It was Amrick Singh's last week at work when C-Store came to visit. After more than 30 years in the convenience sector, 67-year-old Amrick is set to retire. And oh, how things have changed since he started his retail career.

Amrick made the journey to the UK from Punjab in India with his wife, Surinder Kaur, towards the end of the Sixties. They were determined to make a better life for themselves, but finding a job wasn't easy and they took up factory work in Huddersfield to make ends meet. "Edward Heath was in power and unemployment was high," says Amrick. "My wife worked in a sewing factory, earning just £8 a week, and I was working a 60-hour week in a wool factory for £17."

Life was tough, but Amrick was full of ambition. "I saw that a number of successful businessmen were running their own shops so I decided to join them."

It wasn't until 1979 that Amrick, then aged 36, had enough money to buy a store. "We saved up about £1,900. My brother-in-law and my parents lent me money, too, and I got a loan from the bank," he says. They looked around for a suitable outlet and eventually heard about a 500sq ft shop in Newcastle, which they bought for £17,000.

Amrick had no previous retail experience, so knowing what to stock was pretty much guess work. "I bought the stock with the shop and when a product sold I bought more of it from the cash and carry," he says. "Other than that, I didn't know anything about the business."

By then Amrick and Surinder had three children aged one, two and four, so managing the store, and caring for the children meant their finances were stretched to the limit. "It was very difficult to look after the children and the store," concedes Amrick. "I went to the cash and carry every day because cash flow was so tight."

The product range was a far cry from the wealth of brands he stocks today. "Within frozen food there was only Birds Eye and Findus," says Amrick. "I had one freezer and people dug around to find what they wanted."

The crisps category has also changed dramatically since Amrick's early days. "The only brands we stocked were Walkers, Smiths and Tudor, in about five different flavours. Now we have everything under the sun, from McCoy's to Space Raiders."

As for best before dates, they were virtually non-existent. "There were no dates on any products, except chocolate, so we'd keep tins on the shelf for up to three years," exclaims Amrick. "It was a great advantage because you couldn't lose money on unsold produce."

Pastures new

Six years at Newcastle and Amrick felt confident enough to move to a bigger store. His search took him to Wales and a 1,200sq ft store in Garnant, Ammanford, where he has remained until today.

"At first I thought I'd try to stay completely independent, but it was a comparatively big store and I realised I simply couldn't fill it," he says. "I approached Londis. At the time, they were a very small group and charged £100 membership."

Amrick and Surinder once again had to save up, but in 1985 they became the first independent Londis store in South Wales.

Of course, becoming a pioneer is something to be proud of, but membership came with only a few of the privileges now associated with symbol groups. "A rep came to the store and offered to do the first order for me and then send me a catalogue of products," explains Amrick. "Now there are computers, lottery terminals and PayPoint machines, but back then things were more basic and it was simply a case of writing down the order and posting it to Londis HQ," he says.

The delivery would be sent out the following day, but even that was different from today. "As well as transporting his load, the Londis driver was in charge of unloading ," explains Amrick. "He would carry all the boxes by hand into the shop and then count them all it was very time consuming."

But although the symbol group's operations were basic, they meant Amrick no longer had to drive 20 miles to the warehouse each day. "Upon receiving my order, they'd make it up and send it out the next day between 100 and 300 boxes," he says. "It was the biggest improvement in my working life."

And things were to get even better for Amrick. "There was a big improvement when Londis joined Musgrave. That was when they started cluster meetings. Before that the only point of contact was through headquarters, and rep visits every three months."

Despite his clear respect for Londis, Amrick still encourages other retailers to strive for complete independence. "Londis has been good to me over the years, but I'd advise people to go for total independence. These days independents can get promotional and merchandising advice from cash and carries, so they needn't be as reliant on symbol groups. If I had more time, I'd go independent, because you have your own voice."

Londis has offered Amrick the opportunity to become a Londis rep, so that he can pass on his experience to others, but he turned them down in favour of the quiet life. Having said that, he isn't quite ready to say goodbye to retail yet. "Spar offered to buy the store, but instead I'm leasing it so that in the future a member of my family can run it. If someone from the family takes over, I'll be very happy."

On cue, daughter Hardeepak comes in with Amrick's six-year-old granddaughter Sukhneet, and grandsons Parambir, five, and Taranbir, two, who chase each other around the store. They may be too little to have mapped out their careers just yet, but who knows, Amrick's wish may well come true one day.