Our Champs look back at 2011 and discuss their plans for 2012. Sarah Britton reports

Vickram: This stupid idea that we have to hide cigarettes from smokers - that’s the piece of legislation that will have most impact.

Saki: The tobacco display ban will have the biggest effect. Gateshead is under 3,000sq ft so it won’t have to go dark, but with Ashington we’ll need to make changes. I’ve been talking to JTI and they already have some options and solutions. I don’t think it will affect us too badly as most stores in Ashington are over 3,000sq ft so we’ll all be in the same position.

Peter: If the government tries to increase minimum wage in October that will be a killer for us.

John: The tobacco display ban will have a major impact - it’s a big opportunity for the convenience store sector. How did your store perform in 2011?

Vickram: The store performed really well last year. Turnover was up, which has been the case for many years now.

Saki: The Gateshead store performed steadily - it wasn’t particularly affected by the downturn. The Ashington store opened in April so is still growing.

Peter: Aylesbury was down significantly year on year. The council is a big employer in the area and many people have been made redundant. Also, we’ve had a Sainsbury’s Local open up half a mile away. Holmer Green has doubled in size to 1,200sq ft and I’m disappointed as I think I should be making more a week, but having said that it is paying for itself. Other people are telling me I was expecting too much and that I’m actually doing okay.

John: We were up 5% year on year. Over a year ago we had a Tesco Express open on campus, which took business from us, but we’re now making that back.

What was your most positive memory from last year?

Vickram: Before the summer we had a refit with new flooring and shelving. The customers love it - it’s a breath of fresh air for them.

Saki: The opening of the new store was our highlight. We’ve reached a milestone with this project as we’ve been working on it for a year-and-a-half.

Peter: Working with local producers and introducing local eggs from a neighbouring farm was a high point. It’s great to be supporting a new start-up company, and for it to do as well as it is has been brilliant. People are actually coming to the shop especially to buy their eggs!

John: One of the big positives has been Booker’s innovation in own label with the new Euro Shopper and Happy Shopper pack designs. There’s a Lidl store just off campus, so we have to be competitive, and that has really made a difference.

What was the most difficult thing about 2011?

Vickram: Losing the Londis regional sales manager was pretty tough. She was really experienced.

Saki: The past four or five months have been a struggle. At the new store we’ve been trying to break people’s habits and convince them to shop with us.

Peter: Having stock left over. We used to buy products at their promotional price and sell them at full price after the promotional cycle, but now there’s no point in doing that as people don’t buy at full price any more.

John: The change in Scottish licensing law means that a single can of beer must cost an eighth of an eight-pack, which means that we don’t make good margins on single cans anymore. It used to be a good profit opportunity.

What have you learnt most from experiences of the past year?

Vickram: Doing my stocktaking regularly. It’s an annoying task, but it really helps you to manage your stock a lot better. I used to think I could leave it a couple of months, but people make errors with ordering, or people steal things and it doesn’t get picked up on quickly enough. Now I stocktake every month.

Saki: Every day is a learning curve! With the new store, it’s probably the case that our expectations have been too high. It’s taken six or seven months to get to where we thought it would be in three or four weeks. In the future we need to think of new stores as a long-term project.

Peter: Having to get used to figures that aren’t in growth has been a real learning curve. It makes you question whether you’re doing the right thing.

John: You’re learning new things all the time as a retailer. For example, I had a local supplier offer me sushi recently. I’d never tried it, so I was a bit dubious, but we took it on and sold 140 trays in the first week alone. It just goes to show that you can never rule anything out without first thinking of your customers’ needs.

Who or what proved most helpful in getting through 2011?

Vickram: Trade magazines are really useful. I don’t always have time to read them cover to cover, but I’ll always have a gander to find out the latest trends and what’s going on in the industry.

Saki: The Nisa symbol group has been fantastic with the merchandising and fit out of the new store.

Peter: The friends I’ve made in the Spar network. They’re people you can talk to and get a steer on whether you’re in line with everyone else. Also AF Blakemore sales manager Alan Rumsey and development director Louis Drake have been really supportive. I’d hate to be an unaffiliated independent and have no way of measuring my performance.

John: The support of Booker has been great. I sit on the Premier Development Group and we meet with senior management twice a year. It’s a two-way thing - we tell them when they’re doing well and when they’re not doing so well, and they bounce ideas off us. We all get a lot out of it. I can’t sing Booker’s praises highly enough.

Which categories are you planning to develop this year?

Vickram: We’ve seen real demand for baked goods, so we’re thinking about expanding our bakery area.

Saki: We’re always looking to improve all areas. The challenging category for me is the chilled section. We’re working with Nisa’s fresh food manager to work out what sells and what doesn’t. It’s tricky because some of the stuff that sells well in Gateshead doesn’t perform as well in Ashington.

Peter: Our most successful category is beers, wines and spirits. I’d like to get in more local products for this section and ensure our promotional displays are at their best.

John: Alcohol will be a challenge. We’re going into minimum pricing for alcohol by volume, so high-strength ciders will go up in cost. Last year you could buy a bottle of spirit for under £10, but this year it will be more like £11.50. On the plus side, though, this will put us more on an even level with the likes of Tesco. Confectionery will be another focus area. I see it as a big opportunity. The suppliers will probably put more pricemarked packs into the category this year, and we’ll see the benefit of better sales.

Are you expecting your business to grow or shrink in 2012?

Vickram: Hopefully, we’ll grow at the same rate. We’re located on a housing estate and many of the residents are state-funded, and have been for some time, so the recession doesn’t really affect them.

Saki: Obviously, you can’t predict the future, but I’m hoping it will grow. We’ll be refitting the Gateshead store next year, changing the graphics, fascia, shelving and ceiling, so that should mean the business performs well. And over time, Ashington’s turnover will continue to grow.

Peter: I’ll do a small refurb at Aylesbury and put in extra chilled, so I think that will mean sales are steady. And hopefully Holmer Green will do better now we’ve invested in a refit.

John: I think we’ll continue to grow above inflation. As long as we don’t have a Sainsbury’s Local open up nearby. There was a planning application for one, but it’s been turned down for now. However, they’re more than likely to revise it and re-apply.

Do you have any new year’s resolutions?

Vickram: On a personal note, I’m going to stop smoking. On a business front, I just want to be more tolerant and exercise more patience.

Saki: I’m looking forward to getting a good night’s sleep now that the new store is up and running! But whether I’ll get it is a different matter as there’s always something.

Peter: To relax more and not take things so personally with regard to the business.

John: We just want to make our store one of the most successful in Scotland. We’ll do that by continuing to invest - you can’t stand still in this market. ■

Vickram: The refit was our biggest investment. It cost £60,000 and alcohol and ready meals sales have rocketed as a result. The new lighting really complements those categories and shows them at their best.

Saki: The new store was a £600,000 investment. It was a listed building and we had to do a full refit.

Peter: Doubling the size of the Holmer Green store. It cost £80,000 and was well worth doing as it’s set us up for the future, but I had hoped that business would be doing better.

John: In 2010 we put new refrigeration for soft drinks and chilled foods, and in 2011 we spent £5,000 on our back room refrigeration.