Size of store: 2,450 sq ft
Date established: 1976
Number of lines: 2,800
Turnover: £35,000 a week
Speciality: Food-to-go

The owners of Spar Helston in Cornwall are no strangers to change. Chris and Sue Sharrinton's efforts to modernise their c-store have involved no fewer than three major refurbishments over the past 15 years.

It's no coincidence that the first came shortly after Tesco arrived in town and the store continues to thrive despite its presence. Indeed, turnover at Spar Helston now stands at an average of £35,000 a week, and it is now the proud owner of Convenience Store Magazine's Top Shop of the Year award organised in association with The Grocer. Its success shows you don't have to be a major multiple to be adept at reading trends.

The Sharintons believe they were among the first c-store operators to recognise the importance of having a strong food to go offer, back in the mid 90s. After visiting independent retailers that were offering fresh bread, the Sharrintons decided they could go one better, by introducing hot food to go such as bacon rolls, hot pies and pasties.

“That has probably been the biggest driver for our store,” Chris says. “We decided that if Tesco were going to take our grocery sales, such as baked beans, we would use food-to-go, with its higher profit margins, so we wouldn't have to take a hit on turnover. Hot food has been our saviour.

We wanted to bake our own food, make it look appealing, and felt that our customers were ready for it.”

Another refit a few years later allowed the pair to ramp up their focus on food-to-go with more breakfast lines. The store still wasn't evolving fast enough to allow them to grow the business in the way the couple wanted so they spent £250,000 on another refit last year.

This time they decided to customise the offer to the local customer base. With the help of Spar head office research they divided the shop into five sections based on shopping missions: Feed Me Now, Tonight's Tea (the two most popular), Top Up for Essentials, Let's Celebrate and Daily Life. Curries, pizzas and chickens were introduced to the hot food range.

They also extended the store by 450 sq ft to 2,450 sq ft and reduced the overall number of lines from 3,100 to 2,800 in a bid to declutter the shelves, a move Chris says has gone down well. “They thought they were getting more choice afterwards,” he says, “because they could stand back and see better.”

The strategy is already paying off. Despite the number of frozen lines being reduced by 50%, sales have increased by 29%. Footfall has risen from 8,000 a week to 8,700 and average spend is up from £3.66 to £4.18.

The store's most impressive feature remains its food-to-go area, which now has six plasma screens showing six 15-second Powerpoint presentations with images of food, prices and deals. A 'turbo-serve' counter where shoppers can help themselves to warm food instead of waiting for an assistant has been doubled in size.

Weekly food-to-go sales of fare such as Cornish pasties, bacon baps and beefburgers can hit £3,300 in the summer. The couple now plan to add evening display counters to make the most of different meal times as well as a smoothie bar and larger chilled food-to-go cabinets. This, they say, will enable the store to do justice to the salads, freshly made sandwiches and pasta that an eight-strong team prepares daily.

Locally sourced food is key to their offer. Strawberries from a nearby farm have been particularly successful and the store can sell up to 600 punnets a week.

Overall sales have risen 25% in the year since the refit but initially there were availability problems, says Chris. Chilled products come into the shop six days a week but staff weren't filling the shelves fast enough.

The Sharrintons came up with an innovative, yet simple, colour-coding system that uses stickers on the shelves of the top 200 lines (which make up about 80% of turnover) to show staff the products most likely to need constant replenishment.

This may all sound like basic stuff. But as Chris says, basics are the most important weapons for a c-store. They, rather than the major multiples, he says, are best-placed to find out exactly what makes consumers tick. “You need to constantly find out what customers want - if you do, then the sector can start leading.”

Community spirit

Engineer Chris Sharrinton didn't have any ambition to move into retail, but when his father bought two convenience stores in Cornwall 31 years ago, he decided to help out.

The Sharrintons decided the Helston store had more potential and shut their other store at St Day near Redruth in 1980. “The Redruth shop was in a village whereas this one is on a fairly busy main road with a much wider customer
demographic,” Chris explains.

Sharrinton married local girl Sue and when his parents retired in 1988 the pair took on the shop together.

Although sales are important, Chris and Sue's other passion is community work. They have used the store not only to bring the community together but to help raise funds for charities. They recently produced a calendar that raised £16,500 for Macmillan Cancer Relief and have also raised £3,500 through raffles for the NSPCC since October. “The customers like getting involved,” says Chris. “People see that you are part of the local community.”

Staff, meanwhile, get a birthday card and a £10 voucher to spend in the shop every year. The pair also host Christmas parties and summer barbecues, which Sharrinton believes play an important role in keeping his workers happy and motivated. “We encourage our staff to talk to every customer because if you're polite and friendly they'll keep coming back,” he says.