P&H's Mace Express Vision format creates the wow factor, says Hartej Garcha of Watford. Rich Airey reports

After more than 20 years in petrol retailing and eight as an Esso retail agent, Hartej Garcha decided he wanted more. Now he boasts a business he can truly call his own.
In November of last year Hartej opened the doors of his newly developed Mace Express store in Watford for the first time. His decision to become a independent c-store retailer has given him the freedom, he says, to develop a
business purely in the direction he chooses. And Mace's Vision format gives his customers what they want.
"I can now offer a much wider range and make decisions for myself day in day out," explains Hartej. "I obviously had to do that to an extent as an Esso retailer but I was also restricted in what I could sell. Convenience retailing was an attractive proposition for me as I knew there were a lot of areas I could branch into. I always treated my forecourt businesses as my own but this is the real thing. My baby."
With a number of other c-stores in the area, Hartej knew he had to offer something new and different. He explains: "I wanted to show the public something bright and fresh. I definitely think I've done that. I want my customers to feel confident in what they see when they come into the store for the first time."
The early signs are that the Watford store, situated close to the busy Harlequin shopping centre, is set for an extremely bright future. Sales are increasing by 10-15% month-on-month and word is spreading quickly that there's a new kid on the block.
And there's certainly more to come. Some 200 apartments opposite the store are due to be completed in the next couple of months and additional services including a free-to-use hole-in-the-wall cash machine and money transfer are sure to attract yet more custom.
"I'm very happy with the way things are progressing," says Hartej. "I like, and I know my customers also like, Mace's bright fascia. The overall look of the Vision format is very modern. I was very impressed with a Mace store I visited in Cambridge. I knew there were a few things I'd like to change slightly to make it more my own but I could see it would be generally right for me and this area. People like the fact there's a lot of space between the aisles. It's very easy for people in wheelchairs or for those with prams to get round the store."
The pleasant atmosphere also stretches to the back office and staff areas. "I wanted to create a nice atmosphere in the areas where staff go for their breaks," Hartej explains. "Everyone should be treated well and have a proper area to relax in.
If the staff are treated well then they'll usually also treat the
customers well."
Hartej adds that he also explored the option of joining Spar and
Costcutter before opting for the Mace fascia. "With my petrol background and having been tied into contracts in the past, it was something I was keen to avoid this time," he says. "With Mace, I'm not tied in and I've got real flexibility. Everything is done my way. I also had lot of experience of working with P&H so I knew how their operation worked."
Hartej says he sees it as a sign of success that he's already received a number of approaches from other symbol groups to switch allegiance. He's also received an offer to purchase the business from what he describes as a 'big player' in the sector. "I take it as a huge compliment that I've already had these approaches," he explains. "That's not what I've done this for though. I want to continue to build the business and give my customers what they want, not just make a bit of money and sell up."
Hartej says the store has already attracted a large number of loyal customers. "There's always a friendly face in the store and my staff know many of our customers by name," he says. "A lot of customers pop in to have a chat. It's a real advantage of a c-store to be able to offer that personal touch."
Hartej believes it's a little too early to be predicting exactly how much as a percentage of the store's sales he should be making from each
category, but points to a number of areas which are performing well.
He says: "Soft drinks sell well and frozen food is also doing well despite the fact that people say it's a dying market. There are a lot of people in the area who don't have a great deal of spare money so it offers them real value. Specialist Polish and Asian products have also generated a lot of interest. In general I'm very pleased with the way all the categories are performing."
The store's self-serve Bake & Bite section is also proving popular. Piacetto branded coffee from Tchibo provides bean-to-cup coffee at competitive prices and there's also a selection of sweet and savoury pastries, sandwiches, baguettes and cookies for shoppers to choose from.
Hartej is keen on giving customers a number of reasons to shop at his store. He's in discussions to introduce PayPoint and has also registered his interest in hosting a Lottery terminal.
"We'll also be offering Western Union money transfer very soon," he explains. "I'm going direct through them as that way I get much better margins. I think the free ATM will also be a good service to offer. It'll mean moving the news and magazines section but it'll be well worth it."
Hartej's ATM will be provided and fully handled by Alliance & Leicester. He's certain that while it's not actually in his store as a stand- alone machine, it will still bring more customers in and be appreciated as a service that members of the community can use 24 hours a day, even when the store's not open.
"Alliance & Leicester are totally responsible for everything to do with it," he says. "I didn't to want to charge people to use a machine in the store so I approached them to see if it was something they could provide me with. Customers really appreciate all these extra services and every little helps!"
Despite borrowing Tesco's slogan, Hartej is adamant he's not in competition with the supermarkets. He says he concerns himself with things under his control and explains: "I'm here to provide people with a service. My main aim is to make sure customers can visit the store and shop in comfortable and pleasant surroundings for the products they want. We're catering for a different occasion to the supermarkets. We've got our target customers and they know what they like. I'm pretty sure we're offering them what they want. If the sign on our door said M&S we'd attract different people but we'd also lose a lot of the customers we've currently got."
Technology plays a major role in Hartej's business. He believes, however, that a modern epos system is not worth installing unless a retailer is willing to use it to its full capability. "We've got a full epos system," he says. "I really believe in using technology. The system can calculate everything for me and saves a lot of time for everyone."
Hartej says he also saves a lot of time by choosing not to visit the cash & carry and adds: "I like to get everything through P&H. I don't want to be rushing to and from cash & carrys every day. There's nothing wrong with them and they can offer some really good deals but they're just not for me. I like to spend my time developing ideas to improve the business rather than chasing every single little deal."
Staff training is also a key component of Hartej's business. So far he's recruited most of his staff through Job Centre Plus. "We provide comprehensive training as it's extremely important for staff selling items such as alcohol and tobacco. It usually takes about four to six weeks to put a member of staff through good basic training. For staff with greater responsibility there are other important courses to complete. I look for enthusiasm and initiative when I'm recruiting. The rest can be taught on the job."
The Watford store is one of three projects Hartej is currently juggling. He also has plans to run an Indian restaurant and has an interest in a spring water plant in Maldon, Essex.
"Everything's with the developers at the moment. The restaurant would be a modern setup specialising in Punjabi food. I'm hoping to offer a 'you drink, we drive' scheme where we can pick people up from, say, a 20 mile radius and then drop them home at the end of the evening. I think there's a definite gap in the market for that."

Store stats

Store size: 2,000sq ft
No. of staff: 4 full time 4 part time
Opening hours: 7-10pm Monday-Sunday
Average weekly turnover: £15,000