Not all retailers started their working lives in the convenience store industry. Aidan Fortune meets a former DJ who decided to ditch his musical career to create a spin in the retail world instead

The glamour of the music business is probably as far removed from retailing as you can get. Convenience store owners rarely get groupies following them around the cash and carry, and very few DJs have to work a 70-hour week to keep their business going. Yet 29-year-old DJ Vinny Atwal and his wife Harjit decided that operating a convenience store was just the mix they were after.

The couple’s route to running Simply Fresh in Stourbridge, West Midlands, began when they told a friend they were interested in starting a business together.

Vinny and Harjit admit they knew nothing about retail at that point. “We had a look at the premises with someone who knew about retail, and when he said that he’d buy if we didn’t, we knew that it was something we couldn’t afford to pass up on. It’s a bit of a change from DJing, but I really love working in retail and I still find time to work some gigs.”

The couple opened the store just under three years ago and it has gone from strength to strength in that time. Weekly turnover has more than doubled and Vinny believes there’s potential for more. “There’s no reason why we can’t add another £10,000 to the weekly turnover by the summer,” he says.

“It was previously a One-Stop and it was left in a bit of a state,” explains Vinny. “The store wasn’t doing as well as it could have and I knew there was huge potential. We just had to find a way to reach it.”

Store profile: Simply Fresh, Stourbridge, Dudley

Size: 2,500sq ft 
Opening hours: 6am-10pm, seven days a week 
Staff: Four full time, five part time 
Services: ATM, PayPoint, Health Lottery, food to go

The first step for Vinny and Harjit was to join the Simply Fresh symbol group. “We were one of the first few stores to join the group, but we felt it was the right fit for us,” he says. “Obviously, we looked at other symbol groups to see which suited the most, but Simply Fresh really stood out and we found that group director Kash Khera had the same vision for the business as us.”

With the support from a symbol group the business began to grow, but Vinny felt that something more was needed for it to really take off. “We asked ourselves if we would shop at our store and we decided that we probably wouldn’t, so we knew then it was time for a change,” he says.

“We knew that we had to make a major investment in the store, which included an overhaul of how it looked.”

Vinny believes that every retailer should ask the same question of their store at some point. “It’s very tough to criticise something of your own that you have invested so much money in, but if you can answer it honestly and realise that change has to be made then it gets the process moving,” he says. “I don’t think that many retailers are ready to ask themselves this question and are happy to just keep treading water.”

This go-getting approach is something that Vinny believes more retailers could use. “People like us are the new era of retailers,” he says. “We’re not stuck in our ways like some retailers can be. We’re willing to innovate and examine our business properly to see how it can be improved, rather than just let things happen.”

One of the areas that Vinny focused on during the refit was fresh fruit and vegetables. “It wasn’t presented properly and customers weren’t responding to it,” he says. “When we planned the refit we made sure to give it the space and presentation that it needed, and sales have really taken off. It’s also about educating customers that you have a fresh offering. People don’t expect to see it in a convenience store so we have it right beside the door, with plenty of light coming in so that people can’t miss it when they come in.”

The couple spent almost £120,000 on the renovation, which included new shelving, flooring and refrigeration units. As part of the refit, they introduced a new alcohol section that is distinct from the rest of the shop. Wood-effect fittings, flooring and an arched entrance have been used to create a separate area. Although wary at first, Vinny says that the idea has worked well. “It was Simply Fresh that suggested the wooden broomstick effect on the ceiling, and when it was described to me I thought it would look weird, but now that it’s in place, I think it looks great and is a little bit different to anything else on the high street.”

Vinny also looked to the multiples for ideas on design. “I spent a lot of time in supermarkets secretly taking pictures of what I liked,” he says. “I would then apply the ideas to my store and give them a convenience twist.”

Two divisions

One of the challenges the couple face is to balance two very different demographics. At one end of road lies a working class housing estate, while the other end is an area popular with professional footballers such as one-time Aston Villa midfielder Ashley Young. “Ashley used to be a regular customer before he transferred to Manchester United. In fact, he used to drop by on his way to training,” he says. “We have to make sure that we have quality produce with prices that won’t scare people off as we can’t afford to alienate either demographic. We need all the customers we can get.”

Vinny says that even those with multi-million pound contracts are looking to economise. “Everybody is after a bargain, no matter how much money they have,” says Vinny. “The trick is to have a competitive price for a product without crippling yourself. My customers have said that they like the prices and think they’re competitive. They’re happy to pay a fair price for a quality product.”

The refit has been such a success with the locals that Vinny seems to have caught the multiples off guard. There is a Tesco store nearby, but the couple aren’t sweating about the competition at all. “A lot of our customers park at Tesco and come over to us to do their shopping,” he says proudly. “If Tesco was directly across the road from us, it would be great as there would be more parking for my customers!”

As well as taking business from Tesco, Vinny is noticing more Waitrose shoppers coming into the store. “Since the refit, I’ve seen more people with Waitrose bags coming in and doing a large shop,” says Vinny. “That’s exactly the type of atmosphere I’m aiming for with this layout. There isn’t a Waitrose equivalent within the independent sector and I think Simply Fresh can fulfil that.”

He has also noticed a move from people popping in for one or two items to doing a larger shop. “When the store refit was completed, I would watch people’s reactions and changes in shopping habits,” he says. “I would watch them move into the store, pick up an item, then another and another, then go back and get a basket. In the end I had to order more baskets and second site them in the middle of the store!”

Vinny thrives on customer feedback and regularly asks them what they think of the store. “We’re constantly speaking to customers to see what they like about the store and what they would to change,” he says. “It’s vital you get feedback from customers on what’s going on in your business. Not every idea is going to be used, but it all provides food for thought. I also carried out a survey when I thought about refitting and expanding the store, and there was overwhelming public support for it.”

One way of enticing customers in is his weekly promotions that he thinks are scoring points from the multiples. “We’re trying to get as many promotions in as possible to highlight the bargains that can be had in convenience stores,” he says. “For example, we had a great deal on whisky, cheaper than it was anywhere else. People are noticing bargains like these, and popping them in their basket. It all increases basket spend and encourages them to come back to the store.”

Although Vinny is gaining a wealth of experience in his chosen career, he says he’s in no rush to expand his empire. “I would like to open a second store, but I’m wary that it would take my attention away from Stourbridge,” he says. “And this is my baby. I want to give it my full attention and grow it to its fullest potential.” ■