How easy is it to buy a convenience store, fit it out with shelving and equipment and buy all the necessary stock without leaving your computer screen? Amy Lanning finds out whether it's possible to set up shop at the click of a mouse
The internet has made the wide world a much smaller place and e-commerce has developed to such an extent that there's very little you can't buy online these days. But can you open a convenience store, getting all the fixtures, equipment and stock you need to start trading, over the internet? I made it my mission to find out.
You can't open a store without a premises to trade from, so my first stop was the property websites. A quick Google will introduce you to countless commercial estate agents who sell retail property in your area, and search parameters range from location and price to size and tenure. Daltonsbusiness.com, for example, has a commercial property section that sells vacant retail space. It had some 340 premises on offer.
Once you've got the property deal under way, it's time to fit out the space. When Rami Gill and his brother Sunny took over a convenience store in Little Heath in Coventry a few years ago, they went to the internet first for help. "We did all our research on the internet and we still do that now," says Rami. "Whenever we need anything we research it on the internet first.
"When we were first thinking about doing a full refit we looked online for everything, from chillers to shelving, but when we decided to go with Premier, Booker had preferred suppliers and we couldn't beat their prices on the internet. And now that we're looking at putting in equipment like till guards, I look for things like that online."
Ebay is often Rami's first port of call. "We look on Ebay quite a lot and I bought a fraud note detector, used chiller and Caravell upright freezer from Ebay when we first took over the shop. We didn't want new because we knew we were going to do the refit, so the equipment was just a stopgap. Even reconditioned units can be quite expensive, so Ebay seemed the best option. The Caravell freezer cost about £250, whereas reconditioned units were £500-£600.
"I think more people are using Ebay now," adds Rami. "Our fraud note detector was cheaper on Ebay than anywhere else. If you go via a shopfitting company they tend to add on their little bit. They are like the middle man and save you the donkey work, but if you do that extra bit yourself you can save money."
When Rami and Sunny eventually got started on their store refit, the second-hand equipment was replaced. "We've already sold one of the old chillers on Ebay, and that has helped us claw back a bit of the money we spent on the refit," says Rami. "We sold that to someone in Leicester and delivered it to him as well because we've got the van."
What goes around
Rami is just about to put the Caravell freezer back on Ebay, too, after unsuccessfully trying to sell it through newspapers and cash and carry notice boards. "How much I will get back for it depends on the demand. If you've got more than one person who wants it, they try to outbid each other, which pushes up the price. The problem with using local newspapers and cash and carry notice boards is that the audience is limited, but with Ebay you've got the whole of the UK. I'll offer delivery, which I'll charge for, because that makes goods more saleable."
Nigel Dowdney, who runs stores in Norfolk, has also bought fixtures and fittings over the internet, but his experience have been mixed. "I've bought shop fixtures over the internet as recently as just before Christmas," he says. "I bought shelving and peg boards because the local companies didn't have what I needed. I always go to the local businesses first - they tend to be far more helpful and generally have a wider choice. I wouldn't want to use the internet any more often - it's a bit divorced and I'm a strong campaigner for the local economy and local businesses.
"I'm also director of Redorange and we have nominated local shopfitting companies that offer preferential deals, so I normally talk to them first," adds Nigel.
"Over the internet you can't see what you're getting and I'm very keen to judge the quality before I buy. And because people know me in the local area, I get good service. There have been occasions when I've bought equipment over the internet and, when it arrived, it didn't work properly. I had a hell of a lot of trouble getting my money back."
Andrew Newton, who runs a Nisa Local store in Brierley Hill, West Midlands, prefers the face-to-face approach, too. "Most stuff is available on the net and I tend to look there first and then ask someone from the company to come in and see me. It would be very easy to buy everything over the net and there's a lot of websites out there, but I like to meet people face to face and see the product - I think that gives you more bargaining power as well."
