Don’t be fooled. Despite the jolly exterior and quick-fire humour, Arul Masilamany is deadly serious about his business.And when it comes to c-store retailing, deciding to take on Tesco is certainly no laughing matter.

Arul hit C-Store’s headlines in the summer of 2010 when he chose to open his second store (a 3,000sq ft Nisa Extra) right next to a Tesco Express. And less than 18 very successful months later, he’s only gone and done it again.

Just like the previous store (in Chigwell, Essex), his newest has risen from the ashes of a former Woolworths, and is within spitting distance of another Tesco Express in what had become a fairly rundown parade of shops in South Ockendon, Essex. Given all that, most retailers wouldn’t have thrown the unit a second look. But not Arul. He sees things differently. Where others are confronted with a big red stop sign, the sparky yet fiercely determined retailer sees only a bright green Go.

And he’s got big plans for his newest venture. In addition to providing the South Ockendon residents with greater choice, and the noteworthy levels of customer service that can only be achieved with the help of a truly

“I’ve known this place for years - I know the local people and their needs so there was never any doubt in my mind that developing the site into a Nisa Extra was anything but a good idea,” he told Convenience Store when we dropped in to Derwent Parade’s latest attraction.

“My secret is passion. I simply love what I do. For me, this isn’t work - it’s fun, and you can feel that in the store. You spend more time at work than you do at home so you have to make work feel like home, and for that your staff have to feel like family.”

Arul Masilamany

And we weren’t the only ones checking out the new outlet. The store had been packed earlier in the day when it hosted a community Armistice Day celebration and donated £11,111.11p to local charities via the Making A Difference Locally scheme. And now, despite a cold grey drizzle, throngs of people were eager to snap up some bargains.

“From the start we knew that getting the price right would be a key element if we wanted to wrestle people away from the Tesco Express,” says Arul. “People around here don’t have the money to rack up £30 baskets, and they don’t want to travel. They need their local store to provide the right products at the right price for them.”

With the help of Nisa, whose buyers use a pricing intelligence website to keep tabs on the supermarkets, Arul has been able to devise an ultra-competitive pricing structure, matching Tesco on a broad range of items and even coming up cheaper in many cases.

And that’s pretty much where the similarities between the Tesco Express and Arul’s Nisa Extra end.

“Price is a vital thing to get right, but to take on Tesco you’ve got to have more going for you than that,” grins Arul, who constantly breaks away from our chat to shout a greeting here, or share a giggle there. Asked what he thinks his main point of difference is and the answer is unashamedly: “Myself!”

“My secret is passion. I simply love what I do. For me, this isn’t work - it’s fun, and you can feel that in the store. You spend more time at work than you do at home so you have to make work feel like home, and for that your staff have to feel like family.”

Some 20 staff are employed at the new store, and all went through a thorough vetting procedure before any contracts were issued. “This might be an Extra store, but I want it to have the feel of a big corner shop and for that to be achieved you have to be very careful when it comes to choosing your staff. You have to make sure that everyone has the same motivation and spirit. If they don’t, they won’t fit in with the rest of the team, and the incongruity will be felt in the store.”

Arul’s other weapon is his imagination, which helps him to consistently come up with innovative ideas for promotions and events which create a buzz within the local community.

Take its Armistice Day commemoration, which also saw Arul roll back the price of a number of traditional products such as Spam and Coca-Cola to their wartime costs. Cans of Heinz Baked Beans, for example, were being sold for a mere 3p. Staff also donned old-fashioned brown overalls, which created a real talking point at the till, particularly with the area’s elderly shoppers.

Also causing a stir were the store’s energy efficient chiller doors, which have been installed across the entire chilled produce range. In addition to keeping Arul’s bills as low as possible, they also help to maintain an agreeable in-store temperature, a fact which Arul hopes will encourage further browsing of his flawlessly faced-up range.

Once the paint’s dried on his new store, Arul plans to investigate the possibility of adding a hot food-to-go offer, perhaps with the help of Country Choice or Subway. “I’ll ask my customers what they would prefer. It’s their store and what they want from it is paramount. Being independent means that I can react to local demand just like that, something that Tesco will never be able to do,” he adds.

And judging by the relentless whooshing of its electric double doors as shoppers flood in and out, locals certainly seem to be happy with their new addition. “I can’t count the number of thank-yous that I’ve had. People are just so grateful to us for giving them this bright new store, but it’s me who feels grateful to them for walking over here and checking us out.

“My real hope, though, is that the new store will give other retailers - and also the banks - the confidence to start investing in this area again. This is a great community and the people deserve some great independent stores to serve them. Hopefully, I will be able to provide the spark that will give them that.”

Judging by his track record, we’re pretty sure he can. Readers watch this space, and Tesco had better watch out.