Me and My Store: Shahid ‘Danny’ Ahmed, Costcutter, Crankhall Lane, Wednesbury

At the forefront of forecourt, Danny Ahmed in Wednesbury in the West Midlands is forging ahead with new innovations and an entrepreneurial spirit

Shahid 'Danny' Ahmed

What sort of trading area do you operate in?

We’re in the Wednesbury area so there’s a lot of housing, but at the same time there’s Junction 9 of the M6 and people are using Crankhall Lane now as a rat run out from Birmingham to avoid the motorway traffic and we are the service station there. Back in 2017 when we were researching this site, I thought it had potential, but if you’re a careful driver and know what you are doing, this is the route you will choose and they are our customers. It’s really becoming  like an A-road and we are getting the footfall, so that’s fantastic. And I saw there were about 54,000 chimney pots around the site so I knew it would be a good one if you could serve all those people.

How long have you been a retailer?

I’ve been an independent retailer since 2013 and I’ve been in the business since 2009. I got into it through my late father-in-law who sadly passed away this year, Arshad Iqbal of the Falcon group. Everything I know about this trade I learned from him. We were refitting this place and finished just before the lockdown began, with a lot of help from Richard Crocker [Costcutter Area Sales Manager]. Even during the lockdown he ordered the flooring and got it delivered, sorted the fridges out, did the whole shop ordering, not just some random items … I’m a big fan of Richard! So, a retailer from 2009 with lots of mentor help.

What is the best and the worst thing about the job?

The best thing is the satisfaction you get from serving the public, seeing that they are happy with our pricing and happy with the store. Fuel is always a distressed purchase – you just need it to get to work. Nobody wants to buy or looks forward to buying fuel. But when they come into the store and get to see what we’ve done – orange-juice machine, milkshakes, pick-and-mix stand, ice cream, Slush Puppy machine, hot dogs … their faces light up. That’s my proudest moment. Our staff are brilliant, too – they’ve got banter! And I’m not just saying this, but I’ve been told we’ve got the best-looking staff, too. They’re all body-builders and they’re looking sharp with their Turkish haircuts …

The worst thing is that you take it home with you and you’re always thinking about it, or the phone goes and you have to sort something out, a horrible drive-off or something like that. Just the pressure.

What is the biggest challenge in retailing?

One of the biggest is staffing. Your staffing will either make you or break you. I can’t serve 24 hours a day, although I would love to. So if you haven’t got the right team around you, it doesn’t matter what you’ve got in-store, you’re not going to make it. That’s the biggest challenge and we’ve succeeded by having the right staff with the right support and we treat everybody like family and put them first – help them if they’re trying to buy a car and so on. It’s a method that’s worked for me: put your staff first.

Do you think retailers get the respect they deserve from the local community?

I think it’s improved over the years. Once upon a time people would just think: it’s a petrol station – go there, fill up, get your cigarettes and that’s it. Now you can see customers are impressed and it shows that we are there for our community, and they appreciate it and give the respect back to us and the locals treat us like one of them. The range is so much bigger. It used to be stuff for cars – now you can buy fresh chicken, order side dishes, fresh veg, fruit. They know they don’t have to go to the big Tesco and queue. So they support us and we support them.

Do you find the suppliers’ category management plans work?

Costcutter have actually organised them into categories like “Youngers”, “Nighters” – where the Youngers just want Grab and Go stuff while the Nighters want to stay at home and watch a movie and probably want a takeaway pizza and a bottle of Prosecco. That’s where we have capitalised on the market, through our store. I thought that was really well-organised by Costcutter. They don’t know the store better than we do and they respect that, so they help but don’t force you. It’s the locals that know what they want – you can’t get better customer feedback than the customers! Round here, for example, they like chicken gravy rather than beef gravy, don’t know why, but now we stock more chicken gravy.

What brands or categories do you find bring more footfall into your store?

25.05 What brings the footfall is your best-sellers or what you sell the most of, but what’s important about them is not that, but the fact that they bring people in to spend more on other products – ingredients to make dinner with, or flour for baking, so that they come for the Coca-Cola and leave with a big bag-full of groceries. And the lockdown has been great for all the cooking and baking at home. It goes to show what kind of nation we are. We sourced flour and even yeast, including ready-made where you just add water, for Dad-baking! So the most important thing is to have a good range in-store, because then each item helps with every other item. It just says that we sell everything so no need for Tesco!

