Set in the beautiful, rural landscape of Weare in Somerset, the long-established family business of GH Lunn distinguished itself in May by becoming the first forecourt to feature the relatively new, but fast-growing Simply Fresh symbol branding.
Owners Simon and Sarah Lunn have been really excited about the interest shown in their redeveloped store, and more particularly in the resultant growing sales. "In our first full month of trading, year-on-year shop sales are up 23% and fuel volume is up 13%," says Simon, whose grandfather started the business in 1926 as a repair garage, working mainly on farm machinery. In those days there was only one car in the area, owned by the local doctor.
But in the ’50s the A38 was built nearby, and the family acquired a new plot alongside the road, and built the forecourt, which featured two pumps and a little kiosk.
Needless to say the site progressed significantly over the years, with fuel volumes growing to a peak of up to 5mlpa. The business was split between Simon’s father and his uncle in the mid-’90s, with the A38 forming the dividing line between the forecourt and the family’s other operations, which include servicing and also a nursery.
Simon’s parents took the forecourt business they still live in the house next door. At that time the shop was around 500sq ft, featuring a traditional range of bread, milk, sweets, drinks and a Wall’s freezer. Simon came into the business in the late ’90s after doing a business degree. It was a natural step: "I was serving petrol when I was 10 It’s in my blood," he says.
By 2006 fuel volumes had ebbed to 4mlpa. Simon went to an Esso meeting and saw a competitor there who had driven up in a Ferrari. "It was a light bulb moment," he says. "I didn’t want a Ferrari, but I knew I needed to make the shop work. We knew we had to change things for the next generation, we couldn’t be stuck in a rut."
They pushed the existing shop to the limit, creating more space, putting in more shelving and increasing the stock range; and, as an independent store, visits to the cash and carry were a regular chore. However, with the shop soon bursting at the seams, it became obvious a more radical plan of action was required. Simon and Sarah eventually gained planning permission to extend the shop to 2,000sq ft, with the help of local villagers who wrote on their behalf to say what an asset the forecourt operation was.
The GH Lunn site now referred to as Simply Fresh, Weare is a rural site, serving a broad customer base. The locals live in villages within a three to four mile radius from the forecourt, but 10 miles from their nearest major supermarket hence their keenness to have a much improved local store for supplies. It’s also a transient site because it’s on the main road between Bristol, the airport and the M5 motorway.
It therefore has a lot of commuter traffic, with motorists setting off at 6am for places like Bristol, Taunton and Bridgwater. But another aspect is the seasonal holiday traffic, with local attractions such as Cheddar Caves, Wookey Hole, and many other holiday destinations in the locality.
"There are several traditional forecourts to compete with in the area, but the site holds its own because it’s on a straight bit of road compared to them with easy access. It’s a large forecourt with plenty of parking. We can also accommodate the lorries," says Simon.
However, despite having planning permission and a Budgens agreement under their belt, Simon and Sarah took a step back to think it through, as the country’s economic difficulties bit deeper, and funding for the project became a more worrying issue.
"We decided not to go for the full extension, partly due to funding, but also we felt personally we weren’t ready for a 2,000sq ft shop and all the responsibilities and headaches that brings," explains Sarah.
"We have a young family and the economic climate had really taken hold. It would be a huge amount of debt if something went wrong. We didn’t want to take the risk and have the stress and worry of it all.
"We have renewed the planning permission for the bigger store for another year the dream is still to do that. But we felt happier going to 1,000sq ft, a more manageable size, so that we can grow gradually and organically. Budgens were lined up, but were not interested in a store of less than 2,000sq ft. We could have gone with Londis or Spar who would have taken us in our small store but it wasn’t the look we were after."
Regular readers of trade magazines, the couple had seen the Simply Fresh branding and liked the look and feel of it.
"We wanted to go with someone new, that no-one had ever heard of around here, to generate interest.
"The Simply Fresh image and emphasis on fresh and locally sourced produce was really what we were looking for. We chose it from the pictures. In a rural environment, where everything is grassy and wood, Simply Fresh is exactly the right look for our store."
After all the soul searching and decision making, the big moment came on March 18 when the builders moved in, and the work began to double the size of the store. It was a five-week build and a two-week shop fit, with only a day and a half of closure in order to lay the floor and install the counters. The build cost about £60,000, plus shopfitting, lighting, CCTV cameras and so on.
"We decided to do the development during Easter, so that we were geared up for the May Bank Holidays and then the summer," explains Simon. "Had we waited until after Easter, we would have been into May and June and eating into the summer months."
The official launch day took place on May 25, giving the Lunns the chance to show off their new store and its increased stock range a jump from 1,500 to nearly 4,000 lines. "The new range includes a lot more fresh produce, which we haven’t done before and are keeping an eye on," says Simon. "We’re still in the early days of learning how to do things, which everyone says will take six months, so I’m not expecting to learn it overnight. We’ve had an extremely good experience with the people at Simply Fresh they’re so supportive and quite relaxed. Nothing seems too much trouble. We’re enjoying not having to go to the cash and carry a twice-weekly event before, which was a lot of hard work. We couldn’t go on holiday without headaches and phone calls.
"It’s also handy being able to walk around the shop with a handheld device and ’beep’ everything you need in terms of additional stock. We had changed to Torex tills last year in preparation for going with Budgens.
