keep crime to a minimum.

Another issue over which Bell has no control is cheap contraband

alcohol, a growing problem during the festive period - and a real worry for the Somercotes team as beer is one of its top-selling products.

"It's hard for the retailers not to get sucked in," said Bell.

"All we can do is offer the very best service and be as promotionally driven as we can to keep competing, but it's a tough market out there."n