J Robarts & Son Costcutter


1,600sq ft

Wines and spirits may be at the heart of Josie Chamberlin’s Hertfordshire convenience store but thanks to a new refit and a lot of hard work, her whole offer is now driving sales and profit. Ed Chadwick reports

When beers, wines and spirits contribute a quarter of your turnover, it pays to know a thing or two about the category.

Thankfully Josie Chamberlin wields an extensive knowledge of grapes, terroirs and viticulture which continues to bring Hertfordshire’s most demanding wine lovers through the door of her 1,600sq ft J Robarts & Son Costcutter in Codicote.

What greets them is a sense of theatre based around rustic-looking wooden crates, full-size barrels and chillers illuminated by modern LED lighting. The new look was created as part of a 2016 refit to celebrate the store’s 175th anniversary. 

Josie – the fifth generation of her family to run the store – built her wine knowledge via courses run by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). Already a holder of the trust’s diploma, she is currently studying to obtain Master of Wine status, a gold standard qualification coveted by sommeliers at fine dining restaurants.

Her depth of understanding means she has the ability to host the tasting events and interact with even the most discerning wine-lovers on the shop floor.

Prices start from £3.99 and rise upwards of £30, with a particular focus on the Languedoc region of France and Chile. The average transaction value for wine in the store is £5.99, impressive when volume sales continue to be driven by everyday promotions.

“I love being able to engage with customers and help to develop their understanding of wine,” she says. “Customers who know the story about wine and where it comes from will spend more.

“The training through the WSET has been second to none and I’d recommend it to any retailer who wants to learn more about the category.

“We’ve been getting as many as 40 people along to the tasting events – they’ve been a huge success. We bring in specialist wines particularly for an event and it’s not uncommon to sell out on the night.”

Gin, meanwhile, is enjoying its moment in the sun and is afforded the same attention to detail as wine in Josie’s store. She sources gin through wholesaler Hammonds of Knutsford, which allows her to order single bottles rather than entire cases.

Another vital cog in the machine is the expertise of Josie’s staff. She is blessed to have a manager who is approaching almost 30 years’ service to the family and has also undergone WSET training.

“It’s great to know that they’ll be doing as good a job as me with customers,” she says.

The provenance of meat and cheese on the deli counter is another point of pride, not least because it includes Cote Hill Blue, produced in Lincolnshire by a family member. Cheese from Wobbly Bottom Farm, less than 10 miles away, gives the counter a local feel too.

The store’s everyday convenience offering has continued to develop alongside its major points of difference. Regular printed leaflets advertising promotions have helped to grow custom.

The refit also saw fresh produce moved to the front of the store. Sourced via a local market stall holder, fruit and veg is delivered six days a week and kept loose.

“With so much focus on plastic packaging, we decided to keep everything loose and it has been a huge success,” says Josie.

“There’s almost no wastage – anything that isn’t turned over is used for salads and sandwiches on the deli counter.”

And Josie hopes the next development for the store proves so successful. The unique shape of the store, which dates from the 17th century and is subject to Grade II listing protection, has been one of the family’s biggest challenges, but Josie plans to transform the store’s cellar into a dedicated space for more regular tasting events.

“We can’t wait to get on with it,” she says – her passion undimmed.