What do you do when you know a store’s footfall isn’t going to go up? Double down on improving efficiency and staff productivity, says the Fraser Group’s Nick Fraser. Chris Gamm reports

How do you make “yesterday’s forecourt” work for today, when intense competition means there’s little chance of increasing either basket spend or footfall?

This is the challenge faced by Nick Fraser, whose family run six forecourts – three Budgens and three Spars – around Berkshire and Oxfordshire.

Five of them are what he calls “today’s forecourts” – shops with pumps, a dozen parking spaces and the dominant store in a large catchment area.

The sixth, this store – Spar Lower Earley on the outskirts of Reading – is the group’s “challenging store”.

“It’s down to competition,” says retail director Nick, who has worked in the business for 17 years. “My family have owned this site for 21 years. When we opened it was just competing with Asda.

Nick Fraser

“Now there’s an M&S Simply Food, a Sainsbury’s Local and an Iceland and we’re 50% less busy. We can’t compete with M&S’s offer or Asda’s pricing, so it’s a more difficult scenario.”

The store turns over £25,000 a week excluding fuel and Subway, with an average basket spend of £4, significantly lower than the group’s other stores. However, instead of innovation and growing footfall, the Frasers are focused on efficiencies at Spar Lower Early.

“It is quite a mature store now and the sales are very consistent. You can do well with good fuel sales and medium shop sales. You just have to run it with a different model. We’ve just got to look at ways of operating it at a cost where it is still giving us a good return.

“So we ask could we do less but keep the same sales? The more range you have, the more products you have, the more labour intensive it is to put out.”

Nick is revaluating the fresh offer that’s been in place for two years.

“For the sales and fresh mix, there’s too much shelf space. It means wastage is high and you end up giving customers short dates, so we’re going to change the offer.”

“When people are earning £9 an hour, they can’t just be on the till. Everyone who works for us has got to give us more.”

With the National Living Wage driving up staff costs, Nick is also looking to get maximum value from staff.

“When people are earning £9 an hour, they can’t just be on the till. Everyone who works for us has got to give us more. They’ve got to be better trained, have departments to order on, stock-checking or price-checking. It can’t be all the responsibility of the person paid £1 an hour more.”

Nick’s grandfather Bob started the business in 1954 with a Shell site in Rowstock, outside Didcot. His sons Robert and Hugh joined him in the business and were Shell licensees for 20 years, before buying their first site in the mid-1970s.

Today, Nick’s father Robert and uncle Hugh are joint managing directors and cousin Jonathan is shop development manager.

“My grandfather was a bit of a pioneer. He used to be on the old A34 and had a café with fruit and veg out the front. He tried to be an entrepreneur with the shops.”

The next generation is keeping up the family entrepreneurial spirit and was the UK’s first forecourt to operate a Subway 10 years ago.

Nick FraserThe group also runs its own Platinum loyalty card, which it uses to share offers and free products to its 10,550 members. These include 20p off a cup of Costa coffee, a half-price car wash and a 2p per litre saving on fuel on Sundays.

Despite having 63 years of family experience and store processes and 220 staff members, Nick is still keen to learn from his wholesalers Booker and Blakemore.“We’re never arrogant to say we know everything. As well as delivering the product, we want a wholesaler to add an element of expertise.

“Musgrave were good at compliance. It sounds a bit controlling, but it made you better retailers. They push you more. There is compliance audits on range and their RSMs come to us and challenge us more.

“Booker is trying to simplify it, but we’ve said don’t move too far away. It’s almost like an extra layer of management, which is important for ensuring a strong future for the store.”