Susie Hawkins used her time at university wisely, reports Steven Lambert. Now she’s reaping the rewards of her studies and business experience following a massive refit of her Spar store in Highworth, Wiltshire

Analysts and researchers of the convenience market would have done well to listen to Susie Hawkins during her university days. During her management consultancy course, Susie’s dissertation focused on how forecourts would need to become more like convenience stores to prosper in the future.

Fast forward to the present day, and she is now reaping the benefits of this thesis at her Spar Highworth store and service station located near Swindon following a huge £1m refit.

The investment and work with Blakemore Trading Partners has seen the 500sq ft shop transformed into a 2,800sq ft convenience store, which officially reopened in February.
Susie says: “Before the refit, the business was a pretty basic CTN selling sandwiches and drinks, with a lot of sales coming from tobacco.

“But we wanted to offer something completely different to customers, so we flattened the site and started from scratch.”

The business immediately stands out from surrounding forecourt and convenience competition through its range of more than 200 speciality lines sourced from Blakemore Fine Foods.

Shoppers can treat themselves to high-quality fresh meats, cheeses, antipasti and other goods from specialist suppliers, including Andrews Quality Meats and Rowcliffe, while the store also boasts a well-stocked selection of imported American goods.

Artisan bread from bakers La Parisienne is another big draw, while Spar Highworth goes even further by offering premium oils and vinegars on tap.

Susie says: “We do have quite a close-knit community here, and we wanted to give people the chance to do a proper grocery shop and be able to pick up something a bit different along the way.”
She adds that the amount of chilled and fresh goods in the store has also been greatly increased to better accommodate customers looking to do a larger shop.

“Before, a large majority of our sales were fuel only,” says Susie. “Now, 50% of our sales are from shop-only customers, with another 25% picking up fuel and shopping.”

This has had a dramatic effect on weekly turnover, which has shot up from around £5,000 to £30,000, while average basket spend has also grown from just over £4 to £6.50. However, Susie says passing and impulse trade remain a big part of her business, something she has been trying to grow through her food to go range.

“We offer fresh sandwiches and baguettes, and our Costa coffee machine has been really popular since we installed it. We’re now looking into the possibility of adding a second Costa machine and a Subway franchise as well.”

The refit has also presented the opportunity for Susie to shout about the store and her family’s business, the Simon Smith Group, which owns seven forecourt sites in and around Gloucestershire.

Susie says: “My dad was a fan of the song ‘Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear’, so he named it after that. So now we have a red bear as our mascot and we use
it as logo on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

“We even had someone dress up as a bear when we reopened our Highworth store, and we are currently running a writing competition on for kids, where they can come up with a story about the bear to win a hamper of goodies.

“I think you need to be more active if you want social media to work for your business. You can’t just put deals up online.”

By setting out a bold vision for her business and sticking to her plan, Susie has been rewarded with extra footfall and more repeat custom, and expects her sales to grow further in the future.
And she offers these words of advice to retailers who are hoping to do the same: “Enjoy what you do, set yourself high standards, and place your customers at the heart of every business decision.”