"We were doing about £10-£11,000 a week in the shop, and now we’re already up to £15,000, and that’s before the summer holidays kick in. I expect it to be over £20,000 during the summer, and then we’ll really try and maintain that for the rest of the year."
The difference in the shop, apart from the stylish, countryside-style branding, is that customers can now do a weekly shop it’s become a destination store. "There’s a massive range of fruit and veg, including fresh mint and ginger, plus fresh meat, such as steaks, which we didn’t have before," says Sarah.
"That’s ideal for residential customers and commuters. For transient customers we’re offering cakes, snacks and Costa coffee. We used to have a coffee machine that was averaging about four cups a day, then at the start of last year, following recommendation from a fellow retailer, we installed the Costa machine. We went to mid-20s overnight and now we’re mid-30s sometimes over 50 cups a day nearly to the point where we can get an upgraded machine with more options."
Upgraded loos, a fast-growing alcohol category and regular updates on Facebook and Twitter, have completed the transition of the Weare site to a modern forecourt serving a broad range of customers.
Fuel sales are also on the rise, and a new five-year deal with BP has just been secured, continuing a long-standing relationship with the oil major.
"We’re very excited about what we’ve achieved," stresses Simon.
"We feel we’re the right size, with the right company and the right brand.
"We hope to build up and extend again, and might not bother with Budgens now. We’ve been so impressed with the service we’ve got from Simply Fresh I would certainly recommend it."
Simply a good idea for forecourts
Kash Khera, director of Simply Fresh, believes the rustic-themed branding style, with natural wood and grassy feature walls, coupled with personalised POS for each retailer, along with the brand’s fresh approach to convenience, is the perfect fit for altering the sometimes negative approach to forecourts: "In particular, it suits GH Lunn’s naturally beautiful location, the small community, and environmentally conscious residents. We also feel strongly that our new retailer, Simon Lunn, was an ideal partner to venture into our first forecourt store with, due to his experience, strong support for our fresh approach and values, and his willingness to invest in the key areas that will help keep these values at the forefront of the business."
Kash and his brother Sukhjit were convenience retailers themselves for many years, before they found themselves being encouraged to become operators of a symbol brand it wasn’t part of the plan. "We’d been running convenience stores for just over 20 years, with up to 10 sites in the Midlands and had fairly high standards," says Kash. "We always felt we punched above our weight. We traded with Costcutter on many of them, but didn’t feel it was right when we took on a site in a more affluent area Kenilworth. We spoke to more demographically-affluent brands, but didn’t feel any of their propositions fitted into what we wanted to achieve.
"We needed a supply chain, and approached Costcutter as we were partnered with the company on many of our sites at the time, and it was happy to provide the shop goods for our Kenilworth site, which we branded as Simply Fresh, a phrase we’d always toyed with in our other stores. We sourced about 30% of the lines outside the normal range. They weren’t just local lines, but products from smaller, more artisan producers, with specialist fare such as pies, artisan breads from local bakers, and a lot of ’goodness’ foods healthier produce.
"We were trading against a Tesco Express and were told we were mad to open a store near them because we would never do more than £12,000 a week. But, we reasoned, Tesco can provide the footfall and we’ll do something a little bit different. The store went really well. It was a relatively small site at 1,400sq ft, but we did just over £20,000 a week by the end of year one. We then took on another larger site (3,000sq ft) in Alcester that proved very successful. After re-branding it Simply Fresh, we doubled the turnover to about £39,000.
"We were featured in a couple of articles in the trade press and someone printed the words ’new symbol group’, which it wasn’t really it was just branding for a couple of sites. But it triggered a raft of phone calls from interested retailers who liked the name and the image. We didn’t intend doing a symbol group.
"But we decided if we were going to do it, to do it properly. We therefore needed a proper brand identity. The brief was for an image that would sit next to a multiple supermarket brand and make the customer notice something that had real power and was different; but trustworthy in the style of a farmer’s market. We wanted to work with a lot of natural products, such as wood, grass and wicker. In some of the sites we use vintage wooden crates.
"From there we took on a business development manager, Tony Houlston, and it just grew we’ve now signed up 46 sites of varying sizes and locations. There’s a membership fee, exactly the same as joining Costcutter the supply agreement is with Costcutter (whose supply comes throught Nisa), and the branding agreement is with us. We can benefit from their massive buying power, but our real interest is in developing stores, and uplifting turnover for the retailer, because that’s where the true value is.
"We help source goods, we do a lot of the legwork for the retailer, finding local producers. The Simply Fresh brand tends to suit a more affluent area and is a bit more expensive to fit out in-store than our ’entry’ brand, Simply Local.
"The offer is about convenience and fresh, which is the way the market is going, especially for forecourts. We believe the look and feel of the Simply Fresh format actually slows the customer down, makes them stop and think. They notice the 3D signs. They stop and notice the grass above the chillers with the letters pressed through it and the daisies popping out, and that draws them to that section of the store. They’ve probably seen this kind of theatre in other stores but never in a c-store, and that makes them curious. It’s all about the shopping experience. The hard part is retaining the customer, making sure the customer journey and experience is world class.
"The Simply Fresh brand is now developed, but we’re always looking at new initiatives. For example, we’re looking at free wifi, especially for forecourts, charging points for phones and so on. We’re also developing our own raft of food-to-go products. We believe our brand is ideal for forecourts it’s a fresh, new look."