It may have taken a while to get there, but hard work and dedication has definitely paid off for Harjit Singh at Nisa Local High Heath in the West Midlands

Harjit Singh is a friendly, familiar face to the community of Walsall, having worked in his father’s newsagents for 26 years before opening his own store, Nisa Local High Heath, which he now runs with wife Jodie.

However, becoming a store owner was the last thing Harjit expected. He had a career selling clothing at Bristol’s local market, and it was only when his dad’s newsagents started to struggle that Harjit cut down his days there, spending the rest of his time helping out in the store and doing the cash and carry runs.

“It was a small and quiet shop, taking about £2,500 a week. And when Spar decided to open nearby in 1997, things got tough,” he says.

Then in 1998 the store was left totally in his hands after his father sadly passed away. “I stopped working in the markets and, with the help of my wife, took on the challenging task of competing with Spar. I can’t deny that during this time the shop was on the market for six years, and it never sold.”

If anything, this only spurred Harjit on to build up the newsagents. He decided to add an off licence to “hit Spar where it hurt”, and by 2006 sales were up to £7,000 a week.

Fact file

Nisa High Heath

Size: 2,500sq ft

Average basket spend: £7.50

Services: Lottery, PayPoint, news delivery, ATM

Staff: Six full-time, three part-time (also run apprenticeships)

Over the next few years Harjit’s newsagents and Spar battled against each other. Harjit even put in an offer to buy the Spar store, but it was refused. So Harjit countered by extending to 1,300sq ft by knocking into the hairdressers next door and at the same time joined Nisa. “It was the best move we could have made; we ended up smashing our target and making up to £27,000 a week. Spar was clearly feeling the pressure because they even set up a questionnaire, asking the local residents why they preferred to shop in my store. But it didn’t deter me; I was determined to get hold of the Spar store.”

And finally he did. At the end of 2013 Spar submitted and Harjit moved in, taking with him the Nisa brand. “I had been waiting for this day, so when it came I was truly prepared. Sometime before I had taken out a lease on the two shops next to what was Spar, hoping that when I finally got the shop, I could extend it.”

Not only did Harjit extend the store from 1,700sq ft to 2,500sq ft, he refurbished it, keeping nine of Spar’s staff, too.

The overhaul was made easy as he continued to trade from the newsagents while the building work was going on. “It was a really smooth transition. The new build took time, but it was worth it as we kitted the store out with new flooring, new electrics and a new frontage.”

The shop was ready for trading at the beginning of May 2014, and a grand opening took place on May 17, featuring a DJ on the roof, singers, a bouncy castle, face-painting, rodeo, and food and drink supplied by Nisa. Harjit adds: “It was a brilliant day, the sun was shining and it was made that extra bit special by Edward, one of our elderly customers who was friends with my dad, cutting the ribbon.”

To mark the store’s first anniversary, and as an excuse to get the community together again, Harjit and Jodie organised a similar event this year. And although the weather wasn’t as good, the turnout was.

Local residents now only have one place to go for their shopping, which means Harjit has doubled his original trade. He still holds the lease for the newsagents and lets out the hairdressers next door; this is mostly so he can have some control over the type of shops which come to the area. A wise move given his previous experience.

He says the competition that does exist at the moment isn’t a threat at all. “There is a Co-op down the road, which opened in 2012. Luckily, it didn’t really impact my sales. They were, however, given permission to put in a post office in-store in 2014, but I don’t think I’ve lost any customers through it.”

Since opening the store Harjit can hardly believe its success: “I get so many compliments and the trade has been rock solid; our figures rarely fluctuate more than 2%.”

The store is colourful and welcoming with large automatic doors opening onto a spacious front. While C-Store was visiting there was a distinct buzz about the place, with customers talking happily to the staff and always throwing Harjit a wave if he was close by. Clearly, his time on the market stalls has enabled Harjit to hone his customer service skills, and his easy-going attitude has made him popular with customers of all ages.

One of the main features in Harjit’s store is his large off-licence section. Spirits, wines, ciders and RTDs fill the shelves with a rainbow of colour, and boxes of beer line the fridges, highlighting promotional offers.

“It’s my point of difference and sells very well,” says Harjit. “I have been building it up since I was in my other shop as it was one of the only areas in which I could really give Spar a run for their money. ”

Spirits are kept behind the tills in a line-up of multiple variants of well-known brands such as Smirnoff, Southern Comfort, Famous Grouse, Jack Daniel’s and many more. There are roughly seven different brands for each type of spirit, with the most premium such as Cîroc, Belvoir and Crystal Head Vodka sitting on the top shelf.

This extensive alcohol offering coupled with a wide range of local produce has enabled Harjit to obtain an average basket spend of £7.50 - that and his friendly character, of course. Local suppliers help give the store a point of difference. One of them, WT Hill has been supplying Harjit with local fresh meat since 2009. Says Harjit: “The meat comes pre-packed and is a winner in BBQ season.”

He also stocks fresh potatoes from a farm close by, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables including plums, strawberries, tomatoes, lettuce and nectarines.

Harjit has worked hard to get where he is today; the battle with Spar was tough, but the competition kept him fighting and made him stronger. And although he no longer has a direct competitor, he is still eager to grow and improve his business, with food to go the next step.

The store already houses a microwave and coffee machine, but in the future Harjit hopes to add a bakery and hot food counter to really capitalise on demand for food to go.

Convenience retailing isn’t an easy path, but Harjit has already proved he has the strength, determination and vision it takes to become a real success. It’s a good job the newsagents didn’t sell after all.

Finding a gap in the market

Eleven months after opening, Harjit still felt his store had more to give. So after weeks of walking past the non-food stock at his local East End Foods Cash and Carry, he decided to take the plunge and see how his customers would react.

“We started off with just a few bits to test the waters such as microwaves, kettles, crockery, cutlery and chargers. The microwaves and cutlery sold out almost immediately; I had customers asking me when we would be getting more in.”

In one day Harjit managed to sell £200-worth of appliances, and considering he makes 25-30% on each one, he knew he was on to a winner. Over the following months he extended the range and now offers bigger appliances such as juicers, blenders, frying pans, hair dryers, straighteners and more.

The larger appliances sit on the tops of the fridges if they don’t fit into the small corner at the front of the shop: “Why waste the space?” says Harjit. “The box is eye-catching so does half the promoting for me.”