Aidan Fortune meets a retailer who laughs in the face of recession, choosing to invest and expand to safeguard his store’s future

It’s impossible to open a paper or listen to the news and miss the doom and gloom that has enveloped the economy. Jobs are being slashed, national debt is increasing and even big-name high street chains are suffering. So it’s refreshing to find a retailer who is looking to the future with optimism, having invested £100,000 to almost double the size of his store.

Don Patel and his wife Smita decided that despite the depressed national economy, the time was just right to take their business in Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire, to the next level, and convert to a Nisa Local in the process.
In fact, Don says that it was concerns over the economy that prompted him to consider his position in the first place. “You either give up or you progress. I wasn’t about to give up on 25 years of retailing so I decided that it was time to expand,” he says.

Store profile: Nisa Sawbridgeworth

Size: 1,900sq ft 
Opening hours: 7am-8pm Monday-Sunday 
Additional services: Newspaper delivery, National Lottery, PayPoint

The store, formerly known as the Tuck Shop, focused mainly on tobacco, newspapers and greetings cards, and Don says that while it was doing well there was potential for it to do better. “We had a turnover of £15,000 a week in the Tuck Shop, which wasn’t too bad at all in the current climate,” he says.

When he first suggested his expansion plan to his friends last November, it was met with some scepticism, though. “My friends thought I was mad,” he says. “I was asked a hundred times why I was doing this when the economy was so bad, but I wasn’t going to be deterred. I knew I had to invest if I wanted to continue in the sector.”

Even if his friends were unconvinced, public support for his endeavours was clear. When first contemplating his expansion Don conducted a poll of 2,000 of his customers and every one of them welcomed the idea of a new-look and larger store.

Despite Sawbridgeworth already being home to a number of convenience outlets, with a McColls and a Budgens store nearby, the support from customers gave Don the confidence he needed to proceed. “Sure there are other stores in the area, but they don’t all offer the customer service that we do,” he says. “We have a newspaper delivery service and I know all of my customers by name and what they usually buy. You don’t get that personal service at other shops.”

The revamped store opened in mid-June and Don believes that it will eventually help to rejuvenate the high street. “Our move gives the people of Sawbridgeworth more choice and variety,” he says. “It will also help other businesses thanks to the extra footfall that will be created. I think people will stop and shop more at all of the stores, rather than walk up the high street with tunnel vision.”

The refit involved extending the previously 1,000sq ft store to just under 2,000sq ft, and Don made sure that no corners were cut in doing so. He installed two new chillers, two freezers, an epos system and state-of-the-art CCTV with 22 cameras to ensure that his new-look business was properly protected.

“When investing money in the business it’s important not to skimp on it,” he says. “Some retailers will begrudge installing a CCTV system because of the initial cost, but they never consider how much it will save them in the long term. If you’re serious about your business you have to invest in it.”

Don didn’t change everything, though. The store still retains its large greetings card display area. “We’re known for a wide range of cards so we couldn’t abandon that,” he points out. “We also have that little bit of extra room so we can extend our news and magazine section if we want to.”

Don has thrown himself into the store, having previously divided his time between running the Tuck Shop and his carpeting business. “This is my primary concern right now,” he asserts. “If I want the store to succeed, I have to give 100% I can return to my other business interests at a later stage when the store has settled, but right now this is my top priority. I’ve even given up golf for the time being!”

He’s also making sure that he’s up to speed on every aspect of running a convenience store by taking a hands-on approach to operations. “Some of this is new to me so right now I’m doing everything rather than delegating work to others,” says Don. “How can I entrust someone else to run my store if I’m not able to do it myself? When I’m comfortable about what I’m doing, then I’ll start taking on other members of staff to help run it.”

Serious business

Don’s re-evaluation of his own store also led him to take a look at commerce in the area, and as a result he resurected the Sawbridgeworth Business Association, which had been disbanded several years ago. 

One issue that Don is keen for the association to tackle is on-street parking. “We’ve had problems with the council when it comes to parking and rather than each of us complaining to them, we can organise something formal that speaks for all of us.” 

East Herts District Council introduced parking charges five years ago and Don believes that the move has harmed the area. “The council have made it very hard for us to succeed,” he says. “All they care about is the money made from the charges, but this profit is at the expense of local businesses. 

“People have mostly remained loyal, but it could come to the point where they won’t want to pay to park their car and will shop outside of the town. Sawbridgeworth as we know it could become a ghost town. It’s time for all of us to stand up and be counted.” 

He believes that if the businesses work together, they have a better chance of convincing the council that the charges are the wrong route to take. “If we all shout together then we have a better chance of being heard,” he asserts. 

He adds that if local businesses work together it also presents the opportunity for everyone to save a little bit of money. “We rarely see each other outside of these meetings so we really don’t know what’s going on in each other’s businesses,” says Don. “At least if we get together on a regular basis we can utilise each other’s contacts and business knowledge to benefit everyon

Learning the ropes has been made easier by Don’s decision to join a symbol group. After researching the groups available to him, he settled on Nisa. He says that the group has been extremely helpful and is quick to recommend them to others. “It was the best fit for this area and the team were amazing in helping me set up the store,” he explains. “They really want you to succeed and go out of their way to help you. They’re coming back in a few weeks to ensure all of the categories are placed in the optimum areas.”

Although moving from being completely independent to part of a symbol group was a bold step for Don, he believes he is adapting well and is taking advantage of what’s on offer. “Nisa is part of my life now and I’m embracing working with them,” he says. “It’s taken a little bit of time to learn the IT system and the fact that everything has to be ordered online, but they’re all elements I’ll get used to.”

He’ll also be using his 25 years experience as an unaffiliated retailer as back-up in case anything goes wrong. “If I forget to order a product or it’s not available, I have plenty of contacts to help me out so we won’t be stuck,” he laughs.

One of the challenges that Don has faced since the re-opening has been changing the perceptions of his customers. “Despite all of the work we’ve done on the premises, some people haven’t fully realised the change and think we’re still a CTN,” he says. “What I have to do is make sure that everyone in the village knows that we’re a fully fledged convenience store with a range to match.”

Never one to panic, Don knows that he will be able to convert customers and get them used to the changes. “It will happen,” he says confidently. “I just have to keep pushing it with my customers through promotional leaflet drops that let them know about the latest in-store deals. If they come in once, they’ll see the size of the store and the massive range we have.”

Don says that it’s still early days and downplays the spectacular progress the store has already made. “We’ve only been open a few months so there is still a huge amount of work to be done,” he says. “Our turnover has increased to £20,000 a week, which is mostly down to an increased range. Once our customers get used to the new store and start utilising it properly, I expect it to be up to £25,000. Wait till we’re 12 months down the line and then you’ll see some real progress!” n