Sewell On The Go
If you were to drive around Hull, it wouldn’t be too long before you passed one of Sewell On The Go’s 13 stores. In fact, 12 of the company’s shops are located in a 17-mile radius, as far west as Wyntonbar and as far east as its flagship store in South Cave.
When the business purchased the South Cave store in 1997, it marked their fifth site. “It was an old shack, about 40 years old. We extended it continually until 2015 when we decided to demolish it and start again,” says Patrick Sewell, the company’s director.
“We had an immediate spike after we rebuilt it. The year after the refurbishment we were up 30%, the second 20% year on year, the third 12% and fourth 8% up.”
The business made the decision to create its own brand rather than work under a symbol group due to its local market domination. It began as Sewell Service Station, evolving into Sewell Retail, which is still its legal name, before developing the Sewell On The Go brand eight years ago.
“We traded with Palmer & Harvey and we still work with Londis. We’re a bit different having 13 stores all in one area. If we had stores far apart, our own brand wouldn’t work, but because we’re a 140-year-old business and our family is well known in the community, it made sense.”
The forecourt store benefits from a transient customer base, visiting mainly to pick up food-to-go items or buy their evening meal for that night. However, it is also close to houses, and with 30 parking spaces nearby, it has established itself as a shopping destination as well.
“We’ve taken inspiration from the big roadside retailers in America, of being more than a place to stop for fuel. We’ve made our stores worth driving to,” Sewell says.
The stores are all open 24 hours a day, employ 245 people and are part of the larger Sewell Group, which is involved in construction, investments and facilities management.
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What I do well
South Cave’s dual customer base of residents and commuters gives the store a unique opportunity to become a destination for categories customers may not normally find on a forecourt. “We’ve got a lot of focus on young adults. Spirits has grown, way into triple-digital growth,” Sewell says.
A major part of this success is gin. The store stocks mainstream products, as well as some of the lesser known brands such as
Raisthorpe, Northern Fox, The Lakes, King Soho and 6 O’clock Gin.
“Four years ago, we could see gin growing in bars – even in Hull – so we went from stocking three or four varieties to 35. Now we have more than 120 gins in store. It suits our demographic here at South Cave,” Sewell says.
The store’s premium alcohol offering stretches into local ales, which are on three for £6, and wine and liqueur gift boxes.
Where my biggest profits come from
Chilled grocery is the biggest source of profits in South Cave, with food to go a key part. It hosts a Subway franchise, with the store also baking hot food and making sandwiches, and working with external companies for its chilled range.
“We’ll put the ovens on at 5.30am and start the first bake at 6am. Because the store is open 24 hours, the oven can be put on by the night shift and be ready for the morning,” Sewell says.
“The Subway service starts at 6.30am. Because Subway is a franchise, they are strict on what we can do with the products, while with our store-made ranges we can be a bit more flexible for our customers.
“The two services work really well together – some customers want a recognised brand and others want local produce. We’re also looking at another proposition where we prepare food fresh.”
The challenges I face
With 245 employees across 13 shops, staffing is a challenge for the business, particularly with the increase in minimum wage. However, the business has increased staff retention by investing in its workforce with added benefits.
“We’ve built a loyal and flexible workforce. Everyone works at a designated site, but we do occasionally share staff between stores if someone is ill suddenly and we need cover,” Sewell explains.
The business is on the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For list, an achievement it has reached thanks to its company culture and staff perks, such as a bonus scheme, free gym access, length-of-service awards, half-price cinema tickets and store discounts.
A wall in its head office is covered in aspirational quotes and values, such as: “Our purpose is to serve and create value for our community and prove that a local family business can be world class.”
What I’m doing next
“Looking back, I wish we’d made the decision to knock down the old shack we bought in 1997 a lot earlier, rather than spending so much money on small refits here and there,” says Sewell.
“It’s easy to be wise in hindsight, but back then we just didn’t have faith in the business model that we have now.”
This model has come from a recognition of who Sewell’s customers really are. “On the go is what we’re about, it’s who our customers are. We’re not a supermarket, we know why people visit us.”
This knowledge has led to Sewell focusing more on the store’s food offering, with plans for a new concept set to launch next year.
“Our customers are wanting more freshly prepared food, so we’re looking at food being made in store.”
The store has a focus on efficiency and introduced Vocovo headsets for staff. “It enables our staff to be on hand where they’re needed,” Sewell says.