You’ll all be familiar with the saying ’the customer is always right’ but forecourt retailer Jonathan James is more familiar with it than most. Jonathan is operations director of James Graven & Sons, which he runs with his wife, managing director Rebecca, in Cambridgeshire.
What they don’t know about forecourt retailing is probably not worth knowing - they are previous recipients of the Forecourt Trader of the Year Award. However all that experience did not prepare them for what happened earlier this year when ’people power’ forced them to re-brand two of their stores.
Their two forecourt stores in Chatteris had been Budgens-branded but when Musgrave bought the Somerfield in the tiny town and branded it Budgens, it was too much for the locals.
"Musgrave’s move took us by surprise but it was the reaction of our customers which was more shocking," says Jonathan. "You’ve heard of ’Tesco towns’ but overnight here we became a ’Budgens Borough’. We’re only a small town of around 7,000 people. Two Budgens was not an issue but three all within walking distance was too much.
"Our customers thought we’d got greedy and started to boycott us. Shoppers don’t understand how symbol and fascia groups work - they just thought it was us getting greedy."
Both his shop and fuel sales immediately began to suffer. It was a huge shock and Jonathan realised he had to do something quickly.
He and his wife looked at their options and it was eventually a toss-up between Spar and Nisa. Both had a lot to offer but Spar won out because Jonathan thought the name was better known in his area.
"The Spar brand was the big plus-point for me as I knew my customers would recognise the name. But there were other reasons too. Our company is a Lakeside Group member and the vast majority of other members are already with Spar. Also Spar managing director Jerry Marwood is chairman of the ACS and I am vice chairman so I knew him well and he had already introduced me to Peter Blakemore (managing director of Spar wholesaler AF Blakemore). So I knew many of the faces behind Spar."
Once the decision to switch to Spar was made, the changeover took just six days. "It was unbelievable," says Jonathan. "I don’t know how they did it but they did an incredible job. The only thing we had to wait on was the fascia so we had that covered up with a sign that said "Coming soon... Spar".
Since the Spar re-branding customers have come back to the two forecourts and Jonathan has regained his sales. "Word soon got around that we had changed to Spar. A story explaining the changes went in our local paper - the Cambs Times - and that helped too."
Jonathan has nothing but praise for Spar and, in particular, Peter Blakemore’s team. "I’m really delighted with the outcome. Spar has brought a much more tailored forecourt range to the stores. We also have a bigger own-label range now.
"The chilled range is better than we had before. We had shut down the hot food at our West Park St store because it wasn’t working but with Spar and Country Choice it’s proving a big success."
When he looks back at what happened, Jonathan is still shocked - and a little annoyed with himself: "I misjudged my shoppers’ reactions and probably should have switched fascias straight away," he says. However he’s delighted to be a part of Spar.
And he’s got a lot to look forward to. He’s working with Him’s Mike Greene on an Independent by Design concept store, plus he’s currently building a new forecourt with a store on a Greenfield site in Littleport and guess what? He’s considering Spar for that store too.