We're all too familiar with tales of once-thriving independent stores struggling to cope when a Tesco Express opens up nearby. But retailer Kash Khera and his brother Suggs have turned the scenario on its head, seeking out the competition and proving that indies can come out on top.

The brothers opened a store under their own fascia, Simply Fresh @ Costcutter, last October and it's taken the town of Kenilworth, Warwickshire, by storm. "Everyone says we've hit the nail on the head," says Kash. "We've even had the area manager from the local Tesco Express come to visit to see where all his business has gone!"

But for the Khera brothers it's not just about creating a better version of their competitors' stores. Their aim with Simply Fresh is to introduce customers to a totally new shopping experience for the convenience format.

This becomes clear as soon as you set eyes on the store window, where customers are greeted by large and cheerful graphics of farm animals. "There were a lot of giggles when we decided on the livery," says Kash. "But there were already a lot of shop fronts displaying product images such as glasses of milk and we thought what could be fresher than the cow that made it!"

And the store is different on the inside, too. "Simply Fresh is all about making shopping as easy as possible for the consumer," says Suggs. "We've tried to simplify shopping by making all the furnishings white, so that customers don't get distracted from the job in hand."

It's about going back to basics, agrees Kash. "All the product signage is preceded either with the words 'simply' or 'fresh' in order to reinforce the message throughout the shopping experience. "Predominantly, we've modelled ourselves on fresh produce and the concept of cooking at home."

A fresh approach

In keeping with the store's title, fresh fruit and veg is the first area to greet customers as they enter the store.

As well as the standard fare, the store has a wide selection of more exotic items including asparagus, butternut squash, wild mushrooms, figs and fresh lemongrass. "My brother and I live together so we have a big family and we're all foodies," says Kash. "It really helps if you're into cooking as you know what types of ingredients are used regularly."

Produce is displayed in baskets, which not only exude an appealing farmers' market vibe, but also allow the retailers to stock less produce without the fixture looking sparse. "I'm never going to sell an entire box of fennel, but if I just pick up four or five from a local farmer, then customers have more choice and the baskets make shelves look fuller," says Kash.

The store also sources meat and freshly-made dishes, such as pies and lasagne, from a neighbouring butcher.

Minimising food waste in-store has been a key focus for the Kheras. The 1,600sq ft store has 14 metres of chiller space, so ensuring that this area is well-managed is crucial to the store's success. "Cracking the chilled market and not being scared of the wastage was one of our biggest challenges," says Kash. "Many retailers are overly focused with the grocery side of things, but they're not willing to take the risk with short-dated produce."

Perseverance was of key importance. "We got through four cases of crème fraiche before we were able to sell them all without making reductions," says Kash. "You really need to stick with products so that customers can get used to them."

Of course, if customers are buying baskets of premium fresh and chilled products to cook with, then they'll need something suitably sophisticated to wash it down, and Simply Fresh doesn't disappoint. Beers from as far afield as Barbados, China and Morocco adorn the store's shelves.

"People are trading up because they're dining in and we want to be able to meet their needs," says Kash. "We stock up to 120 different beers at any one time and we sell £50 bottles of wine."

And if you thought that was extravagant, then wait until you hear about the £1,199 bottle of whisky... no, we're not having you on, the store really does have a product with this price tag. But here's the clever part: "We just have the empty bottle and fill it with tea and if anyone actually wants to buy it, then we can order it," says Kash. "We might never sell it, but it'll pay for itself with publicity the number of people who have come in just to look at the bottle is unbelievable."

The super-expensive spirit is particularly ironic when you consider that before the store opened the locals were concerned its cheap prices were going to encourage bad drinking habits. "The locals had got it into their heads that we were going to open some kind of 'boozebuster' store," says Kash.

"I had to attend a consultation about the store's licence and about 10 objectors showed up. Thankfully, the application was approved and the same people who objected have realised their mistake and are now regular customers."

A perfect partnership

Luckily for Kash and Suggs, their relationship with Costcutter got off to a much better start.

"Simply Fresh offers customers an upmarket new concept, while the acknowledgement of Costcutter on the fascia still gives an impression of value, which is good in the recession," says Suggs.

"It's also meant that we've saved money by using Costcutter's existing leaflets, but with our Simply Fresh logo. We also use the Costcutter carrier bags and in-store radio, so it's enabled us to concentrate on getting the store concept right."

And now that they have perfected the concept, the brothers are keen to expand their empire. "We've got another store in Alcester that we're rebranding as a Simply Fresh," says Kash. The brothers are also allowing other retailers to join in they are working with two Simply Fresh franchisees in nearby Kiddiminster and Stourbridge, and there are more in the pipeline.

"We've negotiated a really good deal with Costcutter, whereby new retailers will benefit by joining Simply Fresh, rather than just joining independently," adds Suggs.

"We'd really like to get more retailers on board," adds Kash. "We've got a lot of knowledge to pass on and we feel we can fast-track people to the point where we are now."

In fact, the brothers have such confidence in their fascia that they're actually looking to establish Simply Fresh stores near existing Tesco Express outlets. "It's time to take the battle to Tesco now," says Kash. "If you provide independent retailers with the tools and the knowledge, they can take on the competition and win." 

Shop profile

Tel: 01926 512281
Staff: four full-time, two part-time
Opening hours: Mon-Fri 7.30am-9pm, Sun 8am-8pm
Size: 1,600sq ft
Additional services: free ATM, speciality beers

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