‘There’ was a 700sq ft independent post office and convenience store based in Gravesend, Kent, where Harry worked for 18 years. Originally, the post office was the backbone of the business, subsidising the rest. But from 1999, things began to change dramatically. “A lot of the post office business has disappeared through government legislation and its attempts to save money,” says a somewhat resentful Harry. “Well before the post office closures were announced, I had to think about the worst case scenario – what would happen if we lost our post office. I had to make the retail side strong enough that it could sustain itself.”
In 2004, the site next door to Harry’s shop became available. “Just over the hill a new 12,000sq ft Aldi was going to open, so we knew we had to do something,” he says. “We’d outgrown the old site and we wouldn’t have survived there.”
The new site was a whopping 3,000sq ft, but very outdated. “We had to gut everything bar the four walls!” says Harry. But he was determined to keep the period building’s original ceiling structure, which is held up by wooden beams. “When we were deciding what to do, all the symbol groups sent their planners over and most advised me to knock down the building and erect a bog-standard version with a square front.” Harry was having none of it. “I thought: ‘If I do this then it’ll be exactly the same as every other shop.” Nisa was happy to go ahead with Harry’s wish to maintain the front of the building, so he joined the symbol group and, with its support, transformed the site. A ramp was added to the front of the shop as well as a porch. The inside of the store was also revamped and each aisle built to a minimum of 1.5m to allow wheelchair access.
While the store’s basic structure was completed over a matter of months, the development of its product range has progressed over the past four years. The store has already had two mini re-fits in which stock has been rejigged and those lines that don’t sell have been reduced to make way for those that are more successful.
“Initially, I thought: ‘I’ve got 18 years of experience under my belt, I know what my regular customers like and what our top-selling lines are, so I should be okay,’” says Harry. “Little did I know that our customer base would totally change!”
While Harry’s old store simply served the immediate locality, the new shop sees a lot of passing trade and also people visiting from further afield. “We do a 2,000 leaflet drop within over a mile radius of the store and some of our offers are better than Morrison, Asda and Tesco,” he adds.
But there are plenty more opportunities for the store. “We’re still re-establishing ourselves in our current format. We carry nearly 17,000 lines (compared with the previous store’s 1,600), we’ve introduced a food-to-go area, and we have an excellent chilled offering.” Harry is working hard to win over consumers. “We’re having to promote again and again. Our first bake is out at seven in the morning, so that as soon as the shop doors open, customers can smell the fresh bread. Within an hour, everything we’ve baked is more or less gone, so we’re now doing up to four bakes a day.”
But even though freshly baked goods are popular, the food-to-go counter is still only open until 1pm, and after that it’s self-service. “There’s a lot more we could do, but we’ve got to be sensible, so as to avoid wastage. If we gradually build up our range, it gives us something to promote and keeps customers’ interest,” says Harry. One baked product that has really taken off is the store’s bread pudding, which is created using a member of staff’s secret recipe. “We have a customer who lives in Maidstone, but when he’s in the area he comes in and buys six pieces of pudding.” The product is multi-sited in order to grab consumers’ attention.
Harry has also taken advantage of in-store services to increase footfall. “The Post Office has just granted us permission for a hole in the wall cash machine,” he says. “We have an in-store cashpoint already, but it charges people a fee to use it.” Having just been awarded his long-service plaque from the Post Office, Harry claims that side of the business is ticking over nicely, thanks to the success of the c-store. “The Post Office has become very sales orientated and it all depends on volume, so we rely on people coming into the store to increase footfall. The fact that we have a strong retail business now benefits the post office more than ever before.”
Although Harry’s post office is not currently under threat of closure, it is something that he now feels the business could deal with: “It would certainly affect us if our post office closed, but we would see it through in the long term. “The move to the new store has taken an incredible amount of hard work,” he adds. “We’re all still learning and I’m glad that we’ve come to that realisation. We’re not fully stock and order yet, but we’ll get there in the end I’m certain.”
As part of his store's development strategy, Harry was visited by fellow Nisa retailer and
C-Store Champion Kishor Patel, who runs a consultancy project called Retail Smart. "One of the really important points Kishor emphasised was to build your links with the area," says Harry. "You need to show people that you're not just there as a retailer, but as a member of the community."
Harry explains that the store regularly ran raffles, but that the money was generally donated to national charities. However, Kishor advised him to focus its efforts specifically on local charities. "We've recently embarked on a new initiative where we provide school equipment, gift vouchers and certificates featuring our logo to local children whose teachers feel they've been doing well," says Harry. "We've also given the local nursery £150 for books." Honing in on the local community has proved to be a great way of encouraging new customers to support the store.
Location: Gravesend, Kent
Size: 3,000sq ft
Services offered: food to go, instant photos, ATM, lottery, post office
Opening hours: 7am - 9pm daily
Staff: full-time - wife Charlie, sons Jas and Nim; part-time - daughter Ramandeep and five others