Customer and peer interaction is the key to success at Jai Singh’s Premier store in Sheffield. Sarah Britton reports.

There’s no missing Jai Singh’s store. With a traffic-stopping yellow and purple Singh’s-branded Smart car and van parked outside, combined with the vibrant yellow Singh’s Premier fascia, the store’s exterior is a masterclass in branding.

But while his store screams professionalism, Jai and wife Mandeep have been in retail for only four years, having previously worked in banking. “When you’re an employee there are a lot of benefits in terms of days off and taking holiday, but I missed the customer engagement of a retail environment, so I bought this store,” explains Jai.

And when Jai talks about engaging with customers, he doesn’t just mean greeting them on their way into the store. He has tapped into the idea of building up strong community links in order to grow customer loyalty.

“We ran a Macmillan coffee morning in September, with face-painting, stilt walkers and balloon modelling. We’ve been looking to get into events for a while, but with a young family (sons Arjan, three, and Amar, nine months) it’s been hard to get it off the ground. We have previously been active in the local community - giving charity donations and raffle prizes. But the coffee morning was our first event.”

Some 100 people turned out for the day and the store sold coffee provided by Booker, as well as cakes and buns made by staff. They also raffled a Kindle and digital camera, and raised £500 for Macmillan Cancer Support.

And interacting with customers doesn’t stop there for Jai. His iPhone is pretty much glued to his hand during C-Store’s visit, but he isn’t being anti-social - quite the opposite. He recently launched an app for the store to encourage further dialogue with customers and increase sales.

Store profile

Singh’s Premier, Wheata Road, Sheffield

Staff: five part-time

Size: 700sq ft

Additional services: PayPoint Plus, Lottery, Collect Plus, ATM

Weekly turnover: £20,000

“We launched our first mobile phone app in April, where people could have access to our deals and leave us comments. It was well received, but the developer ran into personal difficulties and stopped adding updates. It actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it’s given me the opportunity to evolve the original idea.

“You have to think about what you can offer with an app that people can’t get by going to your website. The new version we’re working on will have a notification system to tell customers about products and offers in-store, and we’ll offer app-exclusive deals.”

He also uses his iPhone to access social media sites. “I use Facebook and Twitter for business a lot,” he explains. “With Twitter, I follow local businesses and other shopkeepers. It’s a good way of keeping in touch and sourcing new contacts - I’ve been contacted by a cash and carry offering me soft drinks deals, and I found my website developer on Twitter, too. I also used it to raise awareness of the coffee morning as I have about 200 followers.”

Jai has found the internet to be a good way of getting feedback on the business. “We’ve just redeveloped our website, so I put a link to the new site on Twitter before we officially launched it, just to get feedback from people. We got 40 hits straight away and had lots of positive comments!”

He encourages customers to get in touch to share their thoughts on the store. “With our store’s website, customers can fill in an online survey, making suggestions and requesting products. For example, they asked us to increase our cider range and requested that we have it in the fridge so that it’s ready for immediate consumption. We followed their advice, and it’s done really well.”

He also has a live chat option whereby customers can instantly message him with questions or comments about the store.

As well as taking onboard customer suggestions, Jai is a firm believer in learning from his peers. As a result of visiting Malcolm’s Store in Coventry, run by Paul and Pinda Cheema, Jai has made room in his beer fixture to display limes to complement the likes of Corona and Sol.

“When you go to trade events and awards you get to meet good retailers whom you know care about their stores, so it’s worth staying in touch and visiting them if possible. I always make a point of speaking to other store owners and then I’ll follow them on Twitter.”

Another industry buddy is cousin Mandeep Singh, who founded the Singh’s Premier brand. “There’s a friendly rivalry between myself and Mandeep,” grins Jai. “For example, when I created our Euro 2012 display - a goalpost in-store adorned with beer multi-packs - I sent a photo to Mandeep to show him. And then when the Olympics were on he sent me a photo of the Jessie Ennis signage he had made. It keeps us both on our toes!”

He has also been inspired by Londis retailer Roli Ranger, who owns a store in Ascot, Berkshire. “He has a cart outside his store containing fruit and veg, which looks great. We’d like to give it a try,” says Jai. He is currently working with a joiner to build a bespoke outdoor display fixture.

The store sources its fruit and veg from Booker, but Jai is hoping to start buying local produce as well. “One of our customers, who teaches horticulture at a local college, told me that they always have excess produce, so he brought in a bucket of onions for us to try.”

As usual, Jai went straight to his customers for feedback. “We gave the onions out to customers to see what they thought, as well as trying them ourselves. The flavours are much stronger than pre-packaged goods and everyone loved them, so the teacher is going to bring us a selection of winter vegetables, such as potatoes and leeks, to sell.”

Fresh sandwiches are next in the pipeline once the extension behind the store, which is due to be completed this month, is finished. “We used to make sandwiches in our flat to sell in the shop, but it became a struggle to make them once the kids came along,” says Jai’s wife Mandeep, who has been busy with the children for most of the morning. “With the extension we’ll have a kitchen and will employ someone to make sandwiches. At the moment, fresh and chilled makes up about 5% of sales, but with freshly-made sandwiches we could grow it to 15%.”

But regardless of what direction the business takes, you can be sure that peer and customer engagement will form its foundations. “We value customer feedback as it is the customers who shop in our store who ultimately put the profit into our pockets in order for us to make a living,” says Jai. “Without them we wouldn’t be a business.”