Following a massive refit at the end of last year, Hillfoot Garages in Bearsden went on to win the Refit of the Year category at this year’s SLR Rewards. Here we take a closer look at the evolution of a local institution.
by Antony Begley
Mention the words ‘Hillfoot Garages’ to anybody in Bearsden and they know exactly where you mean. Under the ownership of the entrepreneurial Potter family this petrol station-turned-convenience store became, over the course of several decades, something of an institution in this upmarket suburb to the north of the Glasgow.
But after many long and successful years, the onset of increasingly fierce competition nearby persuaded Billy Potter that his time in local retailing was drawing to a close. A casual conversation with his manager Ian Gillespie then triggered a chain of events that quickly led to Ian putting together a funding package to buy the business and inject some fresh energy and creativity into building a sustainable future for the store.
Ian explains: “I started working for the Potter family in and around the store when I was a boy, so I’ve been involved for over 30 years. I started managing it properly in my 20s and I’ve been involved all the way through with what has been a consistently successful business.”
Four or five years ago, however, a chance conversation with Billy was to have a profound impact on Ian’s career. Billy had been worrying out loud one day about a new Asda that had opened nearby that was selling petrol, as well as a Tesco and a Waitrose.
Ian recalls: “Billy was just musing about all the competition and how the time might be right to sell up. I think he just didn’t have the energy for the fight any more and his daughters were grown up and had no interest in joining the business – so I saw my chance and decided to have a look at buying it from him myself.”
With a 30-year knowledge of the business, the banks were “surprisingly amenable” and Ian promptly bought the store in 2014. “I was confident that I was doing the right thing, but I was still a little nervous, particularly when a new Sainsburys Express opened nearby during the negotiations!”
Traditionally an unaffiliated independent store, the business had historically bought from a wide range of suppliers and wholesalers prior to Ian taking over. “We were getting deliveries from Booker and P&H, we were buying from various cash and carries and we were just buying whatever we thought we could sell from wherever was selling it cheapest,” says Ian.
“We had a very, very loyal customer base that had kept the store successful for many, many years but we were starting to see the tide beginning to turn and I knew that we had to do something to reverse that trend and build a business that would have a sustainable future for the long term.”
In a certain way, Ian admits to channelling the entrepreneurial spirit of Mrs Potter, Billy’s mum, who wasn’t afraid to take bold decisions, even when those around her were sceptical. “It was Mrs Potter who decided that the store should start selling cigarettes and sweets at the forecourt, which was truly innovative at the time. Remember, this was 40 years ago! And it was Mrs Potter who decided they should knock down the original building and build a brand-new convenience store in its place almost 30 years ago. She reckoned the future wasn’t in doing MOTs or car repairs but was instead in selling food and drink. The petrol companies basically laughed at her idea and told her she was off her head, but she was clearly a lady ahead of her time.”
Despite Billy deciding to sell out, Ian maintains a business relationship with both him and his wife Fiona. They jointly acquired the Luss Village Store on the banks of Loch Lomond around six years ago, to add to the lease he and Billy took out on the Esso forecourt in nearby Hardgate around 10 years ago.
Having acquired the Hillfoot business, Ian set about building an ambitious strategy for the future and one of the most important decisions he made was to join a symbol group. “I knew we needed the weight of a big name behind us and we needed access to a better range, particularly in important categories like fresh and chilled and own-label,” he says. “I also thought that having a recognised name above the door and a regular promotional package would help drive footfall and grow sales.”
After much debate and research, Ian’s chosen partner was Spar which offered a package that he believed best suited his needs and the needs of his local customer base. The second major decision that Ian took was to commit to a full-scale refit of the store, a costly exercise.
“It was obvious to me that we needed to refresh the store because it was definitely tired and outdated,” says Ian. “We could have tinkered with it and evolved it bit by bit, but it just made more sense to me to do it all in one go. So we saved up and bided our time until we were ready to push the button.”
The refit was indeed a very major one, but the results were spectacular. So much so that the 2,100sq ft store won the Refit of the Year category at this year’s SLR Rewards.
Ian was unsurprisingly delighted: “I was really pleased with how the refit went and it was exceptionally rewarding to see my dream come to life. It was the icing on the cake to pick up an SLR Reward for it too. It’s great for me and my team to get some recognition for all the work we’re doing.”
The refit was “relatively pain-free”, partly because Ian granted Spar Scotland wholesaler CJ Lang just about free rein to implement its own planograms for each category. “We had a bit of enthusiastic debate about where each category should be sited in-store and how much space each category should have prior to the remerchandising but once the team arrived at the store I more or less let them do as they saw fit. I was sceptical about some of the recommendations and we ended up tweaking some fixtures after two or three weeks, but the vast majority of what they implemented has been successful.”
