Sometimes the best things really do come in small packages. So when Jose and Helen Pestana found a tiny, troubled outlet at Stanford-le-Hope in Essex after 18 months spent searching for a neighbourhood store they could run as a couple, they knew it was for them.
What attracted the couple, who ran an off licence in their native South Africa for five years, was the potential.
This was especially true for Jose. He had worked for Marks & Spencer as a manager of one its central London food halls after arriving in the UK, and the small store answered a deep longing to get back to running his own business, to make critical decisions and to reap the rewards. That aside, “it was a pit”, says Helen. “Even the customers who lived opposite refused to come in. Really, it was doing nowhere near as well as it could.”
Jose adds: “It had an off licence but there were only 10 bottles of wine in the entire place. There was absolutely no variety to lure customers in. There was no dairy, fruit or veg, or frozen, but a whole wall of cards blocking the window and metres of newspapers and magazines.”
Jose knew during the search for a store that he wanted whatever outlet they settled upon to be branded and have a professional fascia and image that consumers could relate to. With his background at M&S, Jose also appreciated the huge benefit of belonging to a symbol group in terms of being able to access ready-made promotions and marketing material.
Hence, within weeks of signing the contract the store was taken into Booker’s Premier estate and the big job of refurbishing and reviewing the range and services began.
With such a tight selling area, devising a workable floorplan to accommodate the variety of offer, the lottery and demands of security, while providing customers with an easy shopping experience, was no mean feat. Jose was very clear about what he wanted, and with the help of the shopfitting company and his Premier regional development manager, found a way to maximise the space.
They introduced a dairy chiller, two double-door soft drinks chillers, an alcohol chiller, a low- level open-top freezer unit, plus inset upright freezer, and installed a modern serve-over counter with two tills. The Premier branding and strong yellow and purple colour scheme gives the store a cohesive image both in and out, while window vinyls are necessary to give a valuable area near the till to display the couple’s selection of wines.
The refurbishment was so extensive, including floor and ceiling, that closing the store couldn’t be avoided; it shut for three days while the work was carried out.
For the duo, the overriding aim of the overhaul was to present a strong and modern, clean convenience offer that fulfilled local customers’ needs rather than continuing as a CTN with selective food items bolted on. The result is a masterclass in maximising the use of space.
“You really could do a weekly basket shop in here now,” confirms Helen.
That said, Helen admits she’d still like to introduce a bake-off unit but there’d have to be a serious reshuffle on the new layout and right now they can’t envisage where it might shoehorn in.
To accommodate the changes that were made, the card unit was taken out and the range cut to a workable selection; news and magazines were reduced to a core minimum.
The store had offered home news delivery and still does - but Jose now subcontracts this to the paperboys themselves. They are entirely in charge of their ‘news’ business and collecting money from customers. They pay Jose once a week, and pocket the delivery charge that they set.
He reckons each one earns about £20-£25 a week and says it takes all the hassle away from the couple while still allowing the store to offer the service to those who want it. “It’s completely their responsibility,” confirms Jose. “They organise their holidays and cover, deal with complaints and get a dividend from extra business they generate. Without this solution we would have stopped the delivery because it is so much hassle. We would much rather customers came into the store to buy their newspapers because they will always buy something else at the same time. The simple answer is that we didn’t want to arrive here and cut out all the goodwill that the previous owner had built up or show in any way that we didn’t want to be a part of the community.”
The store itself is in the heart of a housing development and attracts mainly local trade. As such, Jose and Helen are keen to be as competitive as possible on price so whenever pricemarked packs are on offer at Booker’s Southend depot where Jose shops three times a week, he is keen to stock them - provided they still offer a good margin.
In addition, they deliver Premier’s promotional leaflet to local homes every three weeks and use a promotional gondola end opposite the store entrance to highlight those offers.
Says Helen: “People do compare you with the larger stores so on something like milk we make sure the differential is not steep. On most dairy, in fact, you can’t go too mad on prices because you get wastage. Generally, we use the supplier’s recommended rrp and add where needed to achieve a 25-30% margin.
“We sell cigarettes at the rrp, however, as the market is so price sensitive,” adds Jose. “Of course, the lottery commission is fixed, as is the commission on Pay Zone, but across the board I’d say we achieve a decent margin.”
The main summer deal on branded wines, for example, was ‘buy three bottles for £9.50’.
Indeed, if you need proof that the Pestanas’ formula is working, you need only look at the increase in lottery sales since they took over: they are up 300%. Overall store turnover has more than doubled. Even turnover on the newspaper and magazine section, which was reduced to a metre, has doubled.
The store opens 7am-7pm Monday to Saturday, closing at 7.30 on lottery nights. They open 7am to 1pm Sundays.
Says Helen: “We need time together as a family and use Sunday afternoons to catch up on the paperwork. We could open but we really do have other things to do.”
In addition to the couple, who work different but overlapping shifts to ensure time out of each other’s hair, the store employs one part-timer. However, this is under review and staffing levels may increase, as Jose explains: “I spend a lot of time going to the cash & carry and at those times we could do with more help. We could also do with a holiday!”
The busiest times at the store are mornings and lunchtimes; customers are a total mix of ages. And because the store is so near the main A13 route from Southend and the Essex coast into London, the store also attracts a lot of London cabbies who stop off to pick up supplies or lunch.
Occasionally, there is aggravation from youngsters but nothing unmanageable, says Jose. If the small store suddenly gets too many kids in at once, then Jose simply steps in to limit the numbers.
Already they’ve got to know the ‘troublemakers’ and those likely to shoplift. Says Jose: “I’m fairly tall so I stand really close to them, which makes them feel uncomfortable. It let’s them know that I know they are up to no good. Kids are up to so many tricks you really do have to watch them all of the time. That said, a great many of the kids are a pleasure to have in here.”
The store does have CCTV security and the couple use it to prosecute anyone who resists Jose’s beady eye treatment.
“There’s absolutely no point in having CCTV if you don’t use it. Word quickly gets about around here,” asserts Jose. “Often, what the shoplifters try to steal are silly things like pork pies.”
High on the agenda now that the couple have established good customer flow and better turnover on stock, is epos. Jose has canvassed opinion from a couple of friends at the cash & carry as well as the depot manager and now plans to go to the Convenience Retailing Show at the NEC in Birmingham in March to gather more ideas and information on epos. The Essex store boasts a funky blue-lit Gallaher cigarette gantry that Jose spotted on a previous visit to the show.
“Epos is such a big outlay,” he muses “We have to get it right. We were only saying yesterday how time-consuming it is to price up all of the stock.”
In the spring, the store collected the Newcomer of the Year award in Booker’s annual Excellence Awards, but this hasn’t made the couple rest on their laurels.
They are driving hard to boost sales of household and grocery and although their licensed sales have really taken off, they believe there is still plenty that can be done within their limited space.
“We are limited by our capacity but there’s still more to extract. This store still has many rewards to offer,” smiles Helen. She maintains that simply by offering the right range of goods combined with a friendly service was all that was needed to get customers into the store.
“We take great pride in presenting it nicely; it’s always faced up and spotless. The people who live here now shop here. Feedback from customers has been wonderful.”