Kevin Hunt has missed his vocation as a Formula 1 driver, judging by the office cabinet full of racing memorabilia. But as MD of the Lawrence Hunt & Co franchise of Spar shops in the north of England, outpacing the competition is still the first thing on his mind.
Lawrence Hunt & Co, 27th in The Grocer’s Top 50 ranking of independents in February, has sales of £45m from 27 stores, and 10.5 million customers passing through its doors each year. Hunt, whose experience in this competitive industry has taught him to say it like it is, has an ambition to raise the bar in the northern c-store sector. “Unfortunately we work near to some bloody awful Spars,” he says frankly, and his plan is to differentiate his stores from the others in the area.
In the past four years, 15 stores have had facelifts to bring them up to speed with the Spar Millennium Pack - a floor-to-ceiling refit pack that prescribes certain standards on all aspects of the store, from fascias and flooring to the lighting and the type of ATM.
The chain has also invested in extended refrigeration and dairy units that include ready meals, chilled veg and prepared salads.
Hunt says: “Whereas some independents are stuck in this time warp and think ‘I’ll just do the basics such as ham and milk and spreads’, we’ve listened to our customers and now include many extra lines. Our sales are up 50%-60% as a result in some cases.”
The 520 staff, who include 10 in-store PO workers, dress in Lawrence Hunt uniforms that emphasise the locally operated theme.
The intense competition from the multiples adds its own pressures, of course. But Hunt says: “Tesco is a fantastic operator and I’m a big admirer of what it does. Our challenge is to make our brand as equally understood and to emulate its standards. Customers have already said our shops are just like Tesco, and for me that’s a result.”
Indeed, he thinks the increased use of the convenience format by the mutiples could help his cause. “These local Tescos are actually making local and top-up shopping more acceptable,” he says.
Two issues concern Hunt most: employee retention and underage drinking. “The biggest ongoing problem for the whole industry is staff retention. The customer wants to see the same staff faces and recognise the long-term services they offer. The difference this can make to your bottom line is huge.”
In an effort to stand out from the crowd, Hunt’s staff are given bonuses for long service and get better wages if they work evenings or if they’ve been employed for 12 months. They also receive Christmas bonuses. The result is that some of Hunt’s staff have been with the company for 25 years.
And underage drinking? “The way the industry at large is blamed for antisocial behaviour is outrageous,” says Hunt. “It’s a few very bad off-licences that are giving the whole trade a bad name.”
Although all of Hunt’s employees make every effort to stop the supply of alcohol to juniors, the task is extremely difficult. “It’s a really difficult position for us,” says Hunt. “But to lay the blame for this bad behaviour on the industry is completely unfair. Haven’t the parents got anything to do with it?”
Looking ahead, Hunt is picky about the sites they take on. A minimum requirement is that the store has to achieve £25,000 a week in traditional business - this excludes sales from services such as PayPoint and Payzone, and the National Lottery. Car parking is also essential.
“We haven’t set a target for store openings. We buy stores as and when they become available,” he says. “We just looked at three sites in fact, but turned them down because we thought their positioning and proportional spend weren’t good enough.”
In other words, if it’s not quite right, this c-store chain is not in the hunt. A class act, to be sure.