Dilip Shah’s Harrow c-store was holding its own against a Tesco Express across the road, but then disaster struck. Now he’s picking up the pieces. Robin Mannering reports

For two years Dilip Shah successfully fought off the brash new kid on the block, aka Tesco Express. Dilip was warned that his new neighbour - just 200 metres from his unaffiliated ‘Seven ‘til Late’ c-store in Harrow - would hit his turnover by up to 50%. But through an aggressive pricing strategy and by fine-tuning his points of difference, Dilip managed to level out at just 10% below pre-Tesco levels.

So having survived the threat of Tesco, it was with a cruel irony that Dilip and his wife Manisha were caught off guard by a fire which destroyed the 1,000sq ft store in October last year. “The fire started at about 11pm,” recalls Dilip. “We don’t really know how it started, but it may have been from a lit cigarette someone had dropped. We lived upstairs so luckily the fire alarm went off and we got out safely.”

A lucky escape

Mercifully, the couple escaped with their lives, but not with their store. Others may have thrown in the towel at this point, but Dilip picked up the pieces and started to plan for the future. However, the insurance money covered only some of the costs, so he ended up contributing thousands of his own savings on the eventual refurbishment.

In the meantime, Today’s Group wholesale member HT Drinks approached him about joining its new symbol group am2pm, whose green fascia included the Today’s branding and the original Seven ‘til Late signage. The membership included full merchandising support, which was a major attraction to Dilip as he set about rebuilding his business.

When the store re-opened in May, Dilip had to regain all the ground he had lost over the previous six months. “We’re gradually picking up business, but it takes time. One or two customers still come in and say ‘Oh, are you open now?’. So many thought we had closed down after the fire.”

However, he doesn’t believe customer loyalty plays much of a role anymore, so he works hard at convincing shoppers he has what it takes to lure them away from Tesco Express.

Every three weeks he delivers the latest Today’s promotional leaflet to 500 local residents, and stocks the promotions in a dedicated bay near the front of the store. He also shops from various wholesalers, including HT Drinks, Bestway and Dhamecha, to get the best deals, and sells a wide range of pricemarked lines. “People are a little bit more trusting with pricemarking,” he says.

He is even able to trump pricemarked products. “We’re doing two packs of Fairy Liquid for £2, even though it’s pricemarked at £1.29 each. We can live on these margins because we hunt for the best offers at wholesalers. If we get an offer, the customer gets an offer.”

Dilip tells his customers that about seven in 10 items are cheaper at his store than in Tesco Express. “We say ‘have a look and check the price - you’re free to spend where you like, but we’re mostly cheaper here’.”

He also stands out by providing extra services, including National Lottery, Oyster travelcard top-up, and photocopier and fax services. Other points of difference include a clearly signed Polish grocery section to cater for the local Eastern European population, and an extensive confectionery offering which comprises loose 10p countlines for kids to splash their pocket money on. And for those who require a caffeine hit, a Nescafé coffee machine ticks the box.

Dilip is confident he can revive the store’s fortunes to pre-fire levels within six months. He says he is half-way there, which is healthy progress. And something about Dilip’s determination and resilience suggests he is a glass-half-full kind of retailer. •

store profile

am2pm Harrow

Size: 1,000 sq ft

Staff: two full-time

Opening hours: 6am-10pm

Additional services: Lottery, Oyster top-up, fax, photocopier, ATM, coffee machine