I was rubbing my hands with glee. Two charming brothers, Indy and Nim Gill, had phoned up asking for every aspect of their shop, Briars Mini Market in Oakham, Rutland, to get my attention. Imagine my disappointment when I arrived to find a smart village store.
Inside it was clean, reasonably well laid out, with your usual bread, papers, ciggies and booze. There were new modest-sized freezer cabinets with fish fingers, oven chips and peas. There was a chiller cabinet with milk, butter, pasties and a few factory-made sandwiches.
It soon became clear that the brothers' strengths are their diligence and the fact that despite not being part of a franchise or buying group they have created the classic modern general store and are both fired up with ambition for the business.
Store owners: Indy Gill (pictured), brother Nim and his wife Kully
Staff: Two full-time, five part-time
Weekly turnover: £12,000
Their weakness is that they and their staff lack the more professional selling and buying skills that could drive the thing forward and open up a greater profit margin. It's just too easy to wander off to the cash & carry, pick up some trays of dogfood and tomato sauce and amble back again.
However, the opportunities for Indy and Nim, in my opinion, are huge. They are in the heart of yummy mummy-shire. On my way there, as yet another huge 4x4 forced me off the road, I realised what an affluent area this shop is in the centre of, and yet they don't really seem to have these people as customers.
The lunchtime offer wouldn't pull them in. Sure, there was a chiller with a few cheap factory-made pasties, pies and sandwiches, and a guy in a boiler suit came in and grabbed a pasty, sandwiches and chocolate milk. The people with money choose not to eat this stuff . The middle classes have been hammered in the recession and tend to have more evenings in, which means a DVD and a few indulgent treats. What have Indy and Nim got? Crisps, pop, a large display of not very good wine and run-of-the-mill sweets.
This is the sort of area where the farm shop thrives, or the special food outlets at the garden centre, or even a twee bakery café - all trades the brothers should have.
"What do you think of the outside?" Indy asked. "I quite like it," I replied, thinking to myself that with a bit of tweaking it could look quite villagey and appealing. "Oh." he seemed surprised. "We want to move it upmarket." "So do I," I thought. "Cleaner, more modern," he carried on. "Perhaps we should be Spar or Londis, or look like one." Now I would think that's moving downmarket. I for my part had visions of dark green varnished wooden barrels of local produce and staff in striped aprons.
Sometimes what people say inadvertently gives me clues that set alarm bells ringing. Indy gave me two absolute corkers. At one point he mentioned bags of potatoes. "Did they sell well?" I asked his assistant. "They flew out," she said. Did they have any? No.
That is an opportunity missed. If you've got a product that flies out of the store, always stock it and find out why it flies. Can you find other, similar things? Should Nim drive around local farms and growers to find local produce that is appealing and can also carry a whopping big mark-up?
The next clanging bell came when, while discussing the missed lunchtime opportunities, I suggested a microwave could boost pie sales. Indy replied: "Tried that, it was a disaster. We just had queues of people and kids and it completely tied up a member of staff for hours."
Queues? Hours? That's what we want.
To be fair to Indy I do take his point. The business cannot currently afford a big wage bill and the truth is that currently the shop, while profitable, doesn't support both brothers. Nim has a second job to make ends meet. But to reject the idea of people queuing for what we sell seems madness.
As for microwaved pies, how do coffee shops at filling stations do it? Indy and Nim should go visit one at a filling station and learn tips, take note of the manufacturer, of the equipment, talk to the staff.
The same applies to stock. True, I worry about small shops getting involved in high-value perishable stock, which, if unsold, has to be thrown away. But what about the M&S Simply Foods that sell fresh squeezed juice and sushi? How do they do that? Well the brothers should go and watch them - that is benchmarking.
One of the most obvious areas for improvement was the till, which only stocked a few snacks and chewing gum. The brothers should think of high-value items that yummy mummies could grab on an impulse.
They might then be in a good enough mood to pull the 4x4 over.
Do a SWOT analysis. What are your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats? What skills do you lack? What trade are you missing? Is there a shortage of something in your area? Is there a hole you could fill? Is there a chance to make bigger margins? Where could your business be damaged by outside competition?
Benchmarking: go off and pinch the big boys' ideas.
Micromanage: take each department and maximise its profitability as if it was your only source of revenue, one department at a time.
Learn from your customers: draft a simple customer-suggestion form and ask all your customers to fill it in with suggestions as to what they would like you to stock.