Amrit Singh of H & Jodie’s Nisa Local in the West midlands is a one-man entrepreneurial hurricane as well as a pillar of his community
From serving as a reliable source of daily necessities to offering a warm smile and a familiar face, local convenience stores have long been the cornerstones of their communities. And, the local spirit shown by Amrit Singh, the winner of the Spirit of the Community Award at the 2022 Asian Trader Awards, would be very difficult to match.
Amrit and his family, who run the H & Jodie’s Nisa Local in Walsall, have been deeply involved in the community for over 40 years. They operate a community hub next to the store which has been providing Covid testing, citizen’s advice and sessions to help those with mental health issues. This is in addition to raising thousands of pounds for charity and running a weekly coach for children from disadvantaged communities to go to the local boxing club.
Amrit hosts a music and event-filled fun fair at the store each summer, but that is the least of his spirited involvement with the community. He used his contacts during lockdown to source vital PPE and delivered it free of charge to the local care homes and was even featured on national TV. He delivers to all the old and infirm, and neither are the thirsty neglected: they adore Amrit not least because he was one of the very first retailers in the UK to establish a comprehensive beer keg facility!
The store plans events for every occasion and engage with the customers at every single occasion possible. Each year they try and up the ante on their community engagement, but early last year, as the country has come out the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, they captured the national mood and decided they have to go larger and harder than they ever have on events.
“It brings the community together. It makes the store the focal point of the community. So we have a lot more community engagement and people that want to work with us. It’s quite good in that sense,” Amrit says.
Subsequently, in 2022, they have spent over £10,000 on events, from the hiring of Santa’s grottos to bouncy castles and Halloween props. The huge outdoor Christmas party last year had over 1500 residents in attendance across the evening.
The centre named The Hub that Amrit and his family host next to the store is an initiative founded by his father, Harjit, who wanted to give back to the community.
“So he set that up, and it is completely run by the community. Volunteers that do litter picking, knit and natter sessions, where they get the old people to come out and talk to each other, so they don’t feel lonely and isolated. They do arts and crafts classes in there. And then the MP, Valerie Vaz, got involved. She runs a surgery from there. So lots of good community stuff happens there,” Amrit explains.
During the pandemic, they worked with the council to get facilities into the community, and the store was the only independent convenience store nationally to have a lateral flow testing facility outside the store twice a week for over a year.
As this facility was used so well, they started hosting a weekly citizen’s advice bus outside the store. And, identifying the growing issues due to the lack of mental health understanding, they have also managed to host a mental health bus outside the store, in partnership with the charity Thrive, on Fridays.
“Specifically, we try to tackle loneliness and isolation, and any activities related to that, we try to take it up,” Amrit says.
The “knit and natter” sessions, he says, is something that have had a great impact on those locals who might live alone and just want someone to talk to. Residents can come to the hub on Tuesdays or Thursdays and literally knit and have a natter. They also have a cinema club once a week. The store has funded a large TV and all the popcorn etc, and often elderly resident pop round to the Hub and watch a film together.
In addition, they have a check-in facility for those local residents who are alone or vulnerable, free delivery service for the elderly and vulnerable, and work with the pharmacy to deliver prescriptions.
Community approach to crime prevention
An ongoing programme they have is helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds, which they launched based on the feedback from the community.
“When we reached out to the community on what they needed, there were a lot of people that said there are some kids with anger issues and other things like that. So we work with them to tackle those kinds of issues and get to the bottom of it,” Amrit says.
They have a weekly coach who collects the children from secondary school and takes them to a boxing club in Birmingham.
“We organised the transport to take them from here to there and save them having putting that aggression and energy in the wrong place,” he notes, adding that the programme has been extremely rewarding as the children are far more pleasant and not disruptive to staff in store.
They work with two local schools and funded two new outdoor play areas for primary school children.
Amrit says their involvement in the community has also helped them in tackling retail crime, especially as shoplifting has assumed “epidemic” proportions in the country.
“You need to do events for the community. If you do that you will have a special place in their hearts. They have a lot of love for the shop and the work that you do. So you naturally become less likely to be a victim of crime because you are more engaged in the community, especially if you’re doing charity work to tackle crime and those kinds of issues,” he says.
“The customers generally like to work with you and they’ll help you. A lot less crime in general because of that, that’s what it is.”
They actively work with the community to reduce local crime. Working with neighborhood watch, they have set up a large community response WhatsApp group for a resident’s patrol and alert system. They also put all the neighborhood watch signs up in the area with local residents.
Dealing with economic crisis
The store has a fairly large annual marketing budget that incorporates giveaways and tastings. They use the sales data to analyse what promotions work for them, and try to make them better next time.
“You have to be very on trend, and have a marketing strategy that caters to the current environment. And we are lucky with that with our marketing. We know what we want to spend. So we let the products that are relevant to the current market and market them appropriately. The budget remains the same, you just got to change the focus,” he explains.
And, in the context of cost-of-living crisis, Amrit says it is also crucial to be keener on the range that you keep in the shop and make sure that you have got the right products for the customers.
However, availability on key lines and pricing remain a concern, he notes.
“There is something called shrinkflation, which is size of products going down, but the price remains the same or going up. Customers are noticing it. They want more of an own-label range. We need to stay on top of that and make sure we give them the best offer and that we can,” he says.
“You could be looking at a potential recession. So there are lots of issues that we need to focus on.”
Making a difference
Constantly looking out for new ways to support the causes their customers care about, the store conducts in-store raffles and charity drives. They actively support their symbol group’s charity, Making a Difference Locally (MADL), and as a business working with suppliers, nothing is too much for their community, with over £30,000 donated through MADL since they joined Nisa.
At Nisa’s recent awards evening, they have been named MADL Champion of the Year for 2023 award in the small store category.
Environmental sustainability is another area they look to continuously improve. They have invested in a baling machine, which compresses recyclable and waste materials into small, manageable bales.
“We now do not even waste our cardboard, we actually bale it and sell the cardboard,” he says.
They work with a local supplier on various fruit and veg to reduce the food miles of their produce and increase the freshness. They also have a solid food waste reduction procedure. Their “reduced to clear” food products are linked to their own app, which then alerts those interested to what’s reduced today for them and have it delivered via the app to their homes.
If the products are still unsold, it will be put into the “Magic Bags” for Too Good to Go, the app that connects customers to restaurants and stores that have surplus unsold food. Failing a sale on that app, the food will be donated to one of three local food banks.
“This means no food is actually hitting the bin,” Amrit points out.
“We actively manage our bagged amount. This is essentially our wastage amount and managers are targeted to reduce this amount. So, they will receive a bonus for reducing wastage quarterly,” he adds.
They have the latest and most efficient refrigeration remote unit, ensuring the least environmental impact of their chillers. They have full LEDs throughout the store. “I will try and be as energy efficient as possible. The more work I can do to reduce my environmental impact, we do it,” he says.
Their biggest environmental investment has been specially sourcing an all electric delivery vehicle from Germany. “This delivery vehicle has remote batteries that we can swap in and out meaning our deliveries are all made eco friendly. Clean green miles!”
At the same, he thinks it’s important to find the balance between being sustainable and business growth, especially in the backdrop of the increased overhead costs.
“I’m trying to grow the business. But at the same time, I’m trying stay on top of our carbon footprint, and I don’t really want to cause any more (environmental) harm,” he says.
On the contrary, Amrit is one c-store star who is positively improving his environment.
Published in Asian Trader Vol. 35, No. 934, 17 November to 14 December 2023