It's a bright and sunny spring morning, so I decide to travel up to The Convenience Store, situated in the Birmingham district of South Yardley, on my beloved Harley Davidson (affectionately known to me as Uncle Ewie). I also think it's handy to have the motorcycle should I want to make a quick escape.
Clay Lane, Birmingham
Store owner: Jasbir Ajimal
Size: 11,000 sq ft
Weekly turnover: Above £10k
So keeping this health warning in mind, I am asked to have a look at Jasbir's shop - its threats, opportunities and the thorny subject of secret shopping.
The Convenience Store, which is situated on a fairly busy crossroads in a residential area, certainly lives up to its name. In fact, it's convenient to the point that even though 18 months ago a Londis opened on the opposite corner about 20 yards away, it hasn't had a detrimental effect on Jasbir's business. It appears people who walk past his shop cannot be bothered to go another 60 feet for their pint of milk.
A peek at his books show Jasbir is doing rather well. When he left his factory job with Land Rover just over three years ago and bought the shop, it was a profitable going concern. By modest expansion and fine-tuning the business practices, Jasbir has managed to make it even more profitable.
After my initial inspection inside the shop I sense Jasbir is waiting for me to say something derogatory. What did I think of the shop? Well, what strikes me straight away is that he has expanded the floor space to the maximum. Jasbir believes if one square foot makes a pound, therefore two square feet makes two pounds.
But this has created a problem. It means he has no space for stock and, to my mind, there are too many boxes and packets on top of cabinets and stored under shelves (a point highlighted in the mystery shop). He tells me his home is full of stock and his quite large van, parked outside, is also an overflow stock area.
Why is this a problem? Well, if just 10 feet of space earns 90% of the money (bread, milk, eggs etc) would Jasbir be better off with two dozen 10 sq ft kiosks in different locations than one 200 sq ft shop, or can he make the other 190 sq ft work harder? It's a serious point he needs to consider.
I'd like to make a point here about a lot of such stores so as not to single Jasbir out. The obsession with space often leads to blocking out the windows. This means that the inside is more attractive than the outside, leading to the 'it tastes better than it looks' syndrome.
Furthermore, clutter leads to an ever-shrinking counter. This is what happens in Jasbir's store - once you get past the Lottery machine and the till, all that's left is a tiny gap for staff to peer out at you when you pay. On the plus side this does mean that you can leave a part-time kid to run the store as they only have to take the money, but it doesn't give any space for the grocer to talk up each sale.
This leads me nicely on to a positive aspect of Jasbir's shop. My mum ran grocery shops and she was the best salesperson I have ever seen (she could shame Arkwright) but she maintained that her profit came from her skill as a buyer. She trained before the war in a great London department store and would squeeze tomatoes at the fruit market, nibble cheeses at the farm, and savage the poor biscuit reps for bigger discounts. Anyone who aspires to a grocery business is well advised to get involved in a buying group.
Jasbir is no exception, and he is helped enormously by his business being a Lifestyle Express store, which is part of the Landmark Cash & Carry Group. They have helped him with his store, signage and stock, which on the whole looks bright, cheery and easy to understand (and that, of course, adds to the convenience).
All of this helps find and keep customers, which as we all know is the only way to earn money. So rather than preoccupy himself with the outcome of mystery shops, Jasbir needs to play to his strengths and concentrate on what he does well - convenience. But a strength can also be a weakness. If someone opens next door, and happens to be 10 feet nearer and a penny cheaper than you are, then they are more convenient and you are finished.
So I say come on, be brave, take a risk and dare to be different. It's about stepping out of the comfort zone.
All shop owners should try to set a 'courage patch' aside in-store and take a punt with a few out-of the ordinary lines - maybe some posh cheeses or exotic meats.
If it doesn't work, then so be it. But if it does, it could take the business to a whole new level.
Try to identify the different needs of casual, regular and loyal customers.
Work out what makes your store different from other stores.
Ask yourself if a similar store opened near you would people walk past it to get to you?
Have you got the people, the space and the will to use face-to-face interaction to increase sales?
When a stranger walks past your store, what is it outside that makes them think, "that looks interesting - I must go inside and take a look?"
Set aside a bit of space and budget to try some risky experimental sales.
If just 10 sq ft of space earns 90% of your money (bread, milk, eggs etc) do you need all the extra space?