If the secret of a good c-store is knowing your customers, then some retailers may have to do a quick rethink as immigration brings new nationalities to the till.

Many of these customers are looking for shops which can provide them with a little piece of home. Two retailers who saw such an opportunity were Bronte Blomhoj and Jonas Aurell, expats from Denmark and Sweden respectively, who opened the shop-come-café Scandinavian Kitchen in London in July 2007, after seeing a gap in the market.

“There were no focal points for Scandinavians despite there being a large population, so running a store made sense,” says Jonas. The fact that Ikea, one of the few retailers of Scandinavian groceries, was planning to expand its food offering proved the market was there. As well as groceries, there was also an opening for a café with food to go, to offer the local non-Scandinavian workers an alternative to closed sandwiches and paninis.

The store is situated in a quiet side street which, says Jonas, has its advantages: “If we were in Soho we would have had to get it right on day one, whereas here it allowed us to learn from experience.” However, the first couple of days weren’t without their difficulties, not least because of the birth of their daughter 21 hours after first opening.

The shop carries a mixture of products from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland. Says Bronte: “From the outside looking in we’re all very similar, but we’re actually just as different as the English, Scots and Welsh.” Sourcing was not a problem: “We work with several different partners in different countries, piggybacking on other deliveries once a week.”

With four countries to cater for, the shop has four opportunities to celebrate special days and festivals. For instance, when in June the Swedes celebrated ‘Midsomer’, the shop sold 1,000 jars of herring in a week.

On the food to go side the pair have taken traditional food and tweaked it for the British palate. All food to go is freshly made in-house and includes a variety of open sandwiches plus wraps and salad boxes. Jonas says that many customers were unsure how to tackle the unfamiliar open sandwiches at first, so notices were put on the tables to help.

Around 85% of customers during the week come from the local area and 15% are expat Scandinavians. These figures are the reverse at the weekends.

The couple also undertake outside catering for businesses, including Scandinavian embassies, and supply imported food to Scandinavian restaurants and clubs.

The store is 1,000sq ft including a kitchen and a room downstairs which is rented out as a meeting room. The shop has four full-time staff who happen to be Scandinavian.

“It’s not a policy,” says Bronte, “but we do need people who know the products and the food. And, of course, they need to be able to read the labels.”

Jonas says that other retailers looking to target specific nationalities in their shops should follow these simple steps: “Talk to customers and check out the other shops in the area. It almost doesn’t matter what nation it is, people miss the same things – biscuits, sweets, then other national dishes.”

Tucked away on a side street in Tonbridge, Kent, close to Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, is The African Spot, a tiny shop selling South African and Zimbabwean food.

Owner Robyn Duggan first had the idea for the shop while running a baby shop in Tonbridge with her mum. The store had a café upstairs where she started selling food from her native South Africa. “We had quite a lot of South African customers and the next South African shop was further than Maidstone.”

The pair put a sign up in the street telling customers that there would be South African food available one Friday and people flocked in. Over the following days Robyn was approached by an increasing number of people asking her when she would next be selling the food. She repeated the experiment on the following Fridays and soon realised that there was a substantial market out there. By the time she opened the The African Spot in August 2007 she had 250 emails from people expressing an interest in buying her products.

Robyn sells a mixture of ambient products, dry meats, clothing and curios, and plans to stock alcohol as soon as she has the space. A unit next door may soon become free and she hopes to expand into it. “We’ve always had the same mix but alcohol is the one area that really finishes it off,” she says. Expansion would also help her display her ranges more effectively. When she first opened she hung dried meats such as biltong around the shop but found that, because the shop was so small, the meat was too near the door.

“When we get a bigger shop I’ll go back to selling it loose – you sell more that way.” She also sells other meat prepacked, such as ostrich and springbok, which she sources from Namibia. In the summer she sells an unprocessed pure beef barbecuing sausage plus springbok steaks, kebabs and flatties, to order.

Some foods, she says, may appear similar to their UK counterparts but are very different: “The cream soda we sell is totally different in taste from the English variety, Nik Naks and Bovril are very different. People like spicier flavours.” Certain foods, such as the Mrs HS Balls chutney and condiment range are sold in Waitrose, but not in the same extensive range.

Robyn says that retailers shouldn’t be put off from diversifying if the local population allows – plus, customers come to her from all over the country, including one visitor from Devon. For those too far away to visit, a website provides an online delivery service.

Eastern Europe
When co-owners Martin Sosnowski and Lucas Logowski first set up Eastern European Food in Canterbury just over two years ago they realised that they had pipped many of their customers to the post: “For the first few months people would come in saying they had exactly the same idea but hadn’t done it. But you have to do more than just think it,” says Martin.

The pair, who met in 1998 at University in Poland, first hatched the idea when Lucas moved to the UK and realised how many Poles were here. Once the store was opened in 2006, they used local newspaper adverts and leaflets in free papers to advertise, but a lot of their custom has come from word of mouth.

About 60% of their customers are Polish, 20% English and the rest are made up of Bulgarians, Hungarians, Russians and even Japanese.

When looking into sourcing for the store, the pair assumed that it would be cheaper to import direct from Poland but found that a wholesaler in London actually worked out as a better deal for them. The store sticks to branded prepacked food which shoppers can recognise from shops at home.

“We do only the big brands as the shop is just too small at 20sq metres to put other brands in,” says Martin. The most popular lines are dairy, sausages and alcohol, although Martin says that the bread is very popular with his English customers.

The store is just a few minutes' walk from the bus station in the old part of town and gets a lot of passing trade as well as customers from as far away as Maidstone and Dover, the latter being particularly surprising as it also has its own shop selling Polish goods. Martin says that the shop has no real local competitors, not even the local supermarkets, which do sell some Polish food.

“For some reason they’re still more expensive than we are,” he comments. Martin believes that retailers looking to trade in this area should go for the good brands: “People don’t want cheap stuff,” he says. “They’re earning a good wage and want to buy the best.” Above all, as with customers from all nationalities, customer service is the key.

“If the customer isn’t satisfied, they will not be back.”