Community retailing is what it's all about for Saqib and Shami Gahfoor, so when the local post office was in danger of closing, the pair stepped up to buy it for the good of the community.
"The post office came up for sale at the end of 2005 and it was on the market for a long time," explains Saqib (pictured left), who runs the Nisa Local store in Gateshead, Tyne & Wear, with brother Shami. "It had been on the market for six months when we got interested, and we knew it would be good for the community to retain the post office and to also have everything in the same place. It was a busy post office before but the problem was it needed a lot of modernisation.
"A lot of post offices were closing down everywhere and we couldn't let that happen to this one. There are two other post offices in the area but one is 15 minutes' walk from here and the other 10 minutes. We have a mixed community here and quite a lot of pensioners, so for the elderly that's quite a way."
So in June last year Saqib and Shami bought the post office and moved it into their Nisa Local store over the road. The original post office had been owned by the same postmaster for 24 years. "Norman is still with us part time," says Saqib. "We took on most of the staff - everyone who wanted to carry on working. The two lasses who came over for a short time retired in the end but Norman has carried on.
"It was important to keep him because he'd been in the business for 24 years and knew everybody in the community. It's really helped us having him there from day one because it's not all new faces to the customers. Norman works with a full time Post Office manager who's been with us since day one too. As long as Norman wants to work here there's a job for him. I think he quite enjoys it - he's still in the business but is having time off as well."
Their Nisa Local store - known locally as 8 till 10 - isn't Saqib and Shami's first convenience store. Until a couple of years ago they ran one in Cramlington and another in nearby Dudley. "When we bought the
Gateshead store we wanted to concentrate on that one because it was getting too much for us going between the three," says Saqib.
"When we took this over it needed a refit about 10 years prior - it was in that kind of state; very run down and nothing was right with it. We put up with it for about six months because we knew it was going to be a lot of work; once we'd sold the other two stores we started the refit."
The store was gutted and refitted with new floors, shelving, shop front, fascia and shutters. "We traded throughout the refit, we just had part of the shop closed to the public one day and vice versa the next day. The new shelving was up in four days so as far as the customers were concerned, it was only four days' disruption. It was quite a smooth operation - it took two and a half weeks in total."
Once the shop fit was completed the post office moved in about a month and a half later and took about a week and a half to fit out. "The old post office had to close for two days, which was very little time. You can't keep a post office closed for very long - it's recommended no more than two days. Getting all the cash removed from the old site and moved here and all the stock transferred took time. It was closed on the Friday and was up and running on Monday, but not until the afternoon because of a computer glitch."
The premises is 3,500sq ft in total, and the food store opens seven days a week from 8am to 10pm. The store is the usual mix of grocery, fresh and chilled, soft drinks and alcohol alongside a range of products including DVDs, Playstation games, kids' toys and books. From taking over the store to date, sales have doubled.
"There have been a lot of factors in that," says Saqib. "The refit, we've got the Lottery, which had been refused three times to the previous owner, the post office came in and most recently we've brought in Paypoint. All of this has helped our sales. Hopefully it will get even easier because we're in the middle of another smaller refit to add more chilled space."
Once completed, there will be 10m of chillers for beers and wines and 8m for soft drinks on top of the 10m of dairy and 2m of chiller for meat. Fresh produce is one area the brothers are looking to improve. Saqib says: "We don't have much fruit and veg but we're thinking of creating a new display, increasing the range and seeing how that works, but we have a proper greengrocer opposite. We're also just about to stock Polish food, and we're currently in the planning process with the council to upgrade our in-store cash machine to a 24-hour hole-in-the-wall machine. That should be approved soon."
Next on the agenda after that is automatic doors to make life easier for the many disabled customers that use electric scooters. Easy access for everyone has been more than just about complying with the Disability Discrimination Act. "We had the path outside heightened to match the shop entrance. We wanted a ramp but the council refused because they said the footpath wasn't wide enough.
"They said we could raise the footpath but it had to be done by council contractors. It cost us £3,000 but without that there wouldn't be access for some of our customers. Before we did it, people in disabled chairs had to wait outside. That's not very nice for them, especially if it's pouring with rain."
The Garfoors have zero tolerance to crime. "We have a tough policy and always prosecute shoplifters," says Shami. "Word has got around about that so we keep shoplifting down and are then able to charge better prices."
"Crime isn't too bad here - it's not a posh area but it's not rough either," adds Saqib. "The police are very responsive and arrive within a few minutes of calling them. If we put a call through to police control they're here in four or five minutes and if we ring 999 it's only a minute or two before there's one or two patrol cars outside. We have 40 CCTV cameras so the police know they get quality evidence from us. They know that when they come in here we will have a CD of the footage ready for them. It helps having a top of the range CCTV system. We can produce material on the spot and it cuts out their time chasing evidence."
The Gahfoors even helped to solve a recent burglary at a house in one of the side streets. "Because of our cameras outside, the police caught the burglars within an hour," says Shami. "The police were happy with that and the owners of the house got all their stuff back, which included four bikes and a whole wheelie bin of stuff. We had to sit and look through the footage for a couple of hours but we know we'll get good response from the police when we need them."
Their epos system is also state of the art. Last month they upgraded it to the Point Four system, which includes multimedia screens that can display adverts in different locations around the store. "We have four around the store but they're not live yet," says Saqib. "Point Four is planning adverts to go live after Easter. We'll have eight in total. Which screens go live first will depend on which manufacturers and wholesalers advertise. Our four screens are in confectionery, crisps & snacks, alcohol and soft drinks.
"Point Four says we will get revenue from the adverts so it's a matter of wait and see at the moment. It's something new for Point Four and it's something new for us. We don't know anyone else that has the system so we're the guinea pigs in the North East. We'll have to see how it works out. They have excellent customer service and back office support."
With the new epos system the Gahfoors are hoping to offer pre-printed vouchers to the local schools. "For every pound spent in store, we'd give 3p to the school for them to spend on computers and equipment," explains Shami. "It'll bring the customers in but we'll be doing something good as well. It'll be for a couple of local schools first and then we'll take it from there.
"We try to be as helpful as possible," adds Shami. "If a customer needs something we don't sell we get it in for them. We've got a suggestion box. It's for customer complaints as well, so if something is not right with the store we'll get to know about it. You've always got to update, you can't just stop, you've got to keep doing it. We're dedicated to keeping the premises nice and tidy and modernised: that keeps us and our customers happy."