Independent retailer Vic Grewal is breathing new life into one small Surrey village. Gaelle Walker went along to see how he’s doing it

No rent for a year. Just imagine everything you could achieve, or all those extra Mars bars you could buy, with a 12-month holiday from paying your store’s rent. One man who is familiar with the benefits is independent retailer Vic Grewal, who has just opened a 1,300sq ft Simply Fresh store in the riverside village of Thames Ditton, Surrey.

Vic, who also owns a large Budgens in Chorleywood, and a Londis store in Hayes, had the unusual fortune of not only being asked by his local residents’ association to open a store in the village, but was also told that it would support him by paying his rent for nine months. The property’s landlord, meanwhile, had already offered to let Vic have the first three months for free.

The site, a former bakery, had been standing vacant for almost seven years when Vic first set eyes on it, but despite its sorry state, the potential was clear, and the offer simply too good to refuse.

Soon set to star in the new reality TV show Surrey Hills, the village of Thames Ditton boasts an affluent customer base, yet apart from an upmarket café and an independent greengrocers, which only trades until 5pm on weekdays and doesn’t open on Sundays, there was nowhere within walking distance for its well-heeled residents to buy groceries, or top-up shop.

Until, that was, May 2013, when Simply Fresh Thames Ditton’s glossy teal doors finally opened. Less than three months later the Tardis-like store is already raking in more than £18,500 a week and growing, a pretty clear indication of residents’ appreciation of its new arrival.

And if the welcoming reception and large slice of Victoria sponge he was presented with when he and C-Store visited the local café and deli was anything to go by, his fellow retailers are clearly just as happy to have him. It’s no wonder given the additional footfall now being generated in the village.

Unsurprisingly, fresh and chilled and speciality products are the stars of the show in Vic’s smart new store, and the biggest sellers.
Proudly positioned at the front of the store, wicker basket-clad fruit and vegetables are predominantly organic - in line, Vic says, with shopper demands.

His shoppers’ more expensive tastes are also reflected in Vic’s impressive wine range, which includes a Spanish red that sells for £109.99. That’s not to say they sniff at promotions, though, and pricemarked packs and round pound deals, while not taking centre stage, still play a role.

However, until construction of the storage area is complete - it will eventually contain back-up chillers and a Cuisine de France bake-off oven - keeping the store stocked up with all this wonderful fayre is a bit of a feat.

“At the moment there is nowhere to store goods at Thames Ditton, so every day we are having them delivered to the Chorleywood store where we load it up into a van and then bring it over,” Vic explains. “Even our fresh bread is baked at Chorleywood and then driven over here while still warm,” he laughs. “It sounds like a challenge, but it works well if you are organised.”

The key, explains Vic, is ensuring you have all the correct people and systems in place.

“I have an excellent team who each understand their roles fully and are passionate about what they do. It allows me to step back from the shop floor and focus on the logistics and business development side,” he explains.

An array of gadgets also helps him on this front. In addition to high-tech epos and a CCTV system which permits Vic to view all of the stores’ tills and floors from his office at home, he also uses ‘intelligent’ technology which notifies him of each store’s opening and closing time, plus a clever wireless monitoring system which notifies Vic should a chiller fault occur.

“The ‘intelligent chillers’ text me as soon as something goes wrong, such as a temperature rise, or a chiller breaking down. It really comes into its own at night as it means I can head to the store straight away and sort it out. It gives me huge peace of mind as a night-time chiller breakdown could lose you £7,000- worth of stock, not to mention the elevated insurance premiums!”

The store’s chillers also boast energy-saving doors to keep those energy bills in check.

Despite its impressive takings Vic believes that there is still work to do on the store’s range, and expects to spend the next few weeks sifting through the epos data with a fine-tooth comb, making tweaks here and there.

“We are definitely on the right track, though, as sales have been rising by just over £1,000 every week since we opened,” he says. “We are taking more than £18,500 a week, and that’s not including many services yet. We are getting a lottery terminal next week, and at this stage I’m 99.9% sure that we’ll also be getting a Post Office Local counter in the autumn. We may at some stage introduce hot drinks to go, but I wouldn’t want to tread on the café’s toes. It closes at 4pm so maybe we could look at offering them after that.

Late afternoon and early evenings are the busiest times, so introducing new ranges and products that cater for this demand will be key. My goal is to hit £30,000 a week, or £25,000 as a minimum, and as it stands I’m happy that we are well on the way towards achieving that,” he adds.

Average basket spend is already a juicy £20, with customers not just top-up shopping but buying ingredients for full meal solutions. This knowledge has prompted Vic to look at expanding his range of speciality and small producer products and buying in some mini-trolleys to help his shoppers wheel their goods back to their cars with greater ease.

And speaking of cars, the large public car park at the rear of the store looks to boost Vic’s sales further when a new alleyway connecting it to the store is opened up for public use later this month.

At present, the walk out of the car park and round the side of the village to the store’s door takes about five minutes, time enough to put some people off stopping, particularly in bad weather. The alleyway will change all that.

“Improving access to the car park will be a huge boon,” explains Vic. “It’s only 20p an hour to park, but we will introduce a scheme where we will validate our customers’ parking so it’s free for them. Little gestures like that make a difference.”

Going forward, Vic is working closely with the residents’ association, local council and other retailers in helping to establish a monthly farmers market in the village, an initiative which he believes would not only bring colour, life and additional footfall into the area, but also provide a boost for local producers.

“We may also look at doing home delivery, as we do it in Chorleywood and it’s very popular, particularly with elderly shoppers. I may buy a second van to keep here in order to do so. Customers phone in their orders and we pick, pack and deliver to their doors the next day. I’m convinced it would work here.”

Store profile
Simply Fresh, Thames Ditton, Surrey
Size: 1,300sq ft
Staff: Four part-time, plus a floating manager
Opening hours:
Mon-Sat 7am-9pm; Sunday 9am-7pm
Additional services: Lottery, ATM, Post Office Local and home delivery to come