Customers turning up to a convenience store in their pyjamas may sound like the stuff of strange dreams, but it's not unheard of at Imran Khan's new Costcutter store located at Thames Valley University.
With 2,500 students living in the on-site halls of residence, shoppers have been known to pop over for supplies for a 'pyjama party' in their nightwear. And customers calling in for booze just before closing time, and again as soon as the store opens at 7am, is a regular occurrence.
"I'll serve students just as I'm closing, and then first thing in the morning they're back in here having not slept all night," says Imran.
The store opened in Brentford, West London, in November last year. It's the 22nd in the Khan family's portfolio of Costcutters in the capital, with two more new-builds currently in development. Imran's father Najab set up the business with one store in Wandsworth, south west London, in the 1970s, joined Costcutter in the late 80s, and traded with a handful of stores until 10 years ago when he gradually expanded the chain.
"From there dad made some good decisions and the business progressed," says Imran. "We expect to open the two new developments in the next three months. They should be open already but we've had some building and licensing problems. We focus on new-build developments now. Dad has developed some good relationships with property developers, so he's hearing about properties early."
Fruitful contacts with developers is something that has stood Najab in good stead to compete with the likes of Tesco. "We were quite lucky that we got this development because Tesco was bidding as well," says Imran. "We outbid them, but I don't think they wanted it that badly because there's a massive Tesco just up the road."
Imran, 25, joined the business three years ago after finishing his business and finance degree at City University. "I've been involved from a young age though. I used to work in the shops at weekends. It was quite exciting when I was young, but now I wonder what I've got myself into," he muses. "It's such hard work; it's not easy. The hours are difficult and it affects your social life. There's always some kind of stress; you can never be totally relaxed."
Once new stores are up to speed, the Khans franchise them to
managers and oversee them from their head office in Penge, southeast London. Imran holds the role of managing new stores until they're ready to be franchised. "I'll run new stores until they reach their
potential. I'll run this one for up to two years and then another manager in the area will take over. Our stores are in clusters so we have one person running four stores, for example, in one area."
The new store at Thames Valley University is thriving at the moment, but Imran knows that relying so heavily on the student trade - around 70% of customers are students - will mean that the summer holidays will be testing. However, he has some marketing plans in place to limit the blow. "Our target is to reach £40,000 a week, but my main concern is the summer break because the students will be off for four months. We have other stores that rely on students but this
one is very dependent on them because it's very secluded, so I know it'll be a major test for us."
"I'm really trying to target the locals at the moment, with promotional leaflets. There's been no store here for so long that people have been shopping online and are used to that. It's very hard to break people's habits. But we're thinking about starting home deliveries just for the local area, so we can grab a share of that market. With a bit more time on my hands when the students break up, I'll get a white van and put the Costcutter logo on it to make deliveries."
The Khans have also signed up to Nisa-Today's Making a Difference Locally campaign, which encourages retailers to get involved in the local community. Its first local activity will be a five-a-side tournament at a nearby park during the summer.
While the Khans' stores are moved onto franchise management once target sales are reached, a lot of competition exists between the managers. All systems are connected to head office so each store can be accessed remotely. They hold regular meetings at head office and have an area manager that travels around all 22 stores. But Imran has his sights on beating the current number-one performing store in the chain - in Bermondsey, southeast London.
"We like to keep that competitive edge going, which encourages everyone to increase sales. At the moment it's me and my store versus my cousin at Bermondsey. His store is doing a bit better than mine. His market is a lot different - he's got residents and offices as well. He's been open for two years and his sales are stable throughout the year, so he's got a bit of an edge on me."
Imran's store has a large food to go offering with everything from hot food to freshly made baguettes, and it performs strongly on convenience foods. "The bake-off is doing very well, especially at lunchtimes. It's bringing in a lot of people and the profit margin is quite high as well. It's making up about a fifth of sales but around a quarter of the profit. We have a big chilled offer with lots of things like ready meals - students don't want to cook. We've increased on beers and sell a lot of price-marked lines as well as multipacks."
It's pricing that's causing Imran a bit of a headache, though. "The main problem at the moment is that our prices are a bit higher than the supermarkets. People like to compare us to Tesco, but you can't do that. The local Tesco is huge, so people do their top-up shop here and their main shop over there. Students used to nick the trolleys to bring all the shopping back but they've got into trouble for that so have been banned from bringing trolleys onto the site now, which has been better for me."
Imran's future is mapped out for the next couple of years, but once the store is taken over by a manager, he'll move onto the next. But whether he'll have to serve even more customers in their pyjamas is probably more of an inevitably than a possibility - with an application for a 24-hour licence sitting with the council right now, once approved, the students won't have to wait till 7am for their next top-up shop.
Store: Costcutter, Thames Valley University Building, Brentford
Store size: 2,500sq ft
Opening hours: currently 7am-11pm but plans to open 24 hours
Services: hole-in-the-wall cash machine, PayPoint, mobile top-ups, photocopying, National Lottery on its way