The Shergills have breathed new life into their family business by building a state-of-the-art local store. Sarah Britton follows their journey 

Many retailers buy a shop and refit it, but father and son duo Saranpal and Sukh Shergill have gone the whole hog and built their Burton-on-Trent-based Nisa store from scratch.

"It was always my father's dream to have an up-to-date, modern store," says Sukh (pictured left). "He's been an independent retailer since 1987." Back then, Saranpal (far right) was running the News Cabin, delivering papers to 1,500 customers across Burton. "Our store was the biggest newsagent in Burton, but a paperboy shortage meant we had to adapt," he explains. "There was a Bargain Booze store for sale nearby and we could see that the land behind it had great potential, so we bought it with the idea of running that, but building a new store a few years down the line."

shop profile
Horninglow Road Nisa Local Size: 3,000sq ft Staff: two full-time, 17 part-time Opening hours: 6am-11pm daily Additional services: free ATM, in-store bakery, PayPoint, newspaper delivery service
That was back in 2002 and, true to plan, seven years on the family decided to embark on their grand design. Their timing wasn't perfect, however. "We took on the project when the credit crunch hit and the banks weren't lending," says Sukh. "The development was a mixed use commercial/residential project and this was the area hit hardest by the recent change in banking policy."

Thankfully, Sukh and his brother Shin are both qualified accountants, which helped to keep the business finances in line during these challenging times. In fact, Sukh still manages to hold down a full-time accountancy career, on top of his retailing commitments. While he spends up to 50 hours a week on accounting, full-time store manager Kevin runs the store and his father Saranpal oversees the paperwork.

Despite spending much of his time in a different profession, Sukh feels that his accountancy work has only benefited his retailing career. "Being an accountant is a key strength," he notes. "The ability to take a step back and critically appraise the business from the outside is something which can sometimes add value and help with making tough decisions to ensure margins are maintained."

His business know-how certainly came into play when deciding which symbol group to join. "The store is in a high chimney pot area, so we had a number of groups keen for the business. Nisa was happy to share its expertise and encouraged us to have an input in store layout and design," he says. "The difference with Nisa was that it enabled us to maintain our independence and the clincher was that Nisa was more competitive on price. There was also a clear focus on strengthening its brand through a new corporate logo and the launch of its TV advertising."

The group's strategy of high stock levels was another major factor in the Shergills choosing Nisa. "If you look at the likes of Tesco and the Co-op, they tend to have higher stock levels with high gondola shelving," he says. "I figured if we going to compete with the multiples, we would have to have plenty of stock and be able to choose from a large range of product lines."

The shop's layout was also inspired with customers in mind. "We've laid the store out very simply in a rectangular shape with plenty of aisle space, which provides easy customer access and makes it more appealing to elderly or disabled customers."

Customer feedback on the new store has been very positive, with customers often mistaking it for a multiple operator, claims Sukh. "It is important for all Nisa-branded independent retailers within the group to ensure that they can deliver a consistent store format and shopping environment. I think Nisa would like to achieve a level of consistency across the estate as this will really make the brand stand out and ensures that Nisa retailers can benefit from its TV campaigns."

But while the store resembles a multiple in its appearance, the father-and-son team have still managed to maintain the all-important personal touch. "One of the key factors when changing stores was to retain our customers from the old store," states Saranpal. "Because of our experience as a newsagent we know the importance of looking after our customers in the old store if someone was missing papers we had to act quickly and deliver it ourselves in order to keep the customer. If we didn't concentrate on retaining our customers, we wouldn't be here today."

The store has kept a large number of these and still delivers papers to 600 households. And it's not just customers that the shop has managed to hang on to its staff are pretty loyal, too. "All of the staff stayed on from our previous store, which is great," says Saranpal. "In fact, we have the oldest paperboy in Burton!" he laughs. "He started with us at 15 delivering the papers. Now he's in his 30s and running the whole department!"

But while the family were keen to retain staff and customers, they were well aware that the new store needed to reflect the changing times. The area in front of the shop where the Bargain Booze once stood has been transformed into a 15-space car park to make accessing the store as convenient as possible.

The interior is equally modern with chilled food a major focus. "We have 10 metres of chilled beer and wine and 50 metres of refrigeration in total," says Sukh. "We knew that to compete and meet today's customer expectations we'd need a lot of chiller space, so there was no question about us investing in it."

The old store's DVD display has also been ditched in favour of a more modern variation. "We had the opportunity to implement a new Rent It Here DVD machine available through Choices UK," says Sukh. "It takes up less space and is more in keeping with the times as it enables customers to book out films online from the comfort of their home and pick them up from the store." He has also introduced a bakery and is considering adding a hot food counter.

Another impressive technology employed by the Shergills is their heat recovery system, which collects hot air from the refrigeration plant and uses it to reheat the store, saving them both energy and money. "The whole store is free to heat during the winter months and no air conditioning is required in summer due to the amount of refrigeration in store," says Sukh. "We'll continue to monitor the system over the coming year, although we have already seen the benefits of it through the recent cold spell we have just encountered."

Despite all their hard work and considerable investment, the father-and-son team have no plans to put their feet up yet. "There's a lot to learn at the new store and we're still learning," says Saranpal. "The next stop will be to develop the business further by listening to customer feedback, ensuring we stock the right products for the area, and sourcing more of our products locally to support other local businesses."

It's this dedication that is central to taking the business forward. "We've learnt over the years that it's getting harder to survive as a business unless you evolve and differentiate yourselves from your competition and can match the supermarkets for availability and customer experience," says Sukh.

"If you're going to be a success in this business then you can't be afraid of the mults." Indeed, with that level of conviction, perhaps it's the multiples who should be scared.