In every shop I have visited so far, there have been some areas that could be improved, but nothing catastrophic.
Why can't I talk to the failures? Because failing c-stores don't last long enough to save. I drive past empty properties and, behind the estate agents' notices and the fly posters, I see the remains of smart shop signs. As I peer through the dusty windows, I see rows of once-modern shelving. Apart from the small matter of it having gone bust, many were classic "successful" c-stores. What went wrong? Often something out of their control - a local factory closing, a Tesco Metro opening nearby.
Then the phone rang. "The guy says he's got trouble," said the editor. So I set off to First Choice News and Convenience Store run by Dave Bruton in Sutton Coldfield.
What a disappointment - one of the smartest yet, on a neat little arcade in an affluent area. Clean, bright signage reminiscent of a national chain, big clean windows, and easy access for customers of any age and disability. The inside just got better: airy, spacious and well laid out.
So what was the problem? While by no means failing, Dave was struggling to realize his store's potential. He was doing OK but wasn't making the most of his store. He felt he was a skilful retailer who was, if anything, ahead of the game, but he wanted to take a step up.
I will start with the positives. Dave was a paperboy at 13 and so loved the business that at 49 he is still in it. He has 20 paperboys who between them service 500 home-delivery customers. He strongly believes the quality and placement of mags are crucial to footfall so has a vast magazine selection. I saw everything from motorbike magazines to angling titles. He had four mags dedicated to tattoos.
Dave's store is near a school, so he has a large range of penny sweets set out like a pick-and-mix. Sure, there's a risk of theft from light-fingered schoolkids, but the display is near the tills and his watchful eye, and he reckons the money it pulls in covers any "evaporation".
He also stocks a stationery and hardware range. All the other shops I have visited say this is dead stock. Dave says it's very profitable. The stock is eclectic to say the least - from candles to bath plugs, pencils to sewing machine needles, but someone bought a hole puncher while I was there. So he seems to be on to a winner.
So where could he improve? For a start there is too much wasted space. Dave's argument that this makes things easy for wheelchair users is fine, but you could comfortably browse the aisles in a battle tank. Dave knocked through to the next door shop when he brought it in 2006, which was a good move, but he now has three aisles in a store that is 100 ft wide. He could easily get another one in there.
Then there is the booze - a modest selection. Dave reckons the local competition has this market sewn up, but an expanded selection - perhaps using that extra aisle - would help him compete.
He has a healthy lunchtime trade, but has filled his sandwich section with the standard, bogstandard offerings common to many small shops. Dave has placed a basket of fresh apples next to it, which is sensible, but why not go the whole hog and get a hot roast in? A shop I know in Cheltenham offers slabs of hot roast in a bun at lunchtime and has queues stretching down the street. Sure, it may lose him money for the first week before people catch on, but after that he should rake it in.
Then there's his placement of the newspapers and magazines. If newspapers are so key to generating footfall, why are they at your back when you enter the store?
My final grumble is with his in-store signage. Such a large store with its yawning aisles needs to draw customers to specific areas. Vague signs leave customers adrift.
Will fixing all this do the trick? No, because what is needed here - and in many small shops - is ambition. Dave says the recession has boosted the grocery side of the business, with people shopping daily to avoid the shock of the multi-hundred pound supermarket shop. So why not offer more than a few apples and tomatoes? Head to the countryside, find a farmer willing to supply and make a killing with produce.
This is my problem with many of what I would describe as successful convenience stores. These guys are often putting in a lot of effort for not much return. As an outsider I wouldn't fancy working that hard for modest rewards. Dave is skilful and enthusiastic and if he carries on like this he will do OK and stay within his comfort zone. But if he broadens his scope and takes a few risks he will find what he needs to step up. n
Store owner: Dave Bruton
Staff: five, plus 20 paperboys
Weekly turnover: £15,000
Stock challenging products. I want to buy my shitake mushrooms from the corner shop
Why can't c-store customers shop online? Build a website
Talk to the bank. The customers aren't broke, they just can't be bothered to pay. Can you set up direct debits? Can you take payment by phone? Can they pay on the website?
With Dave's wide range of stock, he could be a mini department store and could make a lot more of the hardware and so on - and why not source it himself?
Same old factory sandwiches. How about a fresh bakery, and good coffee? There's loads of room, so how about greengrocery, local produce, and prepared salads?