Passing on the mantle

After 40 years in convenience, Premier retailer John Cuthbertson retires this month, but not before SLR paid him at a visit at his Premier at the Union store in Dundee to discuss the shop’s incredible sales record and meet Grant Scrimgeour his replacement as manager.

by Kevin Scott

If you were to analyse the sales data of Premier at the Union in Dundee it wouldn’t take long for a few eyebrow-raising quirks to emerge – McCoys and Kettle Chips outselling Walkers; tobacco accounting for less than 10% of all sales; sandwiches bringing in over £8,000 a week. And that’s just the headlines – how about the fact 25% of all customers are new to the store every September and that every four years there is a near 100% turnover of customers. This is not a normal store, and yet on the surface it looks like one. In the nine year’s since this university campus store opened it has grown to be one of the most profitable c-stores in Scotland, thanks largely to the efforts of manager John Cuthbertson to understand and adapt to this unique trading environment. However, after 40 years in the world of retail John is hanging up his pricing gun this month and switching his concentration to his golf handicap. Taking over as manager of this shop, and the other three, smaller Premier shops on the Dundee University campus, is Grant Scrimgeour, a man with a career in wholesale. Grant was with CJ Lang for 28 years, working his way up from shelf packer to Wholesale Director. Since the Batley’s acquisition he has worked down south but the chance to manage a c-store in his home town was a huge draw. “The timing was perfect. It’s my first time managing a store, but with my wholesale background I’ve got a lot of experience in how the industry works, how promotional cycles work and so on. As a wholesaler up here I went head to head with Booker for years so I’m well placed to say that Booker are in great shape at the moment; the best.”

John says: “I’m 63 so I’m getting out a bit early. I felt the time was right though. My wife has retired and there’s the small matter of living 180 yards from the first tee at my local golf course. Once you’ve made up your mind, it’s just a case of planning so I’m very much looking forward to it. Honestly, though, in all my working life, this has been the most enjoyable job – the shop, the staff, the students. It’s been great.”

As ranging and merchandising go, the shop offers a masterclass. It doesn’t follow planograms for the sake of it, but instead bases decisions on John’s intensive analysis of sales numbers.
Not everything goes perfectly though – the opening of two Tesco Express stores in close proximity to the university have been a factor in the -6-7% year-on-year sales decrease, according to John. “Tesco are opening sites anywhere they can,” he says, but it’s something the store has been able to soak up thanks to an above average GP due to its strong categories, the shop operates a GP of 32%, with John highlighting certain elements such as the £8,000 a week in sandwiches at a 40% margin. That’s the sort of figures any business would love.
It’s not a huge shop and there are plans to increase it beyond its 1,800 sq ft trading space. Both John and Grant think it’s something the university (which owns the store) will be only too happy to fund. “There are three commercial areas to the University; bars, retail and catering,” says John. “And retail is the most successful.”

There are areas where being part of this set up can prove frustrating though. For example the catering side of the university has hugely improved of late, which begins to have an impact on the sales of the c-store. It is also the reason why there will never be a huge investment in food-to-go. The sandwiches and two microwaves are all that are required.
John adds: “Fresh is the way forward for convenience. We can do more in this area.”

Having been in the store for a few weeks to take in as much as John can impart before his departure, Grant is now in a position to see the store’s strengths. “Its service is incredible. The range itself is strong and its use of promotions. One of the things I’ve noticed is the pattern of customers. You can have one or two people in the shop then turn your back for a moment and there’s a huge queue. It’s like having four or five lunchtime rushes in a day. When it happens, the bell rings, the staff move to the tills and the queue goes down quickly. It’s a smooth operation.”

As SLR arrived at the store, at the beginning of February, a huge A0 poster stood outside advertising pancake mix. “Pancake Day is our single biggest grocery day of the year,” says John. “We sell huge quantities and on the day itself we’ll take £10,000.  Events are a huge part of our business – St Patrick’s Day, Halloween; local stores have to make the most of them.”
You would imagine with this being a student store that alcohol dominates sales, but this isn’t the case. “We don’t over index in total,” says John. “We do however sell more flavoured cider, for example and we sell very little whisky relative to vodka. You adapt your range to these findings, fit the store around the customer.”

Due to the sheer volume of freshly made sandwiches and baguettes, the company that makes them specially prepares them on the day of sale as opposed to the day before. “We could never have that kind of operation in-store. We sell 1,200 a week. It’s just not possible to prepare in-store, but they are now on sale two or three hours after they’re made,” says John. When asked about wastage levels, he smiles – it is simply not an issue. The management of the stock means that what few products are left over at the end of the day are discounted for the following morning and are soon gone.

These are not issues that John will need to concern himself with anymore – the only shelves he’ll be filling are the ones where he keeps his scorecards from the golf course. The store may be entering a new era, but as long as there are students in Dundee, there will be a cracking c-store on campus.

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