C-store retailing isn't always thought of as a young person's career, but there are plenty of twenty-somethings who wouldn't do anything else, says Tracy West

Once was the time when youngsters went to university to become doctors or teachers - the thought of a graduate choosing to become a c-store retailer was unheard of. However, today more and more twenty-somethings armed with degrees are moving into the industry and operating their own stores.
Take Claire and Hannah Blount. They never expected to be running a convenience store, but that's exactly what they are doing in Warmsworth, Doncaster. Hannah is just 22 while her sister Claire is 31, and together they run the aptly titled Claire and Hannah's Store.
Claire explains their route to retail: "Our parents died quite young and left us their house, which we sold. This obviously left us with some money. We didn't really want to split it or fritter it away because it was family money, so we decided to put it into a business - something that would become a family business and something that, hopefully, our parents would have approved of. We had thought about investing in property, then the shop at end of the terrace where I live came up for sale. One night, after several glasses of wine, we decided it might be good fun to run a shop."
Although it sounds like retailing was decided upon on a whim, the women did a lot of research into the business and got in touch with accountants, valuers and business advice organisations. The Blounts took over 18 months ago.
Says Claire: "We were obviously totally inexperienced, but we were keen to learn. We kept on one existing member of staff who has been a real godsend, and we took on board lots of advice."
Prior to running the shop Claire had been working in a building society: "I graduated with an english degree in 1996 then drifted into a job. At the building society I worked my way up to a job where I was training mortgage advisers. When I left, my friends thought I'd gone mad, but the people I worked with understood totally my reasons for leaving and were pleased for me."
the right decision
Claire loves her new career: "I like the customers in particular, although there are some exceptions. I find myself making constant comparisons with what I did in my previous job and what I find most different is that retailing is very relaxed while things were very structured at the building society."
That said, she's the first to admit it's not been easy. "It's physically demanding - we both lost a lot of weight when we started. Some people go into retailing later in life, as a sort of semi-retirement, and I don't know how they do it as the job is so demanding."
Claire loves being part of the local community. "I'd lived here for seven years but used to leave early in morning and get home late so I never got to know anyone - now I know nearly everyone. Hannah has been at university so I have been working full time in the shop - 55-65 hours a week - but I know it's not for ever. Our view was that we wanted to spend as much time as we could in the shop because we wanted to meet as many customers as possible. We really want to make it work."
Unfortunately, Claire and Hannah have experienced some bad luck - their store was hit by lightning in the summer and has been closed since July. "We'd just built up a regular clientele so it couldn't have come at a worse time," says Claire, "And the rebuilding has been beset with delays from dealing with the insurance people and the loss adjusters, finding builders and getting approval. However, we're hoping the work will start soon."
Meanwhile, there was some good news as Hannah graduated with a first in advertising and design management. She hasn't spent as much time in the shop as Claire but she's enjoyed the time she has. "It's been lovely to have regular customers, to get to know them and be able to help them," she says.
"Some of my friends think it's an odd choice - to become a retailer - but others think it's great. And it's always a real conversation starter." Claire agrees: "Friends never asked me about my work before, but they do now. I'm always relaying anecdotes down the pub."
Hannah says she doesn't know why retailing doesn't appeal to more young people. "I would definitely recommend it to other younger people, but only if they have a real work ethic," she says. "There's a common misconception that it's really easy and it's not. You can't do it on a whim; it needs a lot of thought."
natural choice
Asif Ashraf is the complete opposite of the Blounts as he says he was "born into retailing". He's 27 and has been a retailer for five years. "My dad's a retailer so I think it was my destiny to be one, too," he says.
Today Asif and his brother-in-law Shahid Farooq, aged 31, have four stores (two in Motherwell, one in High Blantyre and one in Wishaw) with three more planned before the year is out. Shahid is a qualified accountant and Asif a computer programmer.
