Asokar Ramalingam has turned a rundown shop into
a thriving c-store. Amy Lanning went to meet him

You need guts to take on a rundown store, but Asokar Ramalingam showed he wasn't scared of a challenge when he bought a c-store on a parade in Gravesend, Kent. The store was so badly maintained that the windows were patched with chipboard and everything inside was red, but Asokar has transformed the once shabby shop into a sparkling new venture under the Best-One Xpress fascia.
It's one of Bestway's 'new breed' stores designed for the 'express' customer who wants to get in and out quickly. As well as serving a steady stream of regular local customers with all their needs, the store's strong food-to-go offer attracts plenty of workers from the nearby factories, offices and roadworks.
The fact that this is Asokar's first c-store makes the transformation even more impressive. "This is my first store on a big scale. I had been working in a post office, which was a much smaller shop, mostly selling stationery. I've been in retailing from the age of 14 or 15 and wanted to run my own store."
Asokar's business is very much a family affair, with his wife and two daughters - aged 18 and 20 - helping to run the store, along with Susan, who has worked at the shop for more than 25 years. "She's the boss really!" quips Asokar. "She's like a member of the family - she's much more than a member of staff."
The refit was completed in December last year and included a 3.5m dairy deck and a 2.5m chiller for beer and wine. Asokar also introduced an extensive Bake & Bite food-to-go area, cash machine, and extended the frozen food offer. While sales have grown steadily since he first bought the store, sales are up 25% since the refit. "Sales shot up by 45-50% straightaway because it was the pre-Christmas period. We've now settled at 25% up."
The store's weekly turnover is £14,000, compared with £5,000 when Asokar first took over. "The look of the store, the products and the promotions are all helping to bring more customers in. You've got to get to their pockets and if you're able to save them money, they'll be happy to keep coming back. Everyone counts their spending nowadays."
Getting stock at the right prices is fundamental to this and Asokar works hard to get the best prices. "We aim to get to our rock bottom price so we can compete a bit with the supermarkets. We sell 2ltr milk for 89p, which is cheaper than the local supermarket. You've got to keep the essentials at the lowest price possible."
on promotion
As well as keeping his prices right, Asokar knows that avoiding out of stocks goes hand in hand with this. He says: "You've got to have availability of daily essentials like bread and milk and support all the promotions. The most important part is that you need to get to the right symbol group and do their promotions or the customers won't come. If we can run a promotion or get a price right down, we will do it."
He's also a fan of pricemarks: "It's good to get most of the grocery lines pricemarked. My customers tend to push for them."
The store sells the Bestway's Best-In own-label products alongside branded lines. "We want to give customers choice. People do try to save money these days - you've got budget airlines for cheap flights - so we try to offer a branded and own-label product of each item."
Asokar's customers are a mix of regular locals, about 10% passing trade, students from the local college and nearby workers. "The college is a plus point for us - we get a lot of business from there. We get people from factories, offices and building works - there's a lot of working people going and up down this road. About 15-20% of our customers are workers."
Trade has been so good since the refit in December that Asokar is looking at increasing his number of deliveries to two a week. The new Bake & Bite food-to-go area has had the biggest impact. "We started at nothing and immediately went to £2,500 a month on food to go. We're learning as we go and taking it step by step, but we're now doing £5,000 a month. My project for the next six months is to get food to go turnover up to £8,000-£9,000 a month."
The store sells 120 bake-off lines covering all meal occasions - breakfast, lunch and dinner - and Asokar also operates a takeaway delivery service. "If the factory workers want to order something, they can phone through their order, we'll make it
up and deliver it to them. We do that Monday to Saturday but would do it on a Sunday as well for a special occasion."
Meal deals sell well, too. If shoppers buy a freshly made sandwich for £1.99 and any soft drink, they get a free packet of crisps. "This is going very well. It's a draw line and gets people trading up."
The idea to move into food to go came from Bestway. "Bestway spotted a redundant area of the store and decided it could be turned into a food-to-go concept. We worked together on the plan for that. Bestway has given me a lot of ideas and suggestions. I usually try things out and see if they work.
"It has the expertise and knows exactly what the trends are. Being part of a group means you can get market information for free and it helps me focus attention on my bottom line."
community spirit
Asokar regularly supports community activities by donating prizes or advertising local events in the window. "Sometimes people will come to us with a list of items and ask what we can give them. I don't see it as charity, it's about getting involved. We know the kids who go to the three schools so we try to do something for them when they have events going on."
There's talk of a Tesco Express coming to town, but Asokar isn't overly concerned. "It doesn't matter how big Tesco gets, there's always going to be room for the small stores. We have the 'face' value. We know people's names and know their families. People can come to us and ask for what they want. Someone might have a party and ask if we can get this and that and we'll deliver at 7am - nothing is a problem for us."

Fact file

Store: Best-One Xpress, Gravesend, Kent
Weekly turnover: £14,000
Lines: 6,000
Opening hours: 7am to 8.30pm Monday to Saturday, 8am to 8pm Sunday
Staff: one, plus family members