About an hour’s drive from the bright lights of Edinburgh is the bustling market town of Biggar, where Donna and Bruce Morgan have run a convenience store for the past six years. Business was steady, but when they got a whiff that a Sainsbury’s Local was planning to set up shop less than 200 yards away, they knew that doing nothing would be suicide.
The couple had already fended off an Aldi back in 2007 when Donna set up a petition which successfully argued that the store would have had a negative impact on traffic volumes and local traders. But the Morgans were unable to stop the latest threat, so instead they bravely announced that they would “take on Sainsbury’s”.
First of all, the store needed to look the part. “It was tired,” concedes Donna. “Customers who knew what we stocked would come in, but no one new would bother shopping here because it didn’t look inviting enough.” The store, which was built in 1755, is a listed building and because of its quirky nature, with low ceilings and narrow walkways, merchandising was tricky, but the couple were undeterred and invested £100,000 in a full revamp. In October last year - a month before the Sainsbury’s was due to open - they gutted their 1,000sq ft store and rebuilt it with the help of new symbol group Best-one. “We had been working with Palmer & Harvey (P&H), but they would never stock Scottish products so we changed to Best-one. Also, with Best-one, we can phone regional manager Colin Smith direct for advice,” says Donna.
The store’s once dull green, dated R&J Brownlie fascia was replaced by a more shopper-friendly Brownlie’s on a smart claret background. But the store’s transformation was much more than just a fresh coat of paint. Despite not having a Best-one fascia due to building restrictions, branded window adhesives brighten the shopfront, while posters alert customers to promotions. This was followed by new shelving, flooring and chillers, but perhaps the biggest change of all was the store’s product range.
With the precision of trained assassins, the couple astutely analysed their competitor’s key strengths and weaknesses and hit them where it hurt. “We sent our staff down to Sainsbury’s to see what they were offering,” grins Donna. “We then changed our opening time from 8am to 6am (an hour before Sainsbury’s opens) and started offering news and mags, as we didn’t want that to be a reason for customers to go to Sainsbury’s instead of us.”
Freshly-made products is another area where the store has created an advantage over rivals. “We started doing a few filled rolls and a competitor got annoyed and sent the environmental health officer round,” says Donna. “But instead of closing us down, he was really impressed with our set up and said we could be doing much more in terms of products, so now we offer filled sandwiches, wraps, coleslaw, fruit pots and pizza slices.”
The new offerings have proven a huge success. “We do £2,000 a month on filled rolls. They sell at between £1.20 and £1.50 each and they only cost about 40p to make, so profits are healthy,” says Donna. “We sold £200-worth of rolls in one day in the summer.”
Standing out from the crowd
• Branding: The store stocks a full range of Brownlie-branded preserves, and also sells store-branded shopping bags, which help ensure the brand remains front of mind
• Additional services: Brownlie’s offers a sale or return alcohol service and hire of wine glasses for when customers are having a party. The shop also provides food hampers, which are extremely popular at Christmas
• Variety: The store gets about 60% of its products from Bestway and the rest is sourced from 30 smaller suppliers, which means shoppers have plenty of choice
• Staff knowledge: Suppliers have been invited to the store to teach staff about whiskies and wines, giving them the confidence to make suggestions to customers.
The combination of fresh produce and news and mags has made the store popular with office workers. “There’s a loyal following of workers coming in every day for breakfast, so opening at 6am has meant we are really able to take advantage,” says Donna. In the mornings, customers are served hot rolls filled with freshly cooked bacon and sausage, and Donna also prepares toast and fried eggs for delivery to a neighbouring restaurant.
Filled rolls, baguettes, wraps and salads are popular at lunch, and a big improvement on rivals’ offerings. “Down the road, it’s just sandwiches in plastic, whereas here they’re handmade and some people like the same thing every day, so we’ll have it bagged up and waiting for them,” she says. “It’s all about getting to know customers and what they want. The next bit to work on is getting them coming in on their way home for their evening meal or a snack.”
As the Sainsbury’s is loaded with well-known brands, the Morgans decided that the best way to differentiate themselves would be to go big on local produce. “We have higher quality, more unusual products,” says Donna.
“We’ve taken on lots of different cheeses.” There’s Biggar Blue, Cambozola, and even the simple Cheddar has been sexed up, with claret, smoky garlic and chilli & tomato variants all earning a spot on Brownlie’s shelves.
“We’ve increased our butchery range, too. The meat section was only three-quarters of the size it is now and it was hidden at the back of the store, whereas now it’s right at the front,” says Donna. Lanark business Damn Delicious comes in three times a week, supplying Aberdeen Angus sausages, pies, meatloaf, sausage rolls and pasties, while Ramsays of Carluke provides bacon, and Inverawe Smokehouses supplies fish.
“We’re stocking more quality Scottish produce - products you might see in a farm shop, such as Rannock smoked duck breast, and Simple Simon’s Perfect Pies,” states Donna. And with premium products come premium prices and good margins - a Simple Simon calamari pie retails at a tasty £4.25, and haddock pie at £4.15.
But it’s not just chilled produce that gets the special treatment. The store’s baking section is bursting with all manner of exciting ingredients. Going far beyond your basic flour and sugar offering, Brownlie’s boasts tubs of Marshmallow Fluff, ready-to-roll Cakecraft icing, and organic barley malt extract. And for bakers who really want to splash out on something special, there’s £4.75 vanilla bean paste and Essential Dressings chocolate fudge sauce, priced at £5.15. “Our customers are really food-orientated,” says Donna. “It’s an affluent area and a lot of people like to cook.
“Many have moved here from the city because the house prices in Edinburgh are too expensive. There isn’t the range of restaurants here that they’re used to so they like to experiment.”
The store also boasts a plentiful alcohol offering. Scottish Stag and Cairngorm beers sit alongside Highlander and gooseberry ales, and strawberry and bramble & oakleaf wines in the neat walk-in alcohol section. And to really get folk interested in the store’s diverse offering, the couple are in the process of setting up a wine club. “We’ve held a couple of wine tastings where suppliers visit the store and sales went right up as a result,” says Bruce. “If people don’t know a product, they won’t buy it, so it’s really worth allowing them to have a taster. A lot of parents like a glass of wine, but can’t go to the pub because of the kids. If we are able to tap into this market with our wine club, it’ll be great.”
Brownlie’s treasure trove of niche products has proven a winner. Despite the Sainsbury’s Local trading just two minute’s walk away, sales are up a whopping 12% following the refit. “We stole their thunder by opening first!” laughs Bruce.