He relates his path to full-time retailing: "I got my degree then worked at IBM. My prospects were good and I had the offer of transferring to any city I liked. However, my dad was looking to slow down and his store was underperforming. I knew it could do a lot better so decided to give it a go. I grew up around retailing so it really was second nature for me."
Shahid looked after the finances and Asif concentrated on development and within two years they had doubled turnover.
Says Asif: "I like the fact that you can make a difference - you put the effort in and you can see the results. Every time we tried something new we saw results. We had a constant burst of new ideas and kept moving on, meeting new standards and setting new targets."
Asif says he doesn't mind the long hours. "Today I don't have to be here all the time we're open, which is 6am to 10pm, but I like to be in the shop when it opens then I can go off and do other things. I then pop back at four or five and again later when the managers are cashing up."
As to what his university friends think of his chosen career, he says: "Most of them think I am very lucky and that my dad has given me a good start, because of course they have had to cope with the dotcom crash and the aftermath of 9-11 when things in the industry changed."
He says retailing is quite stressful: "You have to put in the effort and the hours and, as the shops get busier, you take on more staff. But then you have to keep the staff happy. They come to you with their personal problems and that can be tricky, but you handle it."
He admits that getting respect from employees was the most difficult thing for him. "It was dad's shop and some employees had been working there for 20 years. One or two were stuck in their ways and it was difficult for me to assert my authority at first, but I learned that if I didn't then nothing would move on."
Two of the stores are with Londis, one with Nisa-Today's and the other with Spar, but Asif is now considering bringing them all together under one fascia.
He has ambitious expansion plans and wants 15 or 16 shops by this time next year. He wants to get serious about food to go with a Subway-style operation; he wants a head office; and he wants centralised IT to keep tabs on everything.
For 29-year-old Andrew Newton, the path to running his own business has been a little more direct, going from Camelot rep to retailer. He explains: "I was in and out of stores all day with my job with Camelot and I loved the buzz of retailing and constantly meeting people. My mum and dad had a card shop so I suppose I have retailing in my blood."
Indeed, Andrew was a budding entrepreneur from a young age - he sold sweets in the playground when he was at school. So with the backing of his parents, he converted a pub on a huge council estate in Brierley Hill, in the West Midlands, into a convenience store. His family are also involved in property development
so he had plenty of people to turn to for advice.
"My parents financed the shop but I own 50%. I went into it with no prior knowledge. I'd never had staff, never had epos, nothing like that. When I told my friends what I was doing none of them were surprised but they did think I was mad because I was on good money with Camelot - I took a 50% drop in wages to become a retailer!"
Andrew's been running the shop for two-and-a-half years. Opening hours are 7am to 10pm, seven days a week. "I get in at 10-ish and work until 10pm at night but quite often I take a break in the day. I like to be in the shop in the evening because that's the busiest time. I don't take a day off but there are fringe benefits - I get to lie in every day for instance."
But nights out with mates are few and far between. On the day Convenience Store spoke to Andrew, he was going on his first lads' night out in months, but he still had everything covered. "I've got CCTV over the internet so I get my mum, dad or my brother to keep an eye on things in the shop for me."
never a dull day
It's obvious that Andrew likes his job: "I love the fact that I've always got something to do and that I can constantly set myself goals - to get the sales up, get more customers to come, to try new lines. I heard a customer the other day saying to his girlfriend how awful it must be to run a shop. I know a lot of people look down on retailing, but I think it's absolutely fantastic; I totally endorse it."
And he has grand plans for the future. "I'm a real brain-stormer and I like to plan ahead. We're waiting to get the go-ahead to build a new store on a piece of wasteland; I'm thinking about taking on a Subway franchise; and I'm also looking at a fish and chip shop. Fast food definitely presents a lot of opportunities but I'm staying in c-store retailing for the time being."
Such drive and ambition takes your breath away, and it's good to know there's such enthusiasm for convenience store retailing.

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