Many independent retailers live in constant fear that a site near their store will one day become a Tesco Express. And some could be forgiven for thinking that such an occurrence would be a death sentence for their business and simply give up and try something else. For Jim Boggon, though, giving up was not an option when an Esso forecourt opposite his Londis store in Edinburgh was sold to Tesco. Jim decided to fight and, so far, it seems that he's winning.
He admits that he rather stumbled into retailing when he took over the store on Willowbrae Road 13 years ago. "I was working in the shipbuilding industry at the time and was a regular customer at the store. One day when I was chatting to the owner he asked me if I wanted to buy it," he explains. "My initial reaction was 'What do I want with a shop?'"
Jim says he was surprised when he visited the store a few weeks later and the owner asked him again. "I hadn't realised he was that serious. I gave it some proper consideration and decided to go for it."
He says that it was a big culture shock as neither he nor his wife Shirley were familiar with the industry, and the store itself needed a lot of work to bring it up to scratch.
Jim jokes: "Having been in this business now for 13 years, I think I'm just starting to get the hang of it."
He gives a great deal of credit to the 11 members of staff who, he says, have a wonderful relationship with the customers and who play a major role in the success of the store.
The couple totally revamped the store in 1994 immediately after taking it over and ran it as a true independent for four years. However, Jim claims that by 1998 it had become increasingly clear that they needed a bit more support and so decided to join Londis.
"The way the market was going at the time, with increased competition and improving standards, it was time to hook up with a buying group. We looked at a number of options and it seemed to me that the Londis package simply looked better than the other operators out there," he confirms.
Even with his growing customer base and the support of Londis, the arrival of Tesco on his doorstep in 2003 still came as a bitter pill to swallow, and he knew that if he was going to compete he would have to invest still further in the store itself and its range.
At the time, Jim's store was just 600sq ft, which included a sub post office. He says he knew he needed more space but didn't have a great deal of room to extend into. In 2005 he opted to go through with a £100,000 refit to bring the store up to Londis' Genesis standard. He extended towards the road by only a metre, but Jim says this was just enough to give him room to manoeuvre.
"People thought we were mad when we said we were building another metre onto the store," he laughs. "But once they saw the final results, they had to admit it did make a real difference."
It meant he was able to add a second till and move the post office, creating more space for grocery lines. The second till allows staff to serve customers much more quickly, thus reducing queues and congestion, especially at busy periods.
The busiest time of the day is the run up to and during lunchtime, which Jim puts down to the appeal of the store's freshly made-to-order sandwiches. "The price people pay in the centre of town for a sandwich is scandalous, so it's no surprise that our sandwiches are so popular."
But it's not just price that draws in the customers. The sandwiches are all prepared daily and to order. Jim uses three different local bakeries for the bread and rolls and a local butcher for his meats.
He says: "We get 170 customers an hour in here during the lunchtime rush; it's our biggest peak as we have two schools nearby plus office workers and tradesmen. Even the police from three different stations come by for our rolls. We've been doing them for 12 years and have something of a reputation for them."
Before the refit, the queues were a major hassle and put off many potential customers. Now Jim says that store can cope with the numbers and no one leaves hungry. The store is open from 5am until 8pm, Monday to Saturday, and from 6am until 5pm on Sunday, and Jim reckons that people look for the rolls as soon as the doors open.
The refit was completed in October 2005 and although the store had to close for two weeks, Jim says that his customers all came back. He explains: "They enjoy a bit of banter with the staff and tell us that it's not the same atmosphere over the road."
During the visit by C-Store all of the customers queuing for sandwiches were treated to some friendly ribbing, and the vibe in the store was fun and friendly. Whether it's the atmosphere or the rolls, since the refit turnover at the store is up by almost £2,000 a week at £17,000 from just over £15,000 for 2005. In April 2005 the store sold £5,019 of take-away food, while for the same month this year sales had risen to £5,774.
Since the refit the range has been dramatically reduced to concentrate more firmly on convenience, but Jim reckons it's not quite there yet.
the upper hand
Jim's success is all the more impressive given the store's location and nature of the competition. Tesco's site is a forecourt with ample parking compared with the small lay-by in-front of Jim's store which can accommodate two or three cars at most. However, he is now confident that he is now better equipped to pull in the crowds than his more famous rival.
"Quite often people will go to the store over the road and if they can't find what they want they will try us. However, there are a few who will just park up over there and come straight across the road to us," he states proudly.
It is clear that Jim has learned a great deal about retailing over the past 13 years and his ability to live with the big boys makes him a good role model for those retailers around the country who are having to face up to new and frightening neighbours. Jim says he doesn't have all the answers but believes that if you are prepared to take on the multiples wholeheartedly, then independents can succeed.