A flexible approach is delivering a sound future for the new-look Heads chain, says Gaelle Walker

A relaxed round of golf, a gentle game of tennis, best of all, a quiet stroll through the Hertfordshire countryside alone with his dog - Robert Surridge likes to really chill out in his time off. And little wonder. He and his business partner Peter Head are in the throes of a major business transformation. Their 21-store chain Anglian Convenience Stores was number 36 in The Grocer Top 50 ranking of independents in February, and is East Anglia’s largest c-store operator with a workforce of 500.
Surridge and Head are quitting Budgens Local and are launching their own fascia, Heads, supplied by Nisa-Today’s.
Surridge has high hopes for the new Heads brand (the name being made up of Peter’s surname and the first letter of Surridge). The new look was first unveiled last week at the 3,000 sq ft Heacham store near Hunstanton. The remaining 20 stores across East Anglia are due to be rebranded in the coming weeks.
“Now is the time to make the change and pursue our own brand. We are confident that our partnership with Nisa will be a success, their pricing is very competitive, and we believe our options and profitability will increase,” says Surridge.
The development is symbolic of the pair’s progressive business ethos.
“Expand, expand, expand” is Surridge’s motto. He reasons: “In this industry you have to keep developing to remain afloat.”
With this year’s hike in the cost of licensing, fuel and the minimum wage, independents are finding it increasingly tough to keep their heads above water.
This has been a particularly tough year for the chain, which lost the contribution of six stores when the joint venture with Budgens ended. Added to this, the upsurge in expenses has taken a considerable bite out of last year’s pre-tax profit, which fell to £170,394.
However, Surridge remains optimistic: “We are trying everything to boost trade and increase profitability,” he says. Contrary to the experience of other retailers, last year’s
initiative to establish post offices in two stores has proved successful, with both reporting an increase in sales, he says.
Surridge is keen to enhance Heads’ store portfolio, and is quick to stress that when it comes to stores, size really doesn’t matter. “We don’t just want big stores. If they have potential, we’ll buy smaller units,” he says. The Heads estate already includes a 800 sq ft off-licence, and a newsagent in Heacham.
He believes in customising the offer to the local market. “One of the most important things is to know your customer. We don’t have a one-size-fits-all policy. Each store is ranged differently according to location, demand, and competition. If there is a big supermarket round the corner, we won’t fill our store with fresh produce. It’s not rocket science, it’s just applying basics well.”
Stores are divided into A,B and C categories, A formats for mini supermarkets, moving down the scale to Cs, which are like CTNs in format. “We have three separate stores on one road in Norwich, all of which major on different aspects, and have different customer bases.”
Good availability is maintained thanks to store managers who order on a store-by-store basis. “We also have an excellent IT system, custom-designed by ourselves in
association with our IT provider, which generates a complete daily breakdown of everything we need to know.”
He adds: “The quality of fresh produce is paramount. We have a local supplier, and, along with Nisa, we provide excellent quality, availability, and price. I would pit our stores against a Tesco Express any day!”
This positive attitude is reflected in an increase in margins of just under 1% and an average spend that has grown from £3 to £4, which doesn’t sound like much but reflects the range of store sizes and the high volume of small transactions.
The future looks bright for Heads, with expansion figuring prominently on the horizon. In 12 months’ time Surridge hopes to have boosted his estate to 25 stores, including two or more freeholds. Plans to open a tearoom in Heacham and buy a DIY store also feature in the pipeline.
“I have fantastic people working with me. Peter and I are like a couple - we talk at least half a dozen times a day. We also have a great relationship with Nisa, our bank, and the managers and staff in our stores.”
Efficient teamwork and perseverance are the legs underneath Heads, and Surridge is not walking alone, although with such a busy time to come, his dog might have to.