The feeling you get upon entering the Londis store on Ferme Park Road in London is a bit like a kid's first time in a toy shop the urge to run through the place touching and trying everything in sight is overwhelming. Towering shelves scream every kind of product you can imagine. From lychees and mangos to toasters and measuring tape, not to mention the numerous different types of sliced meat and an organic section that's quite simply out of this world.

Owner Alpesh Patel clearly prides himself on being able to give customers choice. "The range we have is extraordinary," he beams. "I'm a vegetarian, so I know what kind of products are available and I make sure we stock them all vegetarian chicken, beef, bacon. We also have all sorts of ethnic snacks, about 30 varieties of tea and a vast selection of milk: a full range of standard milk, soya milk, rice milk, oatmeal milk and organic."

In fact, if you just want to nip in for a loaf of bread, the dazzling array could prove too much. But Alpesh explains that it's not his aim to be a top-up shop, and that's not how customers use his store. "This is a very affluent, cosmopolitan area. People tend to come here for specialist goods, such as rye or linseed bread," he says.

"Even people who move away from the area come back to shop here. Some travel from about 10 miles away."

Keeping up to speed with specialist consumer demands can be pretty tough, he claims. "The most challenging part of my job is to be on top of every new product, to make sure we carry on growing in the same manner. I get customers asking for particular jams and marmalades and I want to make sure we can meet their needs."

Unfortunately, Alpesh faces a major hurdle in his bid to keep customers happy. "A big problem for me is trying to make manufacturers understand that c-stores are as vital a link to sales as the multiples. I think they've only just started to realise this in the last year or so," he says.

But he point blank refuses to let a little issue like supply restrictions stand in his way. "If there's a branded product available in Tesco that I can't get hold of then I phone my trading director and ask why not. We've built up our credibility with our customers over the years, so they know they're going to get what they want."

As well as keeping up to date with the latest brands, Alpesh is equally eager to keep his food to go offering exciting. Having always led the way in terms of trends, he has had food to go up and running since 1995. Well over a decade later, you might think things could be starting to get a little tired, but there's not a chance with Alpesh on the case. "Country Choice has done a great job with our Bake & Bite section," he claims. "It's really a case of making sure that people don't get too sick and tired of your offering, so you have to keep changing it. The current food to go counter area is five years old, so we're looking to revamp it, and we're always changing the products bringing in custard tarts, samosas and so on."

Humble beginnings

Of course, the store hasn't always been able to offer customers such wonderful delights.

Originally from Tanzania, Alpesh had only been in the UK a year before he and his parents bought the shop in 1979, so to say he was a complete novice is by no means exaggerating. "At first it was just a question of survival. We had to learn as we went along," he says. "Not being a professional in business and picking up everything on the job was a real learning curve. There were mistakes made, but you learnt from them and moved on."

The entire image of the store was a far cry from the specialist treasure trove it is today. Measuring just 400sq ft, space was at a premium and in order to pack in as much as possible, different types of products were often stacked on top of each other. "We'd have diet coke and regular coke next to each other as we had to make the most of the space we had," Alpesh says. "There were meatballs in gravy on top of meatballs with tomatoes. Everything was squeezed in, but customers got used to it they understood that it was difficult. Retail wasn't anywhere near as lucrative then as it is now."

The shop really had to work for its money because convenience stores in general were still earning their place within the overall retail infrastructure. "If you wanted meat, you went to a butcher; and if you wanted veg then you went to a greengrocer. There wasn't really a word for convenience stores, it was just 'the local shop'," claims Alpesh.

But this 'local shop' soon began to make a name for itself. "We opened until 7pm, which was quite late compared to supermarkets, which shut at 5pm. We were the store giving service with a smile," he reminisces. "But gradually the supermarkets started muscling in. If manufacturers had stayed with c-stores from the beginning, instead of shunning us in favour of the supermarkets, they'd have been miles ahead now and so would we."

Nevertheless, with or without support from suppliers, Alpesh was determined that his store should succeed, and that meant developing a sixth sense for where the sector was headed and creating a point of difference.

Two years after opening, he picked up on consumer demand for fresh fruit and veg. There wasn't room in his little store to squeeze in so much as a grape, so he set up a fruit and veg display outside the shop front until the store could be refitted and there was room indoors.

"We expanded the store first to 1,500sq ft, then to 2,000sq ft, and finally to 3,000sq ft, all the while building up our product range," he recalls.

Once he had enough room for all the basics, the real fun started. "My aim is always to manage the store with perfection, clarity and panache it should look perfect any time of day," Alpesh says. "For our final expansion, we moved our veg from ambient to chilled and we improved our lighting so that the food looked more appealing. We added a much bigger organic section and ensured there was enough room for all our white wine to be bought chilled."

His unwavering determination to continually improve the store hasn't gone unnoticed and Alpesh picked up Convenience Store's Best Independent Symbol Store in 2007 and 2008, and came highly commended in the 2009 awards. "To have been recognised by the convenience industry as being one of the best stores in my category makes me extremely proud," he grins.

But just because he's had a few pats on the back doesn't mean Alpesh will be slowing down any time soon. "The next refit is due now and the plans have already been drawn up," he says. "We're trying to introduce an even wider range of organic. We may expand the store a little, but we're more likely to rearrange the existing space more efficiently."

Alpesh is also involved in a number of projects outside the store itself, including his role as chair for North London in Londis' National Retail Council.

"Time is hard to find, but I find it because I want to make sure our group members get the best of the best," he says. "To succeed as a retailer, you need to be able to throw ideas around and always listen to other people's suggestions."

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