Retailing is not simply a job, it is a lifestyle choice. This attitude is perfectly exemplified by Phil Lee who, with Barbara, his wife of 37 years, has run G & G Newsagents in Edmonton, North London since 1999.
His quirky shop is a throwback to the old days when one could buy tea and a screwdriver in the same outlet, much like Arkwright's, the store popularised in the sitcom Open All Hours.
Beyond news and grocery, the shop stocks “a bit of everything,” Phil tells Asian Trader. “It is what I call a proper convenience store. If you want a pair of industrial gloves, we have them, if you want a screwdriver, a plug socket or a tennis ball, we have them.”
The store closes at midnight and opens at 9 am. It used to open at 6 am but Phil admits now he is older, getting up in the morning is a problem. “The only way to survive as a corner shop nowadays is to work unsociable hours,” he added. “I don't leave the store until about one in the morning.”
Confectionery is the store's biggest selling category, while newspapers and services like PayPoint, congestion charge payment, Oyster card top-up and Lottery also prove profitable, with scratchcard sales growing 20 per cent. This all adds up to a turnover of £1m a year.
Tobacco is another profitable category. On the issue of plain packaging, Phil is adamant that the government is making a mistake.
“All the government will do is temporarily cut down the number of smokers,” he insists. “You will get a small percentage who will quit. Within a few months they will come back and take up smoking again.”
He also points out that when the shopkeeper turns his back to find the cigarettes for the customer, he won't know if the customer is stealing something.
“The colour of the packet does not attract the customer. They just prefer their own brand. So I don't see the point of covering up the cigarettes. What you buy every day is what you buy every day. The government wants to discourage youngsters from smoking but young people are just going to ask for the cheapest cigarette.”
The shop is surrounded by competitors. To the rear is a Tesco which is open 24 hours. In front is a Sainsbury's, with a Lidl nearby. But Phil is unfazed by the competition.
“There is a significant factor that the big stores such as Tesco and Sainsbury's are lacking,” he explains. “They have no personality. When you run a corner shop, if you inject a bit of humour into the conversation, customers love it.” Although he admits to keeping the conversation short because he has a business to run, Phil stresses that he is not too serious and maintains a friendly tone with customers. “They like my personality, I am not rude, I am helpful. Even though we are 10p or 20p dearer than Tesco, they still come. Late at night when people have run out of something they say I'll go to Phil.”
Phil believes to successfully run a convenience store in a residential area, retailers have got to know their customers by name. “We know about 90 per cent of the locals by their names,” he states. “We know their children and grandchildren.”
His humour is evident in the sign on his beer chiller which comments on smuggling. The sign reads 'No imported beers from Belgium', a country which does not impose VAT on beer.
From clothing to news
Originally from Malaysia, Phil came to the UK 40 years ago as a student. After gaining three A-levels and then a degree from the London School of Commerce, he worked for five years for different companies, mostly in retail. This period included a three year spell as a manager at Millets, the camping shop.
At the age of 27 Phil and Barbara decided to start a clothing business. Their first market stall in Camden, North London was followed by a second in Portobello Road, which they still own. They then opened a third stall in Petticoat Lane, near Liverpool Street.
By this time the Lees were employing around 10 staff to run their three market stalls. Although they were buying from the major clothing stores such as C&A, Littlewoods, BHS and Next, they soon found they couldn't get enough merchandise from the UK to supply their stalls. They began to have shirts made in India and China and import them. Some of these shirts, with Phil's name on the label, are still on sale in his current store, making it one of the few newsagents to sell clothing.
But the advent of cut-price menswear retailers like Primark and Matalan caused the decline of small players like the Lees. They still sell clothing, but on a much smaller scale.
At the height of London's 1990s property boom, Phil and Barbara opened a wine bar in Liverpool Street. “That was the yuppie era when everybody was earning money and spending money,” Phil remembered fondly. “House prices were skyrocketing and people were gazumping. It was Crazy London. It didn't last long – about six years.”
When the property bubble burst and the yuppies were gone, the Lees decided to buy a newsagent. Their current store was just an empty shell but Phil saw its potential. He was attracted to the location by its abundance of wholesalers and cash & carries. It was also a good residential area with mainly owner occupied properties rather than buy-to-let houses. There was a very strong flow of traffic in the road and most important of all, there was, and still is, free parking outside the shop.
In the last 15 years times have changed and so have the customers. Now Phil's customers are predominantly foreigners, mainly Eastern Europeans. To suit the needs of the new influx of migrants, Phil has done “very well” by offering Western Union money transfer. “We are the main provider of Western Union in this area,” he told Asian Trader. “The majority of immigrants come here to work and send a a bit of money back home and we aim to accommodate them.”
The Western Union draws customers, in particular Romanians and Bulgarians, from as far as Enfield, around 10 miles away.
Phil's folder of Western Union transactions shows customers have sent cash from his store to countries as diverse as Bulgaria, Congo, Jamaica, Thailand and Turkmenistan. He shows Asian Trader £2,000 in cash a customer had handed to transfer to Thailand. “The principle is trust,” he emphasises. “A very important factor in being a retailer is to be trustworthy. When you are dealing with money and people trust you, they come from far afield. You gain a reputation and word spreads round, they say 'go to Phil.' There are other agents transferring money but people choose to come here.”
Not only does Phil offer his customers money transfer, he even learns words in their language. “I speak a bit of Polish. It helps a lot,” he explains. “That's something Sainsbury's and Tesco can't do. We have the personal touch.”