The store officially reopened on November 26th last year although, astonishingly, the business continued trading throughout the refit. “I didn’t want to close the store if at all possible,” explains Ian. “Our shopfitters, Vertex, were brilliant at helping us. They basically stuck a wall of chillers from the door all the way to the till to block off most of the store to customers. That way we could keep trading and they could get the refit done in the background.”
Ultimately the store was only fully closed for about eight hours, just enough time to refit the counter and put the tills and gantry in.
The new store is literally unrecognisable from the one it replaced. A huge wall of fresh and chilled along with a big fresh flowers display is the first thing that greets customers through the door while, just beyond, an island of four large chest freezers offers a range of top-notch frozen ready meals from the Cook range.
The grocery range was beefed up with largely premium and higher-end lines to appeal to the typically more affluent shopper base; think aged balsamic vinegar and artisan piccalilli rather than Pot Noodles and baked beans. A Costa coffee machine nestles beside a food-to-go hub while an extensive range of craft beers and rare, premium wines graces the back wall.
There’s also a free-standing Porelli’s serve-over ice cream unit and, most unusually of all, a very broad selection of gifting items merchandised in a specially designed ‘store within a store’ style in one corner of the shop floor.
“If I was trying to describe what I wanted to achieve,” says Ian, “it was to create a store that I’d want to live close to if I was a customer. I was also conscious that our customer base was ageing so we needed to freshen things up to attract the next generation of shopper. Firstly, that meant a modern, bright, attractive store with a great range of core products in the biggest, fastest-growing and most important categories. Then it meant focusing on our USPs, the stuff that would bring people through the door. I didn’t want to just compete with Asda and Tesco on selling tins of beans and bags of crisps, so I focused on things that our shoppers couldn’t get anywhere else.”
The Cook range is one of those key USPs, as Ian comments: “There’s one Cook store in the West End in Glasgow and one in Edinburgh, but as far as I’m aware we’re the only c-store in Scotland stocking the range and it has been hugely successful. The quality is outstanding and while they’re not the cheapest products – £7 or £8 for a meal for two – they do appeal to my customers and they’re proving a huge hit.
“We’re also getting better at upselling and cross-category selling. I encourage our staff to talk to customers about how, for instance, the Chicken Alexander meal is fantastic poured over fresh pasta and washed down with a bottle of Italian wine. A £7 sale can quickly turn into a £20 sale.”
Ian’s extensive ranges of craft beers and premium, rare wines also bring shoppers through the door. “We do get a lot of wine from Spar, but we still buy from Alexander Wines, a Scottish supplier, and Liberty Wines of London who specialise in old world wines,” he says. “So shoppers looking for Hardy’s or Echo Falls at great prices can find those wines, but somebody looking for a nice bottle of Chianti or an Australian Malbec they’ve never seen before can also find something too.”
Ian happens to be an amateur wine enthusiast himself and tastes every wine the store stocks, so that he can offer sensible, informed advice when his customers are looking for suggestions.
As for the store’s gifting section, Ian laughs when asked about it. “People always ask me why I do so many gifting items. The reason is that the store has always had a range of toys and novelty gifts as a way of making it a little different. Why do we still stock them and why have we increased the size and prominence of the section? It’s another USP, the lines sell and the margins are great. I need to sell four times the volume of Fresh & Chilled to make the same cash profit. My partner Jocelyn handles the buying for that part of the business and she does a great job. Trust me, it more than earns its space in the store.”
Locally and regionally-sourced lines are another way that Ian creates a range that shoppers can’t find anywhere else. “We try very hard to use small local and Scottish suppliers where we can, and we are always on the lookout for new ones. We buy craft beers from Jaw Brew in Glasgow and source some other small Scottish brands through Dunns and Rimsdale. We use Inverawe for our fish, we get paté from Findlaters, we get our butcher meat from Dalduff and so on. The quality is great and our shoppers are happy to pay a little more for products with a bit of a story behind them.”
So, with months down the line since the refit, all seems rosy in the Hillfoot garden. “We’re pleased with trading since the refit,” says Ian. “Almost everything we’ve tried has worked and we’ve been lucky with the weather and the World Cup. The summer is traditionally a lot quieter for us because Bearsden goes on holiday, and it has indeed been a bit quieter but we’re pleased with the numbers since the turn of the year.”
As for the future, Ian is looking to update the carwash and expand the Fresh & Chilled section even further to target the ‘meal for tonight’ shopping mission. He is also investigating the introduction of a home delivery service.
“It’s an interesting and exciting period for us here,” concludes Ian. “The refit was a huge challenge but we’ve done it well and it has worked. Now we’re looking to keep developing and expanding our range of service and products. I’m always on the lookout for what’s next!”
Ian’s achievement of taking a much-loved but tired business and injecting it with new life and passion is hugely admirable and it’s extremely encouraging to see an independent retailer thriving despite the attentions of an array of supermarkets within a few minutes’ drive.