Having survived a regional post office cull, Chan Singh Aujla repaid his customers’ loyalty by opening an on-site Premier store
It’s a familiar story for many ex-students: you leave university in debt, out of work, and not knowing what to do next. This was the situation Chan Singh Aujla found himself in after completing his business and accounting degree six years ago, but he soon decided to tear up the script.
“I wanted to try running something myself, so I found a post office and kind of fell in love with it and Kings Norton it’s a village within a city,” Chan says.
Indeed, the place is an oasis of calm in bustling Birmingham. It even has a green, which backs on to the post office and Premier convenience store that Chan runs.
Buying the property, however, was less idyllic. “I had to borrow everything to buy the place and I was already in debt from uni. It wasn’t easy getting a bank loan because of my age, but fortunately I had a good business manager and I just missed the start of the credit crunch,” he says.
Store profile: Kings Norton Post Office and Premier Store, Birmingham
Opening hours: 8am-9pm
Size: 1,000sq ft (1,500sq ft including post office)
Staff: Three part-time
Services: ATM, cashback, mobile top-ups
Once he secured the finance Chan then had to learn the ropes, which proved to be an enlightening process. “I hadn’t really walked into a post office apart from buying the odd stamp, so I didn’t realise how many services a post office provided for a community,” he says.
He then realised that if more people were also educated about the post office service, he could capitalise on business. “I advertised it through leaflet drops in the area, and more people started coming in. The advertising focused on how we’re ‘all in one’, how you can pay every bill here bar credit cards,” he says. “It’s just about getting that message across to the community.”
However, just as he was getting his feet under the carpet, the rug was pulled from beneath him. In 2008 his was among 51 post offices in the region nominated for closure. Luckily, the community came through and started a petition, with support from the local MP. The strategy worked, and the post office was the only one to survive the cull. “I believe we survived because of the tremendous support from the community,” Chan says.
What followed was a period of soul searching. “I thought, ‘Is it worth it? Should I try something else?’. But then I thought, ‘We’ve come this far’ so we decided to open a convenience store as well.” He bought the empty shop next door and converted it into a licensed Premier store, which now adjoins the post office, and later installed an external ATM.
He competes with a company-owned Spar separated only by the green and the main road but Chan insists there is a market for both stores. “We complement each other; both stores offer a good balance. The Spar does hot food to go and has a lottery terminal, which I don’t.” But what he can compete on is price, he says. “I shop around, using local producers and cash and carries, and if I get a good price I’ll pass it on to my customers.” This means he can reduce prices on certain lines, such as sugar, on a monthly basis.
He also offers all the promotions provided by Booker and says the wholesaler’s Happy Shopper label is doing particularly well, especially on items such as baked beans, spaghetti, basmati rice and corn flakes, which sell at 79p. “People were initially sceptical, but once they tried them they continued to buy them. I always upsell these value products I mention them all the time.” Euroshopper’s energy drink flies off the shelf, he adds.
The store also benefits from being positioned next to an old people’s home, and Chan has tailored certain lines accordingly. “A loaf of bread is too much for many of the elderly residents who are living on their own, so we sell Warburton’s half loaves and I’m planning to introduce the Kingsmill half loaf as well.”
Another point of difference is the “local” service he offers. “We go out of our way to talk to the customers. At Spar, staff are usually youngsters who are very efficient, but we are both fast and friendly.”
Investing time in the customers pays off for both parties. “One of the best experiences for me was when a customer bought a bottle of wine from my shelf and gave it to me as a present,” he says. “I was gobsmacked. She said ‘my mum comes in every day and this is a Christmas present’. People in this area are really warm.”
He says he is always tweaking the store by adding new lines or shelving, and recently introduced an ice cream freezer. He has brought in more naan and pitta breads alongside Warburton’s wraps, and tries to change the wines each week, focusing on a different country of origin.
Since opening the store he has worked hard at helping customers “realise they could shop here and use the post office”, he says.
“We looked at how people queued and designed the store so people could pick things up while they were waiting. We also separated milk and bread so they walked across the store and were encouraged to buy other things.”
When the store opened a couple of years ago, Chan drew on the experiences gained from helping out in his uncle’s off licence as a teenager. “What I learnt most was about stocking, as my uncle always kept the shelves full. If people see shelves are full, then they’ll look around,” he says.
Another challenge was theft both by customers and staff which he is confident he has now overcome. “We had an incident where a couple of young lads were trying to buy alcohol and got abusive when I asked for ID. They ran off with some stock but I stood my ground and called the police, who arrested them.”
He also had some early issues with staff, but the pilfering stopped once he installed a camera system.
In fact, his whole approach seems to be working, with turnover increasing steadily. The next step is to introduce fresh fruit and veg and change the chillers to longer slimline models. The long-term project is to expand the post office into the back office, and move the office to the cellar.
If the project goes ahead, he will also expand the bakery and introduce weekly themes, such as Chinese one week and Indian the next, to cater for the local multicultural demographic.
The Post Office will decide whether to finance the expansion this year. “We want to make it a more modern and user-friendly service. It would mean people who work nine to five could come to the post office out of hours and use a machine to do their post and packaging,” he says. “We haven’t got DVLA or passport services. It’s frustrating as people go to main post offices instead. We do everything else, though.”
This includes the ATM, which he installed against the advice of other retailers who told him that external ATMs deter people from entering the store. “But if one in five people who use the machine come into the store, it’s beneficial for me,” Chan says. Indeed, it was a risk worth taking, with the ATM bringing in an extra 20% in the annual post office turnover. Acting on his instincts has paid off once more.