During my search in kitting out a virtual store, Ebay throws up some great possibilities when it comes to fixtures and fittings. A 4m wide, 2.1m high Tegometall shelving unit was on offer at a 'buy-it-now' price of £638.61, plus £52.87 for delivery, while another seller was advertising a 5m Tegometall shelving unit with a starting bid of £560 or a buy-it-now price of £575, plus £80 delivery. That seller was also inviting buyers to enquire about a full range of shelving units and for advice on shop layout. Other shopfitting products on Ebay included shelving parts, A-board displays and greeting card units.
Elsewhere on the internet there's a multitude of shopfitting companies touting their wares. Some allow you to buy online, while others just present their catalogue. Either way, you're sure to find what you're looking for, and it's up to you whether you trust the description and picture and buy online, or prefer to talk to a representative face to face.
A c-store wouldn't be a c-store without products to sell, and a number of wholesalers have been quick to realise the benefits of online ordering. Blueheath was the first internet-enabled wholesaler, founded on the principle of passing onto the retailer any savings made through stripping unnecessary supply chain costs. It trades on being able to operate a just-in-time stock ordering system via the internet.
As a Premier retailer, Rami Gill takes advantage of Booker's online ordering system. "It's great and saves us a lot of time and effort. Anything that can make life easier in this business is good because otherwise you end up doing a lot of running around. We can access all the Booker promotions via the internet so we purchase those as well. Booker delivers weekly so when goods arrive we check them off and if there are any problems we can ring them through."
Andrew Newton also orders online. "Nisa's ordering system is based completely on the internet and that works well. I rely on it - it means I don't ever have to go out to the cash and carry. I haven't got enough time to run around to the cash and carry and save a pound on a case. Being able to order over the internet gives you a balance between life and work. When I first started a few years ago, internet ordering was non-existent, but now I can send emails to buyers and group services at Nisa and it saves a lot of time."
Nigel Dowdney has in the past bought grey-market products over the internet. "It was mostly buying stock that has been de-listed by the major multiples, or stock that's gone abroad and come back again - the residual stock ends up on the grey market," he explains. "I'd hear about it on the grapevine from other retailers, but there's not so much about these days. It's not as fun now and I used to enjoy the wheeling and dealing. A lot of suppliers have disappeared because of the power of the multiples."
Back on Ebay, one seller was offering "80% of the stock needed to open a convenience store". The auction came and went without a single bid first time around, but someone could have snapped up products spanning most categories - everything from grocery and non food to confectionery, tobacco and alcohol, as well as a 16-shelf freestanding gondola, Casio electric till, scales and note detector. The ad claimed the stock had a retail value of more than £5,000 and the starting bid was £1,450 or a buy-it-now price of £1,650.
There are plenty of other uses for the internet, too - from finding staff to keeping on top of your accounts. Rami swears by his internet banking. "We do all of our banking via the internet and that's really useful because you can keep an eye on your account every day, which is especially important if you've got Paypoint or Payzone and a lot of money is going in and out."
If all that surfing doesn't sound appealing, sites such as daltonsbusiness.com and businessesforsale.com sell c-stores as a going concern. Businessesforsale was advertising almost 1,200 convenience stores, newsagents and off licences when I checked it out, while Daltonsbusiness offered nearly 1,400. They clearly state the businesses' credentials - turnover, profitability and services - and some properties advertise both freehold and leasehold prices.
So it can be done - you can set up a convenience store without leaving the comfort of your home. And in a world of increasingly busy entrepreneurs, the internet is opening up a new range of options and opportunities.
New ultra-violet fraud note detector: £4.99 plus £1.50 postage
Two used gondola units: £220, pick-up only
Used Salva bake-off oven: starting bid £999, buy-it-now £1,399, delivery £55
New Sam4s touchscreen epos system: buy-it-now £999, delivery £10
Used Samsung epos till: buy-it-now £400, offers taken, delivery £20
New till cash guard: starting bid £10, buy-it-now £20, pick-up only
Source: Ebay, correct on January 25, 2007