It's just hit three o'clock in the afternoon at the Nisa Local on Briton Street, Leicester, and the store has suddenly sprung into life with some colourful, slightly dishevelled youths gathering in the aisles. Newly awoken following last night's revelry, they arrive at the store hungry for deals and, well, just plain hungry.
They may not be the most affluent of customers, but what they lack in cash, they make up for in numbers, arriving in their masses. The air of camaraderie and slight sense of mischief create a buzz throughout the store as the youngsters do their shopping. And a busy, buzzing store makes for two happy owners.
Cousins Neil Thakkar (pictured on the left) and Viresh Popat (on the right) opened the shop in 2008 and C-Store's visit coincides with its third Freshers' Week. "Students make up 50% of the customer base, so this is one of the most important weeks of the year for us," says Neil. "If we can win a new customer over in this week, we'll have them for the next three or four years."
The importance of Freshers' Week was particularly notable last year when the store launched a loyalty scheme. "It's got more than 1,000 members, 700 of which joined up in that first week," says Viresh. "For every pound customers spend they get a point, and every point is worth a penny it's gone down really well."
This year there are more nifty schemes to draw in new blood during Freshers' Week. First up, freshers can choose from a selection of free gifts. They might be cheap knick-knacks such as key-rings and frisbees, but they're going down a storm with the fun-loving students.
Alongside this, a woman in fancy dress is giving away cups of PG Tips tea on behalf of Unilever, and samples of Red Bull will be given away later in the week.
An additional pull is the thumb scanner. Although its main purpose is as a reliable and time-saving proof-of-age device, it has become a draw in its own right. The idea is that students come in with their ID and staff record their thumbprint. Next time they come in, they just need to give their thumbprint and can be served age-related products. "Trading Standards thinks it's great and the students find it a novelty," says Neil. "One girl came in and did it, and the next day she brought three of her friends in to try it."
Another neat piece of kit is the new Bluetooth system. The technology enables them to text Bluetooth users within 100 metres of the store about offers. "It will give us the chance to differentiate ourselves," says Viresh. "We're planning to create unique Bluetooth offers every day."
The shop's passport photo booth is another clever way of attracting extra custom. "At the beginning of the year freshers need to have passport photos for their student cards, so they'll come in for that and buy extra bits while they're here."
And once people are in the store it's vital that their needs are met, so the guys are pulling out all the stops to ensure they stock everything from dinner to duvets. "We've made the household essentials section much bigger this year. We've got all sorts, from pizza trays and bottle openers, to plug adaptors and torches. It used take up just a third of a bay, now it's four times the size," says Neil. "When a Tesco Express opened up back in Easter, our sales dropped for a week because people were curious about the new store. But they soon came back because it doesn't sell the products they need."
And it's not just about the essentials; there are also plenty of products that encourage impulse purchase. A toy stand goes down well with students as well as local children, and T-shirts are another fun addition. "They're pretty reasonable at £9.99," says Viresh.
The store also boasts a substantial stationery supply and a good selection of specialist magazines, as well as all the usual gossip and lifestyle titles. "There are quite a few art students here and they're keen on the fashion and design titles, such as Dazed & Confused, so we make sure we have them on shelf," says Viresh.
Round in the grocery aisle lies the more stereotypical fodder five types of baked beans, a large selection of Pot Noodle, and plenty of Princes Hot Pots. "We over-index on grocery," says Neil. "This is good for us as the margins are higher."
While many of the meals come in single portions, sharing is a major theme in the confectionery aisle. Big bags of popcorn and grab bags of sweets are strong sellers, explains Viresh. "There's a cinema nearby and we have a touchscreen DVD machine, so people buy snacks for eating while they watch."
Nisa Local, Briton Street, Leicester
Opening hours: Mon-Fri 7am-10.45pm; Sat and Sun: 8am-10.45pm
Staff: three full-time, eight part-time
Size: 3,000sq ft
Old faithfuls such as pizza still cut the mustard, but microwaveable burgers aren't as big a seller as you might think, adds Viresh. "We've noticed a real change in student shopping habits over the past two years. They are definitely spending more on healthy options."
As a result, the cousins are looking to improve their fruit and veg offering over coming months. "We offer fresh herbs, single apples and bananas, and pineapples and melons, but we might be able to increase sales by offering multibuy and meal deals," says Neil.
Their ability to keep coming up with new ideas is impressive, but the modest retailers put much of their know-how down to their employees. "Our staff are all students," explains Viresh. "They're always making suggestions. For example, we never used to stock Desperados beer, but a member of staff recommended it and now we order several cases a week."
The guys are also ex-students themselves. "Neil did a masters at De Montfort and I went to Leeds, so we know what the student lifestyle is like," says Viresh. In fact, the cousins' understanding approach means that customers see them as much more than just retailers. "A lot of people come back here just because of the way we are with customers," says Neil. "They often tell us their problems we've had students upset because they've failed their exams, and locals distraught because they've split up with their partners. We're there for them when they need us and we offer advice where possible."
Their dedication has certainly paid off. "From our first year to last year we saw a 25% sales increase, and we've had another 20% this year," beams Neil.
And there are no plans to stop there. The guys are keen to set up more stores over the next year. "At the moment, we're focusing on setting procedures in place by writing our own guidebook," says Viresh. "The first store is always the hardest, but we'd like to buy a few more outlets."
But that doesn't mean they are leaving the Briton Street store behind. "There's always something new to try," says Neil. "We like experimenting with new ideas and the students like it, too."
"It's really important to keep adapting," agrees Viresh. "Change is what keeps students interested and what makes us stand out."