After 60 years in business, Spar convenience store chain Lawrence Hunt is addressing issues remarkably similar to those it faced in its early years.

Expansion, customer service and staff management are all still at the forefront of its agenda. The Grocer Top 50 independent retailer has grown steadily since its inception in 1946. Its first store opening in Walmer Bridge, Lancashire, was swiftly followed by two more in nearby Longton and Lostock Hall.

A platform for growth was established when Hunt’s Stores, as it was then known, joined Spar in 1957. At the time, it was owned and run by Lawrence’s father and mother. However, Lawrence became increasingly involved and took over in 1969 when Lawrence Hunt was formed. The business took off in the early 1980s when it bought six more stores. For the next ten years, the estate grew at an average of a store per year.

The company has kept a tight geographical concentration in and around Preston and now boasts 27 stores. But prospects for growth are increasingly limited. Walmer Bridge achieved turnover of £42 in its first week. But that was 1946. Current MD Kevin Hunt, Lawrence’s son, won’t consider taking on a new store unless it has the potential for weekly sales of £25,000. Few available and affordable convenience stores fit that profile.

Some have come from other Spar retailers who want to sell up and retire. Hunt says: “A lot of growth in the past ten years has come from existing Spar stores. Because we know if they are in Spar the offer and fascia is not going to change, so we can quickly look at the figures and determine if they match the criteria.”

But Lawrence Hunt is now having to consider other avenues outside of the opportunities afforded by traditional convenience stores. One of these is the forecourt sector, says Hunt. Another is shopping centre developments, which offer ready-made retail units. He is exploring possible alliances with the developers engaged in such projects. Hunt says: “In the future we’re going to work with developers where multiples are the lynchpins of sites.”

Just as the retailer is moving with the times in terms of the areas it looks to for expansion, so the services it has offered its customers have evolved. In the early days, the company offered traditional groceries. Then it embraced an off-licence offering.

“The next thing was news,” says Lawrence Hunt, MD before Kevin took over and now officially retired. “We bought six to eight newsagents in the 1980s and 1990s and incorporated them into the business.”

Post offices followed and the retailer now has ten sub-post offices in its stores. That aim has continued and the latest focus is on food-to-go with Subway concessions being rolled out where appropriate having been tested in one store. The National Lottery is also proving lucrative and Lawrence Hunt is in the process of rolling out Camelot’s digital display units to its shops, promoting sales of its products. The units also highlight current jackpot amounts.

Suggested ordering, which is being installed in all shops in the next 18 months, will enable the retailer to take another leap forward in customer service. The system will enable it to tailor its offering much more to individual outlets by monitoring what they sell and automatically predicting future sales.

As the retail offering and estate have developed, so too have Lawrence Hunt’s staffing issues. It has been among the pioneers of staff management, claiming to be among the first independents to adopt later opening hours and Sunday trading to compete with the major supermarkets.

Now the company has 510 staff and counts retention and staff theft among its major concerns. Kevin says: “One of our biggest problems is fraudulent use of systems like PayPoint. Staff can use it to top up their mobiles and disguise these transactions.” It’s a constant battle to balance the books and check CCTV records, he says.

Then there’s retention. “We try our best,” says Kevin, “But we’re seeing almost 30% churn. It’s got to the point now where we realise we can’t eradicate it fully.” A tiered system of bonuses linked to years of service is their main weapon to combat the problem, he says.

Sparring partner

Before joining Lawrence Hunt, Kevin Hunt worked for James Hall, the only wholesaler that the Spar retailer has ever traded with. He says that during that 17-month period he worked through several different departments, including fresh food, which he focused on for eight months.

That experience has proved invaluable, he says: “I’m able to speak to our staff from Hall’s perspective and I’ve still got a couple of dozen personal contacts there that remember me.”

After a difficult period working with Spar stores in Austria, during which he had to grapple with “massive stores, language problems and homesickness”, in his own words, he returned to the UK. He moved to Lawrence Hunt in 1987 as assistant manager of its Bolton store.

Two years later, he was promoted to manager at a smaller store. It’s a core principle for the retail chain that its head office managers must have hands-on retail experience at store level, says Hunt.

Having managed two stores, in 1990, Hunt was given the project to install scanning in the 18 stores the chain had at that time. Then in 1995 he took an area manager role overseeing scanning and fresh foods, with particular focus on the roll out of pre-packed fresh food. He also worked on introducing chiller cabinets in stores and boosting space devoted to chilled food, in competition with the multiples. Finally, he assumed Lawrence Hunt’s mantel as MD of the business in 2000.

Store numbers: 27
Staff: 510
Turnover: £30.4m
Sales growth year-on-year: 0.3%
Type of operation: Convenience store chain