The Somerfield/TM Retail partnership is breeding a new generation of c-stores. Anne Bruce reports from Wantage

From the outside, the 2,100 sq ft store is colourful, decorated in Somerfield’s Mediterranean palette. And it is packed with customers.

A Costcutter stands boarded up opposite the new Somerfield Martin’s joint-venture store which has opened just a couple of miles outside Wantage. TM Retail, Martin’s operator, bought out the owner and the site is to be converted to a café. This town ain’t big enough for two convenience stores and Costcutter’s time was up, says TM Retail trading director Paul Baxter.

Somerfield and TM Retail, which operates 1,200-plus Forbuoys, Martin’s and McColls stores, came together to test a Somerfield Martin’s convenience concept last February.

Wantage is the sixth Somerfield Martin’s dual branded store - this one converted from a former McColls outlet - and with an announcement on the format’s roll-out imminent, TM Retail md David Saunders and Baxter offered The Grocer a tour. So what is so special?

Somerfield is the lead brand in the joint venture, delivering 2,000 lines into store. The supermarket supplies fresh and chilled food on a six-day-a week delivery cycle while TM Retail provides the premises, the staff, and 1,500 news and confectionery lines.

As you walk in there is a newspaper stand and an enticing smell of hot food. TM Retail is selling hot food for the first time at these concept stores and it is proving profitable.

TM has reported initial sales at Wantage up 65% on the former McColls figures with basket size and footfall also significantly increased.

An aisle of fresh fruit and vegetables supplied by Somerfield stretches to the back of the shop and at the rear of the store is a broad range of sandwiches and salads, baps and ready meals.

The ambient ranges on display in aisle two are still being fine-tuned and rationalised - these are trial stores, after all, according to Baxter. The two aisles furthest from the entrance are magazines and confectionery, which are both TM Retail specialist areas.

TM Retail confesses that having to deal with so much fresh food, with its inherently higher wastage levels, has been a culture shock

But the joint venture is giving customers the benefits of both Somerfield and TM Retail products and promotions, as well as a pool of retailing expertise, says Saunders.

Baxter explains that costs are carefully controlled. For instance, several pillars have been clad in mirrors rather than moved - there’s no point paying silly money to move pillars, he says. Likewise, the lino from the former McColls store has been left on the floor.

But that said, all the fixtures and fittings are to Somerfield’s specifications.

The confectionery aisle follows TM Retail planograms and has specialist pick and mix containers which TM has introduced to Somerfield.

The store also has a post office, in common with three other stores which are taking part in the trial.

TM Retail operates a total of 397 post office counters which it still believes are commercially viable says Baxter, in spite of the recent changes to the benefits system which have drastically reduced the payments made to customers through post offices. Somerfield has deferred to TM Retail’s convenience retailing expertise on that matter.

What both Somerfield and TM Retail refer to as a “happy marriage” seems to be shaping up to become a lucrative trading partnership. We await confirmation early next year as to whether the two will go forth and multiply.

However, Baxter says: “We are convinced we can run these stores and that Somerfield can supply them. Once we have got the finished article in terms of margin and mix, we would hope to convert around 200 McColls stores.”