Excellence in Merchandising 2015 award-winner Harj Gill shows Asian Trader the store that made it all happen and shares the secrets of his retailing success.
Harj Gill's family have been retailing in their present location for 32 years now. His parents first took on the store and worked hard to take the business from trading at a loss to making a profit within two years. For a while Harj's father had to go out and find work at the local Rover car factory to keep the business afloat, leaving his wife to manage the store alone. This continued for several years although her children helped out when they could.
“Me, my brother all used to chip in,” Harj told Asian Trader “It was a proper sort of family business where we'd stock the shelves, lend a hand after school, do the paper round. I grew up in the store and used to go to the warehouse… [and] the market as well.”
After they retired his parents sold the store to their sons, with Harj eventually joining his two brothers, who had each come into the family business after leaving school. Progressing into the business was an obvious choice for Harj too. He had attended college for several years but found he enjoyed work that was more practical. An office job didn't appeal to someone who was used to always being on the go and he didn't enjoy the studying either. Instead he joined his siblings and the three of them have worked to develop the store ever since.
“We grew up working in the store and have now taken over as the next generation of community store retailers,” Harj said, “We have increased turnover and profit in this time but the main development over the years has been the extensions to the store and the increased product ranges for the benefit of our customers shopping experience.”
The brothers have split the responsibilities for managing the store up among themselves. Harj's eldest brother deals with the off-license side of things such as spirits. Meanwhile his other brother deals with the store's confectionery, soft drinks, frozen, and newspapers and magazines sections and Harj handles all the other areas of the shop.
The brothers have worked hard to develop the store, which has had three refits, the last in 2009, and is now much larger. It now offers all the different services that most modern convenience stores have and need, such as PayPoint, the Lottery, and a free cash machine. All the shop's ranges, such as its fresh food offering, have been extended, and the shop front has also been done up, with an automatic door installed. Harj is satisfied that the shop has been brought up to a good modern standard that will let it compete with its rivals in the local area.
“The last refit in 2009 enabled us to increase the chilled range by 7 meters which increased our customer count and sales for chilled by 200%,” he told us, “This now accounts for over 10% of our business. We also increased our chilled off licence range by 6 meters which increased off licence turnover by an additional 15%.”
But competition in the local area is quite fierce. Although the store is on a large estate, rival shops are only half a mile away. Harj rattled off the businesses on the nearby village high street for Asian Trader, listing a Tesco Metro, a large Cooperative, a Costcutter and a small newsagents. Also close by was a second Costcutter store, and a Morrison's supermarket, with regeneration plans meaning an Aldi could soon be joining them. Harj and his brothers have to keep a close eye on what their rivals are up to in order to stay ahead of the competition. But they also have their own strategy for staying profitable – their close relationship with the local area.
“Customer service is a big point because I think that is where a lot of convenience stores have the edge on the bigger stores,” Harj explained, “They are keeping that relationship with their customers because customers want to come into the store. That is one thing [our customers] tell us, that they like coming into the store, they like to talk to us, they like to come in because of us. That's where we guys sort of have the edge.”
Harj reckons that customer service is the reason behind his winning Asian Trader's Excellence in Merchandising award this year. He described having people come in from outside his area, such as regulars bringing their families or friends in, with the visitors commenting how much they wished their local store matched his.
As customers walk in the store they notice that it is well lit, bright, neat and tidy, and with a lot of activity going on. As his award testifies Harj ensures it is well merchandised to make sure customers can find what they are looking for easily, as well as using things like promotion bays to help shoppers spot the deals on offer. The brothers pride themselves on having a high standard in the store.
The brothers also use trade magazines and retail shows to give them new ideas and get support for their business. Harj attended the Local Shop summit this year and another event organised by the Tobacco Retailers' Alliance. He's also an Ignite member with Imperial Tobacco and part of the JTI tobacco scheme for retailers as well. Being on a scheme and being rewarded for doing something well meant a goal to focus on achieving. Harj rated the two schemes highly and said they had been very helpful in making sure his tobacco gantry was kept well stocked.
But Harj also credits the brothers' move to join Select & Save with helping them grow the business. The group merchandised the store when they first joined and continues to advise them on products. These change quickly, but the brothers always check Select & Save's merchandising advice into account as they go about deciding how to they should merchandise. Harj cautioned that the family have got a feel for what works for their own business but added it was always good to get advice from other people. He felt it made a difference that Select & Save's directors had run their own independent stores before setting up the group.
“You know where someone has come out of university, when they have come from an office job and they've gone into retail,” he said, “I don't think its quite the same as when someone has been in there and they have got their hands dirty and they know what is going on.”
Still, stocking other sections of the store correctly is always a challenge. Harj and his brothers have to balance the different age groups that use the store to buy things. Their shop is between two schools, with a primary school there that starts from nursery, and a high school. But as well as the kids and their mothers, there are the older customers, who have been living on the estate since it was built. The business has to cater to the tastes of everyone because its customers range from very young to very old. They also try to offer services that other shops in the area don't, to help some of their more elderly clients out with their daily errands.
“We… deliver groceries, free delivery,” Harj told us, “Its popular with sort of older customers, because they can't always get out. I think we are also one of the few stores still doing newspaper rounds. When I was growing up there was three or four stores doing newspaper rounds in our area. We are literally the only store now.
Harj said he measured his success working in the business so far by winning this year's Merchandiser of the Year Asian Trader Award. It is the first award the brothers and their store have received for their hard work. But Harj also said he thought the real challenge always goes back to maintaining a business. It is still a difficult time for independent retailers to be trading, even though some people believe the UK has come through its long recession at last. Harj disagreed that the independent retail sector has seen the last of austerity and recession. He maintained that if a retailer were keeping their business going while making a profit in these difficult times, then they were doing well to do just doing that.
Perhaps Harj's own secret for his success so far was his final piece of advice for Asian Trader about retailing.
“You have to keep moving forwards, you have to keep progressing, you can't afford to sit still,” he told us, “That is a challenge in itself you know, not to just stand there and say 'Yeah I'm doing good, this is fine'. You can always improve. You can always learn.”