Having swallowed up Nugent Westward’s 25 stores, business is going to plan for Smile’s Jeremy Symonds. Julian Hunt reports

Almost exactly five years after unveiling the first of its Smile convenience stores, Jeremy Symonds has just announced the next big step in the development of the eponymous c-store chain he runs - the acquisition of the 25-strong Nugent Westward business. That deal, unveiled in February, confirmed Smile Stores as one of the most important convenience retailers in The Grocer Top 50 Independents.
“We have always been keen to progress and develop the business with a clear focus on the right quality of stores,” says Symonds, who is chief executive of Smile. “When the opportunity came along for Nugent Westward, we had a good look at all the stores and could see there was a good fit with our business.”
He is clearly chuffed with what he bought. “The stores are fairly evenly distributed from Bristol to Truro and all points in between - so it expanded our presence and profile. When you are buying a chain there is very often a mix of stores and some that are not attractive. But that’s not the case with Nugent Westward.”
The deal is another sign of how far Smile has come since early 2000. Five years ago, the business was still trading as Newshops and was running 60 or so stores, many of them CTNs, with an average size of 1,400 sq ft. Today, the business, renamed Smile in 2003, operates 110 stores and is firmly focused on convenience with an offer that has been fine-tuned over the years. The average size of its stores has risen to about 2,000 sq ft and footfall is running at more than 500,000 a week. Meanwhile, the average spend is moving from £3 towards £5, thanks largely to the strong performance of chilled foods, beers and wines.
Smile is now integrating the Nugent Westward stores into its estate, but Symonds shows no signs of wanting to ease up on the growth. He points out that the chain acquired seven new stores last year and says there are four other stores in the pipeline - all of them greenfield developments. This helps explain why he is confident that 12 months from now the business will be running 120 stores as other projects come to fruition.
“One of the most important things is to have good knowledge of the area in which you trade,” he says, “so you can be focused on the sites you are going to acquire.”
He adds: “All retailers will tell you that you have to have the right locations. Once you have those locations, you need the right offer. We are confident we are providing a good range for our customers with our EPoS systems giving us the knowledge we require about what they are buying. Availability is also key; people have to know that when they visit your stores the products they want are there all the time - whether it’s bread, milk, chilled food or beer.”
Good availability is maintained thanks to sales-based ordering and the high service levels provided by sister company T&A Symonds, the Key Lekkerland wholesaler that supplies Smile stores from a distribution centre at their shared head office site in Yeovil. Symonds says: “We have a slick operation. The warehouse has fully electronic stock management and picking, and that gives us service levels of 98 or 99%.”
Smile’s formula is pretty neat. The stores are designed to make it easy for customers to find what they want quickly. Products are arranged in zones, such as the impulse zone at the front of the store for soft drinks, confectionery and fruit. Most Smile stores offer services such as cash machines, DVD rental and PayPoint.
All of which combines to create a strong consumer offer, which is fuelling strong like-for-like sales growth (such as the 3.5% that the business enjoyed during the traditionally difficult post-Christmas months). With the Nugent Westward stores still bedding in, it’s easy to understand why Symonds is bullish about the future. “We have got some exciting times ahead,” he says, with more of a grin than a smile on his face.