Sukhi and Avtar Sidhu had some tough decisions to make when they took on a small rundown store in Kenilworth. They followed their instinct, joined a 
symbol group and 
redeveloped the store, and five years on have a 
thriving business with an upmarket focus

Tucked away in the residential streets of Kenilworth, Warwickshire, is a c-store with almost 100 years of history behind it. Passed down through generations, this store has seen plenty of change, but nothing quite as dramatic as the transformation current owners Sukhi and Avtar Sidhu have recently put it through.

Sukhi and Avtar bought the store from an older couple in 2010. Avtar explains: “They had been running it for more than 40 years and were looking for a way out. The shop was ticking along, but they weren’t really interested in making improvements. Sukhi and I came along at the right time.”

Although they weren’t actively looking to buy a shop, when the Sidhus stumbled across the store it was an opportunity not to be missed. “At only 400sq ft, the store was small and dark, but held a lot of potential. We bought it with the vision of extending it and bringing it up to date,” says Avtar.

The main reason the couple took the leap was Sukhi, who had developed a passion for retail after working for five years in a Co-op store prior to the acquisition; Avtar thought she may as well own a shop herself considering the hours she put in. “She was acting like a manager, working 60-plus hours a week,” he says.

They traded independently from the original store for three years, taking £12,000 a week (£8,000 more than the previous owners), all the while battling to get planning permission to enable them to knock down the store and start again.

Store Facts

Sukhi’s Simply Fresh, Kenilworth, Warwickshire

Store size: 2,000sq ft

Weekly turnover: £25,000pw

In-store services: Post Office Local

Energy efficiency: LED lighting and doors on chillers

When the moment came in late 2013, Sukhi and Avtar were facing some difficult decisions. “The process hadn’t been running smoothly to this point,” admits Avtar. “We had had issues with planning permission and then trouble came about with Londis, who were going to help fund the refurb and become our symbol group. I had to make a quick decision about whether to go ahead with the original plan, or continue as an independent for the time being and fund the project myself.”

Avtar made the choice to continue as an unaffiliated retailer, forcing him to rework his plans and project manage the building work himself. So that business could continue they opted to trade out of a 20ft x 10ft temporary storage cabin. “I didn’t want to lose my customers so I had to find a way of keeping them happy while refitting the store. The cabin was tiny; we had to climb over freezers to get to the tills - but it did the job and I think the community appreciated it.”

During the summer of 2014, and while the building work was still going on, Avtar and Sukhi were visited by the team at Simply Fresh, who were keen to get the couple on board. Once again Avtar had a choice to make. “Decisions had to be made quickly,” recalls Avtar. “We had come to a point in the build where the look of the shop needed to be determined.”

The lure of Simply Fresh was too much; Avtar had built up a relationship with them and they were open to his ideas, too. So as 2014 began to draw to a close, Sukhi and Avtar could finally say goodbye to their temporary store and open the doors to their 2,000sq ft Simply Fresh store.

The store has been kitted out with some of the latest technology: LED lighting; digital signage; media screens; and incredibly hard-wearing floors. Along with ensuring the store is fitted with the latest equipment, Avtar has put a focus on finding out what his local demographic wants from it.

“We used industry planograms to help with our original layout of the shop, but as time has gone on we have made lots of changes to suit our customer base,” he says. “We aren’t your conventional convenience store; we aim to attract your middle-class Waitrose customer and we do this by meticulously thinking through the lines we stock.”

Although it meets the needs of the typical c-store customer, the store mainly aims to appeal to those looking for a more premium selection. Avtar says: “People are aware that you are only as good as what you eat, and are therefore prepared to spend a little extra.”

Thank to their extensive travels, Avtar and Sukhi can put a lot of what they have learnt into the store. They stock a range of organic, gluten-free and dairy-free products as well as an extensive selection of dried fruits and nuts. Their milk offering is taken to another level with products such as coconut milk, rice milk, almond milk, soya milk and oat milk. “We want to promote healthy eating so we have to stock the products to back this up,” says Avtar.

Another focus for the store is the eye-catching alcohol section. It may surprise some retailers to see that the couple have all their spirit bottles lined up on mirrored shelves in full sight on the shop floor. Avtar adds: “Some retailers may be too worried to keep their alcohol in front of the counter for fear it may be stolen, but it is an area we have chosen to champion and so far we have had very few incidents of theft.”

The alcohol section extends across the whole left side of the shop, with shelves climbing high, and the most premium bottles sitting at the top. “Alcohol has become our point of difference, and not just because of our range of spirits. We also have an array of beers, ciders and wines, too,” says Avtar.

Aside from the usual brands, the store sells craft beers, ales and ciders from local suppliers such as Warwickshire Beer Company, Saddlers and Hobsons, and even a cider called Wobble Juice.

Avtar and Sukhi are careful to ensure the store remains part of the community so since 2010 have been working hard to show locals just how much they value their support. Sukhi and Avtar have put a lot of effort into building a relationship with the primary school opposite, finding ways to support the school. One initiative is ‘Free Fruit Fridays’, whereby children come into the store each Friday to collect a piece of fruit and learn a bit about the business. Says Avtar: “Not only are the children our future customers, we also want to help educate them where we can.”

The couple also supports Newlands care home, just down the road from their store, and it is the beneficiary of all of its fundraising efforts. “We prefer to support just one charity as it means we can give them a larger sum of money which they can do a lot more with,” asserts Avtar. Last year Avtar and Sukhi raised enough to build the care home a sensory garden, something Avtar says they were thrilled to receive.

Avtar also helps the elderly or less able with their shopping at the store, whether it’s delivering it to their homes or giving them a ride home. He adds: “I think the community really values and appreciates what we do. I hope we can continue to be seen as a valuable part of the town, as we seek to create the perfect shop.”

It looks like this store is one that’s here to stay for another century.

Social media fans

The store not only boasts some of the latest technology, but it also takes a modern approach to marketing, exploiting social media to the max.

Avtar runs both the Facebook page and Twitter profile for the store, as well as his own personal Twitter account. He says: “I use the store’s Twitter account for business-to-business tweets, whereas Facebook is more customer facing. I use my personal Twitter account to talk to suppliers, manufacturers and bodies such as the ACS, but I also try to link the two together. I use Facebook to grow our brand by showcasing local credentials along with a mix of key promotions.”