How do you get up-to-date information on new products?

Our managers on Facebook and Instagram and Costcutter have got fantastic Facebook and Instagram which are updated all the time. Marketing-wise you cannot do better than when customers speak to you directly and tell you what they want. But you’d be surprised that when something launches new, customers really want it. I remember the mint Twirl and how customers were so happy we had it. Now it’s AU Vodka with the gold bottle. We are probably the only garage around here that stocks it. They have different flavours and we stock the range.

How much do your sales depend on seasons and weather?

Look at the BBQs! One thing you can say about the British is that if we get anything more than 21 degrees outside, we’re having a BBQ. One interesting thing is that there’s quite a few lakes near us so there started to be a demand for fish bait as some of our customers were going fishing on them. But the BBQ demand is amazing and it got to the point where we were trying to track the weather so we could predict demand and get enough stock in! And after the BBQ in the afternoon they’d carry on into the evening and be turning back up here buying alcohol, cases of beer, Carling especially – they love their Carling around here.

Do you get the support you need from the local police force?

We know the police are suffering from budget cuts but you feel as if they fob you off and don’t want to do anything. We’ve had drive-offs where they weren’t interested, even after our cashier was assaulted when he tried to stop it and had his phone snatched. All they said was it wasn’t worth chasing because the number-plate was probably fake, but they wouldn’t even check. But another time they’ve also asked for our CCTV footage because a taxi drove off with someone’s change, about £4, and I couldn’t believe the amount of time they spent on that incident, sending two officers out! I get really upset about it. But some are brilliant and will come and see you for a chat and say, any problems give me a call.

What is the best piece of advice you would give to your local retailer?

Join up with somebody like Costcutter and make sure you have a clean, vibrant store with plenty of lighting. Make sure every product has two facings, clean and tidy: the shop has to look full and clean all the time and that will 100 per cent boost your sales. With the right products at the right price. Even having air freshener sprayed around can help. You have to remember that the customer parks in your petrol station to give their car a break and fill up with fuel, but they’re having a break themselves. So I would say, think about what you would want if you were going for a break.

What sections of the store work best for you and which are the most challenging?

We thought our biggest challenge would be waste on chilled food, because we before we had soft drinks, cigarettes and alcohol, and that was it, but after the refit we’ve got seven fridges, 3.75 metres. Doing research I visited stores that had been fully kitted out for fresh food, but three weeks later and it was all gone – because of the cost of the wastage, the three-to five-day shelf-life and the fact that there is so much in an outer they had to buy in. But I can order as little as six mushroom packs not 18 now. They’ll split them and you can order only wat you know you can sell, and it makes a total difference. I can now get a minimum order of three of a product, not a whole outer. Brilliant.

Ordering smartly is the challenge; knowing what’s going on in your area, and stay on top of your chill section.

What help/advice would you like to see most from manufacturers/suppliers?

Costcutter have taken on board the demand to split outers. That’s really good to know, that you can order three of something instead of 24. That flexibility means that you sell a lot more because you’ll try more things out. And the suppliers, too: instead of one store ordering 24 packs of mushrooms you can have thirty stores ordering three and you’ve then sold 90.

Do you ever have customers asking for products they have seen on TV that you know nothing about?

People come in with all sorts of requests  and although you can’t stock everything, we try to respond to as many as we can. As I said, listen to your customers and listen to your staff who talk to the customers. It just shows that we are on the ball, that are not just sitting still. But I can’t take the credit – it’s the staff who come to me with the ideas.

If you were to give up your store tomorrow, what would you like to do?

Oh wow – open more stores! I mean, we are opening more stores – I was just up in Manchester looking at a place to put a bid on and we are hopefully completing on a place on Wolverhampton, so watch this space in a few weeks. My wonderful father-in-law, who taught me everything, died unexpectedly and quickly of cancer at 59, and he had worked so hard and planned to retire at 60 and enjoy family life. Life really is short, and if I had to go away from this, I would take a few years out and spend time watching my daughters growing up. I’m still young, I could jump back in the business when they were older!