Speciality and premium food stores tend to fare well in the health-conscious city of Brighton, but when a 6,000 sq ft natural and organic store dared to open opposite the city’s only Waitrose outlet it was sure to turn a few heads.
The family-run Taj store started its life in 1965 as the 2,000 sq ft Taj Mahal store hidden down a Brighton side street. Taj Mahal promoted itself as an international store, and for those who stumbled across it, it offered shelves jam-packed with ethnic, Asian and Middle Eastern products.
In comparison, the new-look Taj, which opened at the end of May, looks like its glamorous younger sister. While the new store still displays an array of international produce, its ranges are extensive and the organic labels are prominent.
“Brighton needed an interesting store as it is a food-loving city and there is a demand for organic foods,” says joint managing director Amir Khan. “Brighton is also better than most cities at responding to new ideas and concepts.”
When the three brothers, Amir, Shahid and Zahid, all joint partners in their late father’s business, decided to move on to the high street, they felt that the new store should also offer a wide selection of local produce.
“I strongly believe we should support local producers and we found that local residents were demanding this,” says Amir.
The store therefore has to manage daily deliveries for many products including bread, fruit and vegetables, as well as longer-life goods such as honey and the growing ranges of Fairtrade products.
But as well as the extensive choice for each product category (Taj must stock every kind of olive available in the UK, for example, and has a self-service olive delicatessen), the brothers have paid special attention to the design of the store to enhance the shopping experience.
“Lighting is key in a retail environment and we took time to create the right mood using lighting and mirrors,” says Amir.
The ambience is also enhanced by small details such as plants and hookah pipes neatly tucked above shelves.
“We were also keen to create a new logo when we moved on to the high street,” says Amir. “We went for something simple for this, but we wanted to reflect the fact that we still sold foreign products, even though we don’t describe the new store as international.”
The family has used different designs in the flooring to subtly create zoned areas. The fruit and vegetable section has a wooden floor, for example, while the main area has a tiling effect.
The layout is also unconventional, with aisles running diagonally and chilled cabinets stranded in the middle of the store, but as Amir explains, it does create a feeling of space. “It allows people to wander and get drawn into different areas. We didn’t want it to be mundane and boring.”
One of the eye-catching areas is the fresh fruit and vegetable section, including organic options and a selection of fresh herbs.
While Amir says it is still early days, he notes that sales are within expectations and the particularly busy periods are usually the later hours (Taj is open from 8.30am until 9.30pm).
The brothers plan to keep their old store open, but it will become even more specialised in its focus on international product ranges.
With the new store they have plans to further train staff to offer advice on cooking and products. Also, information boards may be introduced for some foods that need more detailed explanation.
They also hope to display recipe boards that will change regularly. These will add to the cookbooks already dotted around the store.
The brothers are confident that Taj is just right for the area and its proximity to Waitrose won’t harm their prospects.
“We aren’t worried about Waitrose as we are in a different market to them - if anything they were probably more worried about us - but in the end it should benefit us both,” says Amir.
“Local independent stores should never be worried about being near multiple grocers if they know their market. Also, we can generally stock a range quicker than they can.”