Standing out from the crowd is what makes Simon Biddle and his business tick. Biddles Convenience Store prides itself on being different to the average c-store, and Simon is clearly not afraid to give new things a try.
Unlike many traditional c-stores, Biddles started life as a greengrocer, and Simon maintains those roots give him a head start when it comes to the fresh and chilled trend driving c-stores today. While the Biddles have owned the store in Webheath, near Redditch, Worcestershire, for 22 years, the Biddle family name has been trading for 100 years, operating in a variety of sectors from dairy and horticulture to green grocery and wholesale.
Today it's fresh produce, home-made food and off licence that's driving Simon's business. "We started off as a greengrocer here but after a few years we realised we had to extend, and that's when we got into convenience," he says. "In the past seven or eight years we've really transformed the store."
Biddles started making and selling homemade meals on site four years ago. "We saw a market and started off selling sandwiches and a few cakes. That went well so we extended the range. Now we have about 50 different products."
The range includes pizzas, traditional pies, curries, quiches and ready meals such as moussaka, shepherds' pie, chilli con carne and
lasagne. He also sells prepacked salads and desserts such as home-made trifles.
"We have a three-day life on our homemade food so people tend to buy for the freezer as well and purchase three pies at a time."
Simon employs two full-time and three part-time employees to staff the deli. "They're constantly cooking food and making sandwiches between 9am and 3pm."
Simon's customer base is largely the "2.4 children" families, which helps to drive sales. "We're surrounded by expensive houses so people tend to have big mortgages with both parents working, and that's what helps the homemade food sales," he says.
Testament to Simon's experimental approach to business is his latest venture into fresh fish. In November last year he began buying fish from the local wholesale market and vacuum packs it for sale on site. "I go to the wholesale market three or four times a week. I buy fresh fish, vac pack it here and put it out on the shelf. It's going well and there's no one else doing it. I like to try different things. We make fish pies anyway so we're not getting much wastage on the fish because anything that doesn't sell goes into the pies."
Simon sources most of his fresh foods from Birmingham Wholesale Market. "Delivered wholesale saves time but it's a lot more expensive," he says. "You know what you're getting at the market because you choose the products yourself."
Simon also uses Hyperama cash and carry in West Bromwich. "We get a lot of support from Hyperama, especially on beers. They look after us very well. We sell a lot of wine too. When we have 'three for £10' offers, we can sell as much as 50 cases of wine in a week."
Turnover at Biddles is about £15,000 a week, with fruit and veg making up 30% of sales. The cooked food contributes 20% and the off licence 20%. "The other 30% is everything else," explains Simon. "Tobacco contributes only about £1,500 a week and we make no money on that, so I'm glad we've gone the fresh food way."
Simon also wholesales fruit and veg himself to other local shops, schools, a nursing home and pubs. "We have two vans going out most days," he says. "My dad has been wholesaling from the early 1960s and used to do the Redditch market three times a week in those days." The wholesaling part of the business contributes £3,000-4,000 a week.
But while Simon is content with his business today, it has not been without its share of challenges. "We had it hard when supermarkets first got really big," he says. "We got to a make or break stage and if we hadn't extended we wouldn't be here today. There's no way we could have survived just doing fruit and veg."
The bigger picture
Five years ago the store was extended from 1,000sq ft to 1,700sq, which also includes the kitchen area. Turnover before the extension was £6,000-7,000 a week and sales have more than doubled since then.
"We still need more space," adds Simon. "Our four-metre chiller gets completely shopped out over the weekend so we need to find more chiller space. Future expansion will be about trying to get more chilled room to sell the homemade food."
Not one to miss a trick, Simon opens up a large greenhouse behind the store as a garden centre during the summer. "We used to run a separate garden centre but closed it because it got too labour intensive, so we bought the greenhouse and now sell summer bedding plants," Simon explains. "The plants are grown by a local farmer in Evesham. Sales are about £1,000-1,500 a week and we use the area for storage in winter."
Biddles is surrounded by competition with Tesco, Sainsbury's, Aldi and Spar all within two miles of the store, but Simon isn't phased by other retailers. "I don't bother about the competition. We try to be competitive on grocery items and I keep an eye on prices and give customers good value for money. I think our prices are comparable with the supermarkets, but the supermarkets aren't that cheap on fruit and veg anyway.
"People want to shop at supermarkets once a month and locally the rest of the time, so that's the kind of shopper we're trying to cater for."
Store opening hours are 8am-6.30pm Monday to Friday, 8am-6pm on a Saturday and 9.30am-1.30pm on Sundays. Simon doesn't feel pressured to open longer: "We've got our regular trade and we're happy to close at 6.30," he says. "Luckily, we're not a shop that has to think that way. We're different to normal convenience stores.
"We've had the symbols round to see us but we don't need a symbol. One told us we were wasting our time doing the cooked food, but the sales tell us different. We've got a better offering doing it our way and being different is what helps us."