Justin Whittaker made his retail debut when he was just 12 years old. Since the age of 17, when he inherited his parents’ shop, he has been developing the business every day. Now, he is looking to improve by capitalising on new trends. Toby Hill finds out more

When Justin Whittaker clocked in for his first day at MJ’s Premier near Oldham, he was just 12 years old, and the store was a tiny 200sq ft. Three decades later, after inheriting the store from his parents at the age of 17, he has expanded it to 1,800sq ft and introduced a raft of innovative features that are drawing customers from across the local area.

PremierThe most recent transformation took place in August 2015, when Justin doubled his store’s size and installed several specialist areas.

Most striking is the dedicated kids’ zone, where shelves are painted bright red, blue and yellow and a Slush Puppy machine nestles among a display of Kinder Buenos.

“It creates an atmosphere for kids so they identify with the store,” Justin says. “Everything’s at a lower height, including the Slush Puppies, so they can serve themselves and mix the blue and red flavours. They love it.”

There’s something special for grown-ups too: Justin’s Beer Cave, a walk-in refrigerator packed with chilled alcoholic drinks. “People are moving towards buying bigger packs,” he says. “With the beer cave, we can keep 15-packs of lager chilled.” He has brought the cave to life with inventive in-store theatre, including a football stadium incorporating an old Subbuteo kit and beer adverts projected onto the floor. “It’s increased our alcohol turnover by 40%.”

The extra space also allowed Justin to expand into food to go, selling sandwiches and wraps as well as hot pies for dinner – although Justin’s sharp eye for evolving trends means the pies might soon be for the chop.

“I think that type of food is dying off,” he says. “I’d like to bring in subs and hot paninis instead.”

As well as these large-scale renovations, Justin also makes continual tweaks and adjustments.

“We evolve every single week,” he says. “I recently put medicines at the side of the counter instead of behind it, so they’re on the shop floor and people can select them themselves. It’s a small change but it has produced a 70% increase in sales.”

A similar small change has helped drive sales of chocolate and crisps. Whereas most shops will have three metres of priced confectionery and some £1 pricemarked blocks, Justin has reversed the usual set-up, giving three metres of space to pricemarked blocks of chocolate and bags of crisps.

“It’s about pushing spend up across the store,” he says.

Guiding all these changes are Justin’s keen observations of how the convenience industry is evolving.

We’re selling bigger pack sizes of lots of products as people treat us as much as a supermarket as a convenience store. It’s an exciting time to be in retail

“Retail is changing and I’m trying to stay ahead of the trends,” he says. “Convenience isn’t just convenience anymore. You have to be a supermarket, a discounter and a convenience store all at the same time.”

This thoughtfully ambitious approach, blending close observation with big ideas, is reaping rich rewards.

“Our turnover is up 25% from last year,” he says. “We used to rely on cigarettes, which made up 40% of turnover. But that’s gone down to 20%. It’s just in time – with the legal changes coming in, you can’t rely on cigarettes to be a footfall driver anymore.”

But this success hasn’t slowed Justin in his search for new ideas. His latest source of inspiration is his 17-year-old son, Leon, who is primed to follow his father – and grandfather – into the retail trade.

PremierThe success of the kids’ zone led Justin to wonder how he could make the store appeal to teenagers as well as young children. Then Leon suggested introducing a milkshake parlour.

“It’s got great potential, they’re already really big in lots of Asian communities,” Justin says. “Leon’s been looking online at various machines. I think we’ll give it a go.”

Together, the father-and-son-team are always on the lookout for fresh ideas, ready to engage with the challenges and opportunities offered by a changing industry.

“We drive around and pick up ideas from other independents, supermarkets, and franchises like Subway,” says Justin. “As independents come into more direct competition with the supermarkets and discounters, we all need to share our ideas so we can take on the big boys.”

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