Bright ideas abound at Harris Aslam’s flagship store, where showstopping design features and quality goods are keeping the crowds coming back for more

Rather like its owner, there’s nothing run of the mill about Harris Aslam’s latest venture. From the food-to-go unit at the front of the store selling freshly baked cakes to the wall-mounted bicycle in the café area, Greens of Markinch is all about the wow factor.

As managing directors of Eros Retail, Harris and his cousin Raza Rehman have taken on four stores with the idea of rebranding and rejuvenating not only the shops themselves, but the sector as a whole. Their Markinch store, acquired from a relative, is the first to undertake a major overhaul.

“The Markinch store has been in the family since 1982. It was very rundown and we started to think about what we could do differently from the Co-op, which is its main competitor,” says Harris. “We’re quite a young team; I’m 20 and Raza is 26. One thing that runs through the entire workforce is that we are completely open to change and we’re not going to run from anything because it hasn’t been done before. Looking at the industry as a whole, we’re asking what can we do take a big slice of the c-store market and make it better?”

Store facts

Greens of Markinch, Fife

Staff: six full-time, 18 part-time

Size: 4,800sq ft

Services: post office, PayPoint, lottery, ATMs, fresh orange juice, food to go, free home (or office) delivery

Rebuild and refit cost: £400,000

Shopfitter: Vertex

You certainly can’t knock his ambition. His goals might sound a bit far-fetched, but as well as heading up the £3m turnover Eros Retail, the self-proclaimed “visionary entrepreneur” has a law diploma from the University of Abertay Dundee and is currently studying for a Master of Arts degree at the University of and Dundee and an Association of Certified Chartered Accountants qualification. So when this young man sets his mind to things, there’s no question that he’s serious about it. And while he has big ideas, he is also a realist, and very much his own worst critic.

“Some 18 months went into the planning of the new-look store. I am very hands-on with design,” says Harris, who has invested £400,000 on rebuilding and refitting the Markinch outlet.

“When we initially opened the store last November, it was about doing radical things,” he says. However, he concedes that “some elements didn’t work” and in recent months, the cousins have “toned things down” and reworked parts of the store. “We’ve made so many changes even since then; it’s what makes you improve.”

One concept that didn’t make the final cut was beer served from a barrel. “We initially thought that beer from a barrel would be good for the store but we realised that, three months down the line, the novelty would wear off,” he explains.

Two premium Love Food freezers were initially given a feature wall alongside the swanky alcohol and confectionery zones. But these have now been relegated to the back of the store to make way for a new seating area, boasting an urban chic brick-effect wall complete with hipster bicycle where the wheels double up as signage to create the word ‘food’. This was installed in July and is still a “work in progress” with Harris keen to improve the signage and introduce wi-fi and flowerbeds to the surrounding area.

However, many of the team’s original ideas have proved a success, such as the spirits section. “The only reason spirits are usually behind the counter is to stop theft, but it is also deterring customers,” says Harris. “If we expect someone to spend £100 on whisky, why shouldn’t they be able to look and touch the product, so we moved them out from behind the counter and onto the shop floor.” Indeed the alcohol zone is slicker than your average, with wood-effect flooring and spotlights beaming down from neat rows of parallel wooden beams criss-crossed along the ceiling. “Alcohol wasn’t a key area for us, but it was still something we wanted to make a feature of, so it’s a store-within-a-store with a curved, drop-down ceiling,” says Harris. “Our shopfitter Vertex told us that about 10 stores have adopted it since!”

The confectionery fixture is another feast for the eyes, with huge Perspex tubes of sweets lined up along the top of the wall à la M&M’s World. On closer inspection, it transpires that the Wonka-esque tubes are, in fact, printed vinyl - a cost-effective optical illusion created by Vertex. “As soon as you walk into the store, we want you to be able to notice these areas,” says Harris. “Sweets are an impulse purchase so the design is all about drawing people in.”

At the heart of the store stands a food-to- go counter offering gelato, freshly-made sandwiches and fresh cakes delivered daily from Fisher & Donaldson. “Fisher & Donaldson cakes are located 12 miles away,” says Harris. “In all our other stores we work with Stephens the baker, but so do the Co-op and other stores. We wanted to differentiate ourselves so we looked at who makes the best cakes and pies.”

But the cakes weren’t introduced to the store until this summer. “We knew we wanted food to go, but Fisher & Donaldson weren’t ready at the time, so we had to convince them,” says Harris. “We had to show them we could deliver the quality.

“We’ve also started doing all our own rolls and sandwiches,” he adds. “Staff make sandwiches using bought-in fillings, but we’re looking to make those ourselves further down the line.”

Other theatrical flourishes are the fill-your-own olive oil dispenser and the freshly-squeezed orange juice machine at the entrance. “Looking at it from a financial perspective, the orange juice machine doesn’t make sense, but when you have customers coming in from 10 miles away in Kircaldy to buy it because they can’t get it fresher anywhere else, then you forget about the financial implications and deliver the excitement.”

The store’s unconventional offerings and stylish features are certainly what gives it the edge over the competition, but there is a question mark over whether the brand is too elite to be rolled out to his other stores. “Greens is all about fresh and food to go, but a slight challenge has been that is it too premium,” he says. “This is an affluent village, but then we have our Kirkcaldy store, which is in the middle of a council estate. It’s a very wide range of demographics so we weren’t sure how it was going to roll out to other stores.

“Pricewise, we are very competitive and compare well with the Co-op - in fact, we’re cheaper. But standing outside the front of the store, you might be outside a Waitrose. Customers will have a perception that we are expensive, even if we’re not, so we have to look at how we can get the value message across. It’s something we’re working on at the moment.”

Despite his concerns, the Greens brand is certainly working its magic in Markinch with turnover up over 400% and continuing to rise, along with Harris’ thirst to becoming a leading force within the sector. “We want to redefine convenience retailing - it’s very hard to live up to something like that, but we wanted to take the next step,” he says. “We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved - this is the kind of store I’d shop in - but it’s always about what we do next.”

Management style

A hands-on approach

Harris and Raza decided that the only way to truly understand their business was to get involved on ground level.

Says Harris: “Our store managers were saying that the epos system wasn’t adequate, so we decided to manage this site hands-on instead of getting a manager so as we could see what we are providing to managers and where our offer is lacking.”

Harris and Raza spent six months managing Greens of Markinch themselves to get to grips with the day-to-day challenges that their staff were facing. “We realised we’d put so many processes in place that it was becoming bureaucratic so we trimmed the fat and got it back to basics so that staff could get back to retailing,” says Harris. “We had a lot of learnings from that and realised we needed to change the epos system. We spoke to ITS and they’ve been brilliant; they’ll even add in custom services - for example, now our tills flag up every hour reminding staff to run a temperature check.”