Family run Vic’s Stores is a small shop with a large reputation, as Gaelle Walker found out
Fifty years is a long time in retail, and the Brading family business has changed beyond recognition since it was founded in the late 1950s. Despite many physical changes, Vic’s Stores at Seaview on the Isle of Wight has managed to maintain its core ethos: to serve the local community to the best of its ability.
The store, which is soon to be handed over to the third generation of the Brading family, has just scooped the Londis Retailer of the Year award for ‘Best Rural Store,’ and is being entered for another round of competitions later in the year.
However, the business didn’t always have such a firm standing in the local community. It started life as a mobile grocery shop run by current owner Charles Brading’s father, Victor. Charles explains: “Dad started driving the grocery van to all the farms and houses in the local area, and after just a few months we were serving upwards of 380 customers and doing very well out of it.”
Vic’s van soon became a much loved local asset, particularly for the island’s more elderly residents. However, just as sales started to peak, politics got in the way.
The business was caught in the crossfire when a Street Trading Act was imposed on the island. The Act, brought about due to the proliferation of hot-dog and chip vans, banned mobile traders from remaining stationary for longer than 10 minutes in any one spot. “It was a nightmare for us,” recalls Charles. “Dad’s van was so popular with the locals that it could remain stationary for hours on end, with customers queuing round the block to get served.”
Luckily, Vic had the community on his side, and with the help of a local councillor, the Bradings were granted permission to turn the front room of their house into a grocery store. The store was a minuscule 12sq ft when it first opened, but as its popularity grew, so did its size as room after room was converted into selling and storage space.
“Once we had the store we still carried on making deliveries to the elderly locals,” says Charles. “I used to cycle to their houses in the morning and take their orders, and then dad would drop their groceries off in the car later in the day. It worked brilliantly.”
Things were really looking up for the Brading family business until 1981. The New Year brought the unwelcome news that Tesco was to open a large store within walking distance of theirs.
“It was like a light going out. More than 50% of our business vanished overnight after Tesco opened,” Charles says. “My parents were completely devastated and almost decided to throw in the towel.”
And that’s when Charles stepped in. “Although I was still quite young, I knew that a radical change was needed if we were to survive,” he says. So, with his father’s blessing, Charles borrowed some money and bought the store. It was then time to implement a vigorous new regime.
Out went the late openings and early closings, and in came a new 8am to 9pm opening policy. “Closing at lunchtime and on Sundays also went out of the window,” he says. “I wanted shoppers to know that we would be open for them all day every day from then on.”
The results were amazing. Within just six weeks the family had noticed a significant upturn in business. Twenty-odd years later the store, which Charles now runs with his partner Linda and daughter Emma, is taking an average of £20,000 a week, and much more during the busy summer months.
It’s now open from 4am till 9pm every day, including Christmas. “We were manic last Christmas Day,” Charles remembers. “We had customers coming in for stuffing mix and vegetables that they’d forgotten. One lady even came in because she’d run out of gas to cook her Christmas lunch and we were the only place open with a PayPoint machine.”
Christmas aside, the winter months can often be very quiet at Vic’s Stores. “The Isle of Wight is a hugely popular holiday destination in the summer, but the population slumps by more than half in the winter,” explains Charles.
More than 45% of the residences in the nearby village of Seaview are holiday homes, a fact which can make trading quite challenging. “In the summer our sales go through the roof, particularly during Cowes week and the music festival which takes place in June. It’s absolutely exhausting but we love it,” adds Charles. And while some retailers encounter difficulties with staffing due to the seasonality of their location, Charles most certainly doesn’t.
He has 11 regular workers including Linda and Emma, and he employs them all throughout the year. “I tried cutting numbers in the winter months when we were quiet, but it was hard to get them back in the spring as they’d have moved on to other things. This is by far the best solution. They have a nice easy winter, and are happy to do extra shifts in the summer; it works very well.”
Charles takes his managerial duties very seriously. “Good staff are vital to the success of the store. I hold regular one-to-one meetings with each member of staff and we also have group meetings where we can all get stuff off our chests.
“I don’t believe in verbal warnings. If a member of staff has done something wrong, I think that it’s much better to sit them down on their own and talk through it. I’m also interested in their opinions, and they often suggest things which Linda and I haven’t considered.” Charles agrees that when the team is happy, shoppers are happy: “Happy staff make for a nice atmosphere which shoppers notice.”
Also popular with shoppers is the amount of locally sourced food that the store offers. “We supplement our core grocery range from Londis with a number of local products that customers, and particularly the holidaymakers, love.”
One of the store’s biggest sellers is fresh crab. “The DFLs, or ‘Down From Londoners’ as we call them, go crazy for the stuff,” says Charles. “When the weather’s good we can make upwards of £400 on local crab in one weekend alone.” The store also sells a wide range of Isle of Wight cream, milk, cheese, fruit and vegetables. “Last year one of our neighbours had a bumper crop of runner beans so we sold some of those in the store too.”
And despite the current downturn in the economy, Charles says that premium products are also selling well: “We’re seeing a real upturn in the amount of premium ice cream, chocolates and even frozen products that we sell.” In the last few months alone, Charles says that average spend has increased from £4 to £4.80, and rising.
But providing a wide selection of local produce isn’t the only service that the family-run store offers its customers.
“We also carry groceries to the car, and have a prescription delivery service which is really popular with the more elderly customers or busy working people,” says Charles. Customers’ prescriptions are collected from the store by the
pharmacist who later returns with the various medicines for people to collect. “We even take advance grocery orders from people arriving on the island for their holidays. We then deliver all their goods to their door when they get here. People don’t like to go shopping for food as soon as they arrive on holiday, so this service is very popular.”
The next plan on the list is the launch of an online delivery service which Charles and Linda hope will go live at the end of the year. “The website is a big project, but one which we think could have dramatic results. We’ve already set up a system where customers can pay for goods with their cards over the phone, so it should be quite easy to implement.”
“Shoppers are increasingly looking for more convenient solutions and I believe that online is the way to go.”
Charles regularly seeks the advice and opinions of his customers. “You have to listen to your customers and take their opinions on board. At the end of the day, if you look after them, they’ll look after you and keep coming back. All it takes is one bad experience and they might never return,” he says.
It’s for this reason that Charles is obsessive about presentation and the service that the store offers. “High standards and great service are vital in retail - my dad pumped that into me at a very young age.”