Independent retailer Peter Head reckons Budgens is one of the best kept secrets in the business. And he should know. For the operational director of up-and-coming Anglian Convenience says since signing up to the Budgens Local scheme, sales have exploded across the group’s 23 stores. “Budgens don’t shout about themselves enough,” he adds. “They offer a fantastic package and they’ve been the perfect match for us. It’s an excellent setup and they give me everything I need.” Anglian Convenience, which checked in at number 43 in The Grocer’s Top 50 independent grocers with annual sales of £18m, was part of the Alldays c-store chain until 16 months ago. But when the group began to falter, Head and his business partner Bob Surridge were able to bring their stores out from the Alldays umbrella and into the welcome embrace of the Budgens Local format. “We had been with Alldays as a regional development centre for around four years and when they started buying back the RDCs we were given the opportunity to buy ourselves out.” He says that at the time, the Budgens Local concept was extremely new which meant it was a learning curve for both parties. “I think they imagined our stores more as small supermarkets but the bottom line was, we had good all-round convenience stores.” Budgens provides the group with a wide range, particularly fresh products, which Head says is proving to be a big hit with customers, but has also driven growth across all categories. “We have grown our fresh and chilled offering, but at the same time we’ve grown our whole mix. In some stores sales have doubled across everything, but I believe it’s all been led by our improvements in chilled and fresh, and that’s the focus of the company at the moment.” The common fear for any small independent that offers chilled and fresh products is the amount of wastage, but Head says the only way forward is to grin and bear it. “You have to be brave and give yourself a target of however many weeks you’re prepared to take a big hit on waste to help grow the business. Once you’ve managed to get over the mental barrier of having to throw stuff away, you can find the right levels.” The breadth and range of the fresh offering does vary from store to store, but that is another example of the company’s ingenuity. “Our stores trade according to the area they are in,” explains Head. The best example of this is Anglian’s operations on Unthank Road, in the heart of Norwich, where two stores trade successfully fewer than 300 yards apart. “Unthank Road is unusual because at one end you have very wealthy upmarket homes, and the other houses a large number of students,” says Head. The company caters for this by operating one of the outlets, Grove Stores, as an upmarket convenience food store featuring products such as vegetarian and organic, as well as a decent fresh and chilled offering. One of the most popular and exclusive products in store is the Tiptree Jams which, according to Head, is also the largest range in the region and attracts interest from afar. “We’ve had customers from Germany and Australia come to us for the jam. We often have specialist orders of around 18 jars at a time.” The store, which houses a small deli counter, also stocks specialist handmade bread products which Head says are exclusive to them and one other retailer in the Norwich area. Head adds: “The store takes around £25,000 a week and it’s one of our best.” However, despite the competition of the highly successful Grove Stores only 300 yards away, the company’s other Unthank Road store has also turned out to be a roaring success. Head says: “When we bought the store, my partner wanted to close it down but I refused and we worked it up from £7,000 a week to £16,000 and now under Budgens we’re probably taking around £20,000.” The outlet differs from its sister store along the road by aiming exclusively at the student population. “There’s limited fresh here but we do a large amount of chilled, and liquor is also popular,” says Head. The store offers a wide variety of convenience foods which clearly goes down well with the students. The ability to adapt to local market conditions gives the company an important edge, claims Head. “We are not corporate so we can make decisions quickly and react to market conditions that much faster.” And the company is not afraid to branch out into new areas either as Head says they are already trialling a hot food offer in one of the stores: “We’re very flexible and we can try things out easily. If it doesn’t work we simply take it out and try it somewhere else, or try something different until we find out what works.” This attitude has also led to the development of the company’s 24th store at Norwich rail station, a first for both Anglian and Budgens. Head says the concept was inspired after visiting the Marks and Spencer Simply Food stores at London rail stations. “We looked at what M&S were doing and thought we could incorporate some of their ideas, although perhaps not on such a grand scale.” The new store, which is due to open in early May, is designed to catch passengers as they make their way home, as well as appeal to those looking for a snack on their way out. “We think there’s huge potential for a good convenience store at the station. The idea is that people coming off the train can grab something quick and easy to take home. They don’t want to be lugging things around with them.” The 2,000 sq ft store will only stock the top-selling lines in confectionery, essentials such as milk and a range of ready meals and snacks.It is only a small part of the company’s expansion plans, however, and Head says they are aiming to expand to around 40 stores over the next few years. “We’re looking to open around five stores a year for the next four or five years. We can probably handle around 40 stores as we are now ­ any more would be more of a struggle.” At the moment the company employs about 600 people, but there’s only six people at head office including Head, his business partner and their one area manager. “We’re a very lean and mean operation, but we have a great team working for us ­without them we might as well go and stack the shelves at Tesco,” he says. “The trouble is the bigger you get, the bigger the infrastructure you need and that’s where the costs come in. That’s one of the reasons we’re more successful than our competitors, because their overheads are so much higher.” One way in which the company has managed to reduce costs is through developing its own IT systems which has proved to be a huge bonus. “I wanted to carry on with a similar data system to the one Alldays used, but at the same time I wanted to take the manual labour out of entering the sales information.” The system is now fully automated so that when any product goes through the tills, that information is fed back into the central system. “This means we can see the sales information on an hourly basis, a day-by-day basis or over weeks and months. We can cut the information any way we like. It allows us to see areas where we’ve lost ground which we can then pull back, and that’s where we can get our growth.” Having gone through the changeover, which involved the refitting of all 23 stores to the Budgens Local format in a little over a year ­ something Head describes as very hard work ­ they are now looking forward to getting stuck into growing the business. His biggest threat is the big multiples, particularly after their decisions to move into the convenience sector. “I don’t think any of the smaller convenience operators can compete with the Budgens concept, but the big boys can. However I do feel confident going in with a brand I can fight back with.” And he’s looking forward to getting his teeth into growing the business. “This year we’re focusing on taking it forward ­ I see us developing into the best convenience store operator in east Anglia.”