Life could have been very different for Pushpa and Bipin Patel had Pushpa followed her original career path as a microbiologist. But the couple have now run S&K News in Southborough, Kent, for 18 years, and after a great deal of hard work are reaping the rewards a well run store can bring.
When they started their family, Pushpa was working in St Bartholomew's Hospital in London and Bipin was a dairy technician. But the pair took the brave decision to change direction completely and open a store together in the hope that this career would allow them both more time with their children.
Pushpa admits to some regrets about giving up a career that she clearly enjoyed, but claims it was a sacrifice worth making in terms of being able to provide for her three children and the pride she takes from having built up the business and from becoming an integral part of the local community.
S&K News is situated in a residential area in Southborough, just outside of the larger Tunbridge Wells, but Bipin explains that customers come not just from the local area but from all over Tunbridge Wells and beyond. They consider their customer base to be like a family - and that is exactly how they like to treat their customers. "We had to work really hard when we first opened but now we are starting to see third and fourth generations of families coming into the store," says Bipin.
It may be a cliché that convenience stores offer the best levels of service and that there is much more of a personal relationship with customers, but for Pushpa, Bipin and their two part-time staff, these relationships are real. Every customer is greeted by name and Bipin will share a joke or Pushpa will enquire as to their health. It is all very natural and clear evidence of the couple's position in the community.
Their philosophy appears to be working and Pushpa says that their customers are extremely loyal. "Everybody shops differently these days and you can't worry too much about the competition," she explains. "You will only be successful if you concentrate on what you are doing and looking after your own customers. Our customers will shop at the supermarkets but often won't buy the things that they like to buy here."
In return for this loyalty, S&K News seeks to provide its customers with whatever they want - even if it means getting an item in specially. "If we don't have something a customer wants, I'll try to get it within a week. Customers respond to this and come back and buy other things," says Pushpa.
Bipin explains that as long as a shopper promises to buy an item at least once a week, then they are happy keep a line specially for them. "It gives them a reason to come into the store and they are likely to buy other things when they're here," he adds. How many multiples can claim to provide that level of customer care?
The convenient opening hours at S&K News are also appreciated by customers, who range from early morning commuters to young families. The store opens from 6am to 7.30pm, Monday to Saturday, and 7am to 1pm on Sundays.
It is their connection to the community that Pushpa and Bipin claim is the secret of their success and a reason they are relatively unfazed by local competition. Many c-store operators would imagine that news a Tesco Express store will be arriving on their doorstep would be reason for panic, but when it happened to Pushpa and Bipin, the couple weren't concerned.
Tesco's arrival first came to Pushpa's attention three years ago when she was applying for the store's alcohol licence. At that time they were about to double the size of the store to 1,300sq ft and move its emphasis from being a newsagent to a fully fledged convenience store. Since then the store's turnover has grown from between £6,000 and £8,000 per week to £12,000.
Pushpa says that when she went to see the local authority regarding getting a licence, Tesco was also there, doing the same thing. But at no stage did it make them think twice about their decision to become more of a grocery store, and they have paid little attention to the competition ever since.
"I never go into Tesco Express or the local Costcutter to check prices, or anything like that," says Pushpa. "We are happy with what we are doing here and will stick to that."
Bipin is even more bullish: "We would be busier if Tesco Express was not there, but not much," he says. "On the other hand, they would like it if we were not here."
Community spirit
Over the years, Pushpa and Bipin have done their bit to help reduce anti-social behaviour. The store has close links with local schools, community groups and police, and they also support local events such as an Easter egg hunt and the summer fair, which is held on the green next to the store.
These continuing efforts in the community have helped gain respect, and from the start the couple have been keen to encourage good standards of behaviour in the shop. The pair have strict rules for anyone using bad language in the store: they will immediately be asked to leave. But Bipin says that the local kids now know better than to act up as they know he might have a quiet word with their parents.
This attitude adds to the relaxed and friendly atmosphere in the store and is something that other retailers could learn from. "We have never compromised our self-respect for the sake of the business and overall that has been the best way to go for the business," says Bipin.
The couple's efforts have not come without a price, however. Shortly after they extended the shop three years ago Bipin underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery - a testament to the long hours and effort involved in growing the business in a tough marketplace. Thankfully, he has made a full recovery.
While they would like to extend the store even further they have taken the surgery as a warning, and being conscious of Bipin's health are unlikely to drive any major expansion plans for the time being.
For now, a major factor for the couple is that they want to enjoy the fruits of their labour while they still can. They have no immediate plans to retire but they both agree that they don't still want to be running the store in another 20 years.
For a start, they want to take a holiday together, something that they have been unable to do for the past 18 years. Pushpa says: "This is just one of the things you have to give up when you are running a business together and something we are definitely looking forward to doing when we retire."
Ultimately, however, Pushpa and Bipin are proud of what they have achieved and believe their sacrifices have been worthwhile.