Store numbers: 173
Staff: 1,000
Turnover: More than £100m
Start date: 1979
Speciality: Confectionery, tobacco & news (CTN)

Rippleglen is making news as well as selling it with its move into the ultra-competitive convenience sector. Three months ago, the CTN retailer announced that from January it would be conducting a trial of 270 grocery lines ranging from snacks and bread and milk to alcoholic drinks at one of its stores.

Managing director Mike Colley remains coy over the location of the trial. At the moment, he's more involved in bedding down the 61 new stores acquired in the acquisition of Northcliffe Retail for £8.2m in July, a deal that could well elevate Rippleglen above its current position of 9th in The Grocer Top 50 rankings next year.

All he will say is that the pilot is one of the recently acquired which was one of a number of stores with an inherited convenience offer.

But if the trial does prove a success, he confirms plans to roll the new format out to more of the chain's 173 stores.

“The emphasis will remain on CTN in the shops but it would be short-sighted not to make the most of the opportunity to convert the store fully or neglect the limited offer in the remaining stores.”

It emerged this month that Rippleglen will be working with leading wholesaler Booker on the project.

It's an audacious attempt to evolve that only a handful, including Martin McColl and GT News, have attempted. But it could prove key to survival in what has become an increasingly tough environment to operate in.

These are difficult days for traditional retailers of sweets and cigarettes, newspapers and magazines. The combination of the workplace smoking ban and the raising of the legal buying age for tobacco from 16 to 18 has already had an impact on sales. More retailers are, like Rippleglen, trying to diversify either with new formats or fresh locations.

“The CTN has long depended on tobacco to drive footfall,” says Colley. “But all the new legistlation has damaged this and we are having to replace this with other drivers such as bill payment services and dfferent ranges.”

Colley has proved particularly adept at identifying trends and adapting the Rippleglen offer to fit. The business currently boasts four fascias: Arden News, Supercigs, Candies and Supernews. Earlier this year, the business announced that future Arden News stores would be targeted specifically at transport hubs, including train stations (see above), in a bid to attract commuters. It would also be sizing up hospital sites, it said.

Clearly the convenience concept is more appropriate than a pure CTN format as far as hospital sites go at least and Colley talks of the need to take the business wherever “the public is moving”.

“Changes in society at the moment will mean more and more people will use public transport such as rail and buses, so we want to be there to cater for them,” he says. “Stores will be for shoppers in a hurry, with a focus on newspapers, soft drinks, snacks and treats.”

Consumers who swing by the pilot store will be able to browse 150 ambient grocery and household items in a trademark clutter-free setting with aisles wide enough for mums with pushchairs. They can then stock up on booze from up to 120 alcohol lines.

Goods supplied by the wholesaler Palmer & Harvey McLane are delivered from Rippleglen's warehouse in Birmingham. A smooth supply chain and optimum availability are crucial, says Colley.

But despite Rippleglen's desire to develop its convenience offer, it won't be leaving its CTN roots behind any time soon, insists Colley.One of the key reasons is the scale of the competition.

“Though the trial will give stores a larger variety of products, news and magazines will remain our top priority. Our shops will continue with their strong heritage of CTN products as we feel it is not sensible to go head to head with the grocery-based operators.

“We're not planning to go into convenience like Spar, for example. We are news experts, and news gives us the ultimate opportunity to differentiate our business from our competitors.”