Location: March, Cambridgeshire
Hours: 4.30am-8pm Mon-Sat, 7am-7pm Sun
Staff: 20 full- and part-time (across the shop and car workshop)
Size: 1,000sq ft
Trading since: 1953 (joined Spar in 2016)
Chris Lord never wanted to be a convenience retailer. But when his father was diagnosed with cancer when Chris was 18, the trained mechanic was “catapulted into the business”.
Eight years on, Chris has embraced retail and has big ambitions to make Mill Hill Garage in March, Cambridgeshire, an award-winning store.
Eleven months ago, he joined Spar and, with the help of his fuel provider Jet, completely refitted the store. Among the changes he made were expanding chilled food and introducing alcohol.
“We were doing £4,500-£5,000 a week before the refit,” Chris explains. “This summer, we had seven weeks of consecutive growth and got to £20 off £10,000. We’re now doing about £9,000 a week. Our chilled sales grew tenfold – but it’s all chilled snacking.”
While chilled snacks are selling very well, fresh food and chilled solutions such as meals for tonight failed to take off. Chris says: “I completely bought into the future of convenience being fresh food. I still do, but chilled groceries just didn’t work for us. We had wastage of 30-35% on chilled.”
Chris says he believes it failed to work because of the size and awkward shape of the shop. “I can’t have the whole solution. It’s like a z-shaped Tetris piece where you can’t get the gondolas the right way. There are customers who would potentially buy more, but they don’t get hit with ideas.”
Although chilled meals didn’t work, Chris hasn’t given up on the idea of dinner for tonight and now plans to bring in freezers. “I’ve been looking at the affluence of the area and I think frozen might work,” he says.
Elsewhere, he’s replacing his Jack’s Beans coffee machine with Costa Coffee in December, and is investing in a bigger oven so they can bake more hot food to meet demand.
There are also bigger plans in the pipeline. He’s in the process of getting Spar’s food-to-go solution Daily Deli, converting his current store room into a prep room so they can make sandwiches, and is looking to expand. “We’d have to massively modify the shop with structural work to change the layout. But as every day goes by it becomes more enticing,” says Chris.
The shop is attached to a car dealership set up by Chris’s father, and with car sales a decreasing part of the business, he is looking for another use for the space such as a café or getting a branded operator in, like Greggs or Subway.
“I need to change the perception of the store,” he explains. “I need to be able to offer customers the entire solution and work my way up. There’s so much potential here that we haven’t achieved yet, but I’m working on it.”
He also has his eye on scooping some awards for the work he’s done so far. “If I aim to reach these goals then hopefully, even if I don’t win, I will up my game and the store’s standards will improve,” he says.
Get out on the road
Chris spent a few days visiting other convenience retailers to get ideas for his business. “It was really educational. We’ve been trying to work out how we become the destination store for customers,” he says.
Give chilled time to work
He says: “Give chilled six months. It takes a long time to change customers’ habits and there will be a lot of wastage. But the margins make it worthwhile. It’s definitely the future.”
Regularly try new things
Chris is going to start selling baguettes. “It will show me whether I have more opportunity for bread sales and if it doesn’t work it won’t have cost me too much,” he says.
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