Makhan Sunner is turning his store into a one-stop shop that caters for a diverse ethnic mix. Sarah Britton investigates
Anyone who thinks c-stores can’t do fresh needs to pay a visit to Makhan Sunner’s City Spices Costcutter in Lye, West Midlands. Upon entering the store, you are met with a plethora of colours as row upon row of fresh produce lines the shelves. At least six different types of apple fight for attention, alongside yellow plums, golden nectarines, and large clusters of mint, coriander and parsley. And for those looking for something more diverse, there are coconuts turia and fiery red Ugandan peppers. “We go to the market every other day to pick up fresh products and we sell it in boxes for a market-style, fresh appearance,” says Makhan. “We have very little fresh food wastage as a lot of people cook from scratch here.”
Fresh Halal meat is also in abundance, with three butchers behind a large counter at the back of the store, busy prepping cuts of chicken, beef and even goat. “Every morning fresh meat is picked up and prepared by the in-store butchers,” says Makhan. “There are 22 restaurants along the road here, many of which are Indian - it’s a proper Balti high street! They often ring in with orders for us.” Indeed, business is positively thriving with fresh meat alone bringing in £5,000 a week.
City Spices, Lye, West Midlands
Size: 6,700sq ft
Opening hours: 8am-9pm Mon-Sat 10am-4pm Sunday
Additional services: PayPoint, PayZone, National Lottery, free ATM, butchers counter, Indian sweets counter, beauty salon
Split peas, and lentils are piled high, and there are literally hundreds of spice mixes for Biryanis, Koftas, Karahis and Gosht - the list is endless. Makhan, who only took over the store in March 2011 and has never been involved with retail before, explains that he has grown the range dramatically in that time. “We expanded the spice range as the previous owner had run down the supplies. We source them from specialist
As well as expanding existing ranges, Makhan has introduced a great many new categories to the store. “Before I took over, it was a totally Indian store and wasn’t focussed on any other ethnic group. My first thought was to make it a community store so that all ethnicities felt welcome. I felt that at 6,700sq ft, we had a big enough space here that local people shouldn’t need to go elsewhere to buy other products. My main aim was to have everything under one roof.”
Outside of the store, he made people aware that the business was changing for the better by buying kits for the local youth football team. “The store had a bad reputation so we had to win people back by helping out in the community.”
And once people started to visit the store, Makhan ensured he was there to greet them in person. “I made a point of spending plenty of time on the shop floor and behind the tills, meeting with local shoppers. It’s very important to communicate with them and make them feel welcome. Just talking to people can go a long way, I now know most of my customers by name.”
But it was much more than just good service that was required to ensure that people kept coming back to the store. “I introduced a variety of products to cater for a broader range of ethnicities. We have West Indian, Thai, Arabic and Polish sections, so people from any background can find all the essentials that they need.” Jars of pickled salad, dates and tinned mackerel in tomatoes adorn the Polish fixture, while the West Indian contingent is catered for with a wide selection of lime juices and fried chicken spice mixes.
And Makhan certainly hasn’t forgotten his loyal Indian shoppers, having just opened a stunning Indian sweets counter. All manner of delights, including Gulab Jamun, Jalebi, Habshi Halwa and Burfi grace the shelves and with their attractive shades of pink, green and yellow, shoppers can’t fail to be drawn to them. “With the sweets, I wanted something to bring a smile to people’s faces,” says Makhan.
“We use one of the top suppilers in Birmingham, Mushtaq, which is very well known. They supply fresh sweets every day and have agreed to supply us exclusively in this area, so no one else can compete. They have also agreed to let us have their boxes, which they don’t normally do. It really helps to give the products a premium feel.”
The luxury sweets bring in high margins of between 35 and 40% and a delicious £2,000 worth are sold each week. “The sweets don’t only appeal to Indian people,” he adds. “They are popular with a whole range of customers - the English are definitely fans!”
And it isn’t just food that the store specialises in. The shop’s latest addition is a beauty salon run by Makhan’s daughter Sukhi, who is a qualified beautician. Tucked away in the basement of the store, Beauty 4U offers everything from eyebrow threading and waxing, to massages and makeovers and was a huge hit with Muslim women in the lead up to Eid in October.
The salon measures under 100sq ft, and has only been open a matter of months, but it is already doing a roaring trade and turns over £500 a week. “The salon is helping to increase our footfall and raise awareness of the business in general,” says Makhan, who converted half of his back office to make way for the new business. “Every time new clients come for a beauty treatment, they have to walk through the store. Some of them are coming from miles away, and don’t even realise that the shop is here before they visit.”
The initial plan was to trial the salon in the basement and then move it up to store level if it proved successful, but having researched the concept with shoppers, Makhan has decided to position it downstairs permanently. “Our customers told us that downstairs was better because they really wanted privacy. We have a big Pakistani community here and they didn’t like the idea of people being able to see them in the salon, so it’s current location is ideal.”
With so many services under one roof, Makhan’s magic touch certainly seems to be winning over customers. “So many people have come into the store and told me that they had stopped shopping when the last owner was here and now they’ve come back because they are so pleased with the new ranges.” With the beauty salon, butchery and Indian Sweet counters aside, the business is turning over a healthy £30,000, but Makhan believes he can grow this to £50,000.
Not one to rest on his laurels, he is already in the process of adding another string to his bow. “I’m creating a hardware section,” he says. “People always need small things - bulbs, screwdrivers, and locks for their homes. This will go towards my aim of creating a one stop shop.”
But before he introduces anything else, there’s work to be done. “We need to rationalise our ranges and cut the duplication of certain products, to enable us to make room for new sections.”
And to ensure he fine tunes the store to perfection, Makhan is attending a Costcutter retail management course, along with several members of staff. “I want to see if they can teach new tricks to an old dog!” he chuckles. “Unless you move with the times you fall behind.”