Me and My Store: David Thomas

David Thomas, the owner of Thomas Foodmarket, with his store manager

On the main road between Norton and Stockton, David Thomas’s family has run their busy store – Thomas Foodmarket, now trading as a Nisa – for 70 years, and customers can still recall David as a toddler helping out his parents with filling the shelves.

How would you describe your store?

Well my family’s had it since the early 1950s, started by my grandfather and passed down through the family. It was one terraced house and my father bought those either side, so it’s the width now of three. Originally we were a Spar, in the 1960s – my father used to be a salesman for Jarman and Flint, who were the Spar wholesalers. Then we were one of the first few to join Nisa in 1980 when they started. But the locals still call us The Spar after 40 years.

What sort of trading area do you operate in?

We are on a busy main road between Norton and Stockton. At one point we had the biggest supermarket in Europe on our doorstep, a Tesco. It’s lost that that title now.As far as customers go, we’re in an established estate and there’s a huge comprehensive school as well.

How long have you been a retailer?

Well, straight from school when I was 15 (I am 63 now), but I was outside the shop in a pram and then bagging potatoes since I was about five years old!

Arthur Thomas founded Thomas Foodmarket in Norton, near Stockton on Tees, in 1950

What is the best and the worst thing about the job?

I enjoy the freedom of being able to be able to jump in my car and go to the cash and carry if something’s out, and being able to respond. I can’t think of a bad thing about the job. It’s not the long hours –I have staff that do the hours. The days of me starting at 5am and locking up at 11 are finished!

What is the biggest challenge in retailing?

Profits have always been a problem. I don’t think the online stuff will affect how we trade. I suppose I’ll have to react to it soon, but the Deliveroos and all the extras, they just don’t seem to work for us.

Do you think retailers get the respect they deserve from the local community?

Yes, I do. We’ve lots of customers who’ve been here as long I have – customers who can still remember me in the pram.

Do you find the suppliers’ category management plans work?

We do use them but then we tweak them. We find that they’re not a one-size-fits-all. We just had a Co-op refit a little while ago, and although it gave us a lot of discipline we have changed a lot of it.

What brands or categories do you find bring more footfall into your store?

Well, the beer, wines and spirits is my main driver, but we’ve also got a post office so there’s a lot of footfall for that, too, and I can make them buy a packet of biscuits or crisps while they’re in here – we will always have something on the counter so we can say, “Would you like two of them for a pound?” We’ve a very good lottery sale. In fact, it’s bigger than the huge Tesco and we were told we were one of the best in the area. It’s a good footfall driver – no profit, mind.

How much do your sales depend on seasons and weather?

We’re between two town centres so the weather can make a lot of difference. When the weather is bad, we do quite well because they don’t go walking into town, they’ll just come here. So the worst the weather, the better we do. It’s really busy all the time but spells of bad weather can help us.

Do you get the support you need from the local police force?

No. You can be plagued with thieves, you know, because opportunist thieves will stand around outside, then dash in and snatch something. But the police generally won’t turn out for it, you know? Unless you’re on the phone saying your life’s been made a misery by certain people. Then you’ve got to give them names and addresses and CCTV and all that.

What is the best piece of advice you would give to your local retailer?

I wouldn’t be so presumptuous! I think everyone’s got their own idea – I have reps or execs come in and tell me I should be doing this and should be doing that, and it’s all rubbish.

I think everyone does it their own way.

Which sections of the store work best for you and which are the most challenging?

The best is the chilled section because it’s dynamic. I can look back to the 70s or 80s, when we used to have a little fridge with maybe some Dairylea and Philadelphia and a few bits and pieces. Now it’s grown from three to 20 metres. I can’t think of a challenging section – everything works fine by now.

What help/advice would you like to see most from manufacturers or suppliers?

Give me more margin! Co-op do a lot of fantastic produce, but in large case sizes too big for us. And the dates on fruit and veg – you know, parsnips with three days on them– ridiculous.

Do you ever have customers coming in asking for products they’ve seen on TV that you know nothing about?

Yes. And then I go and get it. On Facebook if somebody says there’s a new Aperol or something, it’ll be a best-seller for weeks. You bet I’ll get it.

If you were to give up your store tomorrow, what would you like to do?

I have no idea. My kids are all doing other things. I think I’m just going to keep going.