Oli Lodge is on a mission to convert customers from ‘turn left and pay for fuel’ shopping patterns with a standout convenience, food to go and store-made food mix. Chris Rolfe and Tom Gockelen-Kozlowski report

How many times do you hear an independent retailer boast that they know who their customers are better than anyone? For many it may be true, but few can back up their assertion as well as Oli Lodge, owner of Budgens West Meon in Hampshire. 

“On average, we get 1,250 customers a day. Of these, 1,403 customers a week buy fuel, 4,447 just use the shop and 1,100 buy fuel and shop,” he says.

So, when the forecourt store’s customers demanded a better range of fresh, chilled, fruit and veg in 2016, Oli – then operating the store under the Nisa fascia – was ready to listen and make big changes to act on their requests. 

His first decision was to move the store – and three more of his five sites – over to Budgens, to facilitate his planned improvements. “Nisa had a limited offer and a cheap value message – we were sourcing better quality products ourselves. On top of this, we were getting just two ambient deliveries per week,” he says.

“Budgens has a wholesale focus, but also focuses on the retail side. Now, we get our products, promotions and six ambient deliveries per week. We get support when we need it but also have the freedom to get on with running our business too.” 

His second move was to update his range of fresh fruit and vegetables. 

“Half the reason I got into Budgens was because of the value and quality of its fresh range. We’ve added more pre-packaged vegetables and salads. There are a lot of farmers around here and if the quality isn’t good they won’t buy it,” Oli says.

The store’s range of loose vegetables now comes either from the nearby Petersfield Farm or from Booker, and Oli has seen a 12% rise in sales since switching to Budgens.

This could so easily be regarded as a simple story of a retailer moving from one symbol group to another in order to improve his store’s offer. Yet this doesn’t do justice to the work Oli and his 14 staff members have done to evolve his 2,200sq ft forecourt business into a modern, progressive convenience store that meets the needs of his customers – much of which had begun before he switched groups.

Oli drives early morning footfall with his Starbucks-branded coffee machine (the sixth busiest in the UK), which makes £400 to £500 every day. He has introduced premium brands such as Charlie Bigham’s and Cook ready meals which have capitalised on the store’s status as a destination for drivers travelling home in the evening. He has also worked with Country Choice’s brand Bake & Bite to offer breakfasts and lunches which has transformed the way his customers see his business.

One of his best-selling sections is his freshly made sandwiches, with ham and cheese baguettes the most profitable food line in the store. “We make them in our kitchen and display them by the door so they’re the first thing you see when you come in,” he says.  

The store sells 150 of these a day, which is all part of Oli’s stated ambition to end customers’ traditional “enter a forecourt, turn left and pay” behaviour. 

And his awareness of who his customers are and what they want is directing the changes: “Making sandwiches fresh every day is my biggest investment in staff time but it’s what customers want. We focus on our customers’ requirements when developing ranges. We put in 125 new products, including budgerigar food, and alcohol, confectionery, biscuits, tea and coffee lines based on customer requests, when we moved to Budgens.”

Local brands such as West Meon cider, cakes made of sweets (premium priced at £14.99) and locally-made sausages have also earned their place in the store’s range, alongside an impressive craft beer range. 

Altogether, the changes have helped raise weekly turnover at the store to between £42,000 and £55,000, depending on the season – not including fuel or services. “We might not have any competition nearby – Winchester is the nearest town and it’s eight miles away – but to be a successful convenience store here, we have to be all things to all people. Thankfully, since we’ve developed our store, sales have gone through the roof.” 

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