When a tired convenience store in Strichen, Aberdeenshire, went on the market, it provided the “perfect opportunity” for Sid Ali to use his knowledge of the area and provide its community with the modern store they had been waiting for
Sid Ali was brimming with energy and enthusiasm when C-Store met him bright and early on a fresh morning in Aberdeenshire. There is certainly no lie-ins in the life of this tenacious entrepreneur, who was itching to show me around the newest addition to his portfolio of c-stores and an Indian takeaway: store number four, Nisa Strichen.
Sharing roads with tractors we passed fields stretching for miles and concealed under a layer of frost before arriving in the rural village of Strichen.
“That’s Alex Salmond’s house right there, he has ordered takeaways from us,” Sid points out as we pass a rather grand-looking converted mill in the village. Aside from that, the village is quite modest and from the local butchers, pub and now to the modern convenience store, it is clear that these local businesses are a welcome asset to the community.
“It used to be a really old store and was losing a lot of trade to the Co-operative store a few miles away as it didn’t sell alcohol or tobacco and wasn’t able to compete in many different areas. I thought it was a good location and had a lot of potential with a thriving community of 1,000 residents. That’s why we decided to take it on back in August,” explains Sid.
Size: 1,200sq ft
Address: 34 High Street, Strichen
Opening hours: 6am-9pm Monday to Friday, 8am-8pm Sunday
Staffing: two full-time; eight part-time
Best selling categories: Chilled 22%, tobacco 20%, alcohol 15%, grocery 20%, bakery 10%
Nisa Strichen blends aesthetically with the neighbouring stone houses on the high street, and features the stylish dark grey and yellow Nisa fascia and signage. A clever twist means that one of the promotional panels in the exterior is actually a one-way window, where shoppers inside the store can see out.
There is something immediately welcoming about the feel of the 1,200sq ft store as you walk through the wooden door that sits level with the pavement, and this is certainly something to do with the 10 members of staff he employs and the spacious design with wide aisles.
Sid says: “We want to be able to create a welcoming environment first and foremost and we achieve this with a spacious store and a high level of personal customer service that people won’t get anywhere else.”
He continues: “A big part of that is making the store accessible to everyone; we wanted there to be plenty of room to navigate the aisles for mothers and wheelchair users especially.”
Alongside the customer service, though, is a mix of products at keen price points. Sid acknowledges: “To keep our customers coming back we also need to give them the products they want and make them affordable.”
Unsurprisingly, then, promotions play a big part in the retail mix, illustrated by the store’s promotional bays and end of aisle displays. Big brands and promotions are dotted throughout the store with half-price deals, round pounds and PMPs all made hard to miss thanks to bright POS material.
Sid says: “We rotate the special offers regularly to keep customers engaged and stop them from being bored of the promotions. I think the key is to get the balance right and keep it exciting.”
His drive to ensure his customers receive good value is highlighted by his policy on milk. Sid dropped the price of two pints of milk from £1 to 69p to offer his customers the best price on milk for miles around. He admits he loses money on this promotion, but it pulls in the punters, who are likely to pick up more than just their milk when they pop in. Indeed, milk sales have grown by 300% since he changed the price.
Fresh and chilled is an important area of the store and Sid dedicates more than 10 metres to the category, shown off in full glory with modern chillers boasting energy-efficient doors and LED lighting. Sid says: “There is a big demand for fresh quality products and that is why we decided to install the highest spec chillers and offer a big range, from locally-sourced products to big brands and discount brands.”
There is a wide range of chilled ready meals and pies from local butcher IJ McIntosh, and Sid reports customers appreciate the convenience of the range and the quality locally-sourced ingredients.
Some of the store’s fresh fruit and veg is also locally sourced, as is the bakery range, one of the up and coming areas of the store. The bakery products go beyond sliced loaves and Sid sources items from four local bakeries, including Thain’s Bakery in Aberdeen. Since stocking lines from Scottish bakers, the bakery category has seen a 5% uplift in sales and the category now represents 10% of the business’ turnover.
Sid is supporting the Scottish Grocers Federation’s ‘Eat Better Feel Better’ initiative by putting up a stand at the front of the store, offering a range of fruit for discount prices to encourage healthy eating.
Also at the front of the store is Sid’s ‘Big Night In’ section. Under bright signposting is two metres of grab bags of confectionery and share bags in snacking from big brands, with £1 PMPs standing out prominently.
On the counter top sits a dual slush machine from Snowshock that is proving popular with adults as well as children, providing a welcome 50% margin.
But it is the alcohol section that really shines in Sid’s store. The chilled alcohol range spans 6.25 metres. Sid says: “We identified alcohol and tobacco as areas that there would be a big demand for, as there wasn’t really this offering at the store under the previous ownership. We introduced a good range of alcohol from big brands at good prices, along with a strong range of craft products.”
The selection also includes a wide Scottish whisky range, including premium brands and local brands that Sid reports are popular even though they are quite expensive.
It was important for Sid that the offer was kept chilled as “customers usually buy alcohol to be enjoyed within the next few hours and not to stock up on”.
Now that the store has been trading for six months, Sid is looking at other areas to develop. Having tried a food-to-go offer at his Mintlaw store with no real success, he accepts that it is something that works for stores in some demographics, but not his own. But not one for sitting still, Sid is currently assessing the possibility of working with a local baker and getting a fresh daily supply of cakes and sweet baked goods into the store and serving them over a designated counter.
Sid says: “First of all, it is all about getting to know the local community and understanding what they want. I think we have established a unique relationship with customers in the village, and through a strong offering , fair pricing strategy and service with a smile we have achieved what we set out to with this new store and I have very high hopes for it in the future.”
With a number of schools locally, Sid has decided to launch a breakfast club scheme with parents in the village, to help encourage healthy eating.
When parents come into the store in the morning before school and buy a box of cereal they will be given a free Kellogg’s bowl and spoon. The bowl is designed to separate the milk and cereal until the moment when the customer wants to add the cereal to the milk.
Sid is inviting parents and children back every day when he will refill the bowl with milk for free and give out an item of fresh fruit.
Sid says: “When we saw a sample of the breakfast bowl we thought it was a great concept and decided that we could offer it to children to help them to start the day right.”