Harj Dhasee was a fish out of water when he arrived in rural Gloucestershire. Now he and his store are at the heart of the community
Did you hear about the city boy from Birmingham who quit his high-flying job and bought a village store in the rural idyll of the Cotswolds? He doubled sales within five years and became an integral part of village life.
Harj Dhasee found himself out on a limb in 2008 after resigning from Swedish Match. “I decided to leave over a disagreement and thought to myself ‘What shall I do now?’. I looked at bars and restaurants, but my parents had been in retail for about 15 years so I thought I’d stick to what I knew,” he says.
His parents suggested he took over one of their off licences, but he wanted to prove he could branch out on his own, so he started looking for available shops. “I then stumbled across this store. I originally didn’t like it because of the location - I’m a city boy at heart - and the store needed a lot of work, it was dark, dingy and dirty,” he recalls.
However, the store’s potential, and that of Mickleton, blessed with independent shops and little direct competition, won him over and he immediately set about making wholesale changes. “It was Costcutter when I bought it, but I changed it to Nisa - I liked the fair playing field; you feel part of the company,” Harj says.
“When I moved in I got rid of all the dead lines and had a massive re-layout. I took out more shelving than anything else. The previous manager had the old way of thinking that you should stock everything, single facing.”
He cut the number of lines from more than 4,000 to about 3,200 and sales rocketed nearly 30% in the first year alone. Five years on, sales have more than doubled.
Harj attributes the growth to many factors. He keeps the store clean and tidy, and ensures it never runs out of the basics. He has also focused heavily on chilled, which has helped expand the customer base. “It used to be the older generation who would come in every day. Now we cater for morning, lunchtime and evening, and stock core ingredients for tea, such as a wine, pasta or pizza.”
He has also invested in local produce such as cheese, milk, bread, eggs, meats and even local rapeseed oil. A deli at the back of the store stocks a mix of local and international produce, and works as a footfall driver “adding a superior feel to the store,” Harj asserts.
His negotiating skills resulted in a deal with local milk producer Cotswold Dairy, in which he sells 2ltr bottles for just £1. “When prices went up with Nisa I went to Cotswold Dairy and said ‘This is the price I want, how much milk do you need me to move?’. He gave me a figure and I said ‘Okay, I’ll move it for you!’.” He sells it alongside 1ltr Nisa Heritage milk at 89p.
As well as catering for all demographics, he provides for all budgets. “We sell £1 eggs and bread, but also sell cakes at £6,” he points out. The same applies for wine, in which he is uncompromising in his strategy. A promotional bay sits at the front of the store, housing red and white wines, while only high-end whites are stocked in the chiller in the alcohol section. “You won’t find a cheap wine in the fridge - or lower than £7, anyway. If a customer wants the convenience of a chilled wine, they’ll come and buy it. Why give away good cold wine?,” he says.
It is Harj’s attention to in-store merchandising which has been so instrumental in driving the store’s success. Every Thursday he changes the front display to keep things fresh. When C-Store visits on a recent sunny Friday, an irresistible combination of Pimm’s and strawberries sits in front of the counter. “We’ll sell between 50 and 120 packs of strawberries and can sell dozens of bottles of Pimm’s. It takes the whole of Thursday to change it around, but it’s worth it. On Monday, we’ll fill it with sweets and chocs for the kids,” he says.
Re-laying the front of store twice a week definitely lifts sales. “It’s about making that change, which is why our front space is so versatile. It can also be a blank canvas when you want it to be,” he adds. “Before Christmas we’ll clear it all out and keep it blank for a couple of weeks and give people a perception of space. Then we’ll ram it full of pre-Christmas biscuits or confectionery.”
Drawing on his experience from his previous career, he also works hard at building relationships with manufacturers. “I understand what manufacturers want. We are the profitable side of convenience for them. I want reps to come in; to bring the knowledge they have. If you make it work for them, they’ll go out of their way to help,” Harj says.
He also understands the importance of working with local businesses. In order to not encroach on the village greengrocer, he focuses mainly on packaged fruit and veg, while he steers clear of news and magazines, which are the post office’s domain. “We work in harmony, although we’re lucky that the nearest supermarkets are seven miles away,” he says.
To show his appreciation for his community, Harj placed an advertorial in a local paper to thank his peers and highlight the importance of shopping locally. “It went down a treat,” he says. It promoted all the local businesses, from the butcher and farm shop, to the post office and pubs, and got people talking about how the Nisa store had paid for the ad.
Harj is now planning another store refresh, with more focus on local suppliers. “We don’t shout about our 15 or so local suppliers enough,” he admits. So display signs will be put up to promote the local suppliers, while a new community board at the front of the store will introduce the team and highlight local events and charities.
Other changes involve installing a snacking section at the front of the store, adding a meal deal and increasing fruit and veg, but focusing on high-end lines to avoid upsetting the farm shop. “We’ve had double-digit growth every year, but this year we’re single figures. I put it down to lack of change,” he says.
Harj is not one to stand still and when he’s not in the store he immerses himself in community life. As a governor of the primary school, he has just made a series of classroom presentations on running a cupcake business as part of ‘enterprise week’. He is clearly held in the highest regard among pupils, teachers and parents alike, judging by the response he gets during a quick visit with C-Store to the school to see the children putting their entrepreneurial flair to use.
Elsewhere, Harj is chairman of the village hall’s fundraising committee and involved in the Mickleton archive project, scanning historical photographs and uploading them for a website.
Speaking of websites, Harj is also active on Facebook. “I don’t really over-promote products on it. I prefer to tell a story and keep it comical. There’s pictures of me at the Nisa summit with other retailers, for example, and people always add comments,” he says.
Earlier that morning he posted about C-Store’s visit: “Just on the way to the train station to pick up Robin, the journalist from Convenience Store magazine. He’s doing a write up on ‘if Carlsberg did shopkeepers’…hee, hee!”
Well, that’s for readers to decide.
Nisa Local, Mickleton
Size: 1,800sq ft
Opening hours: Monday-Saturday 7am-9pm Sunday 8am-7pm
Additional services: Lottery, Paypoint, ATM, delivery service