Battle through the crates of booze, soft drinks and snacks piled up round the back of Bains Stores in Kingstanding, Birmingham, fight your way up an impossibly narrow stairway, and you are suddenly transported into a spacious, wooden-floored office laden with gizmos and oozing with style.
This is Harvey Bains’ office and headquarters of one of the smallest, but most unusual, members of The Grocer Top 50: a £15m c-store business with almost as many delivered wholesalers as he has stores.
Not content with owning a nightclub and joint-ownership of a confectionery company, he runs 12 convenience stores, has accounts with Nisa, Key Lekkerland, P&H McLane, Costcutter and Spar wholesaler AF Blakemore, and trades under Costcutter, Your Store, Key Store, Nisa and Bains Stores.
Bains used to be a member of Londis as well, but had a falling out, he says. “We had four Londis stores at one point - but when you see them giving out fascias to your direct competitors, it’s hard to take.”
Most deliveries are now supplied by Nisa central distribution, but to make matters even more complicated, Bains also deals direct with manufacturers on some licensed products, which are stored at AF Blakemore depots or supplier sites and delivered to stores on Bains’ own trucks.
“We’ve got two lorries and five vans - mainly to pick up booze and soft drinks where we can get a better deal by dealing direct with suppliers,” says Bains.
He started life in the early 1990s as a small newsagent in Lye and has grown by about a store a year ever since, spreading as far afield as Doncaster, Northampton, Leamington, Wolverhampton and Stourbridge.
The focus today is firmly on convenience and Bains is selling his remaining two off licences and one newsagent and pumping all available cash into his c-stores and a new 6,000 sq ft site in Stourbridge under the Nisa fascia - his largest yet.
But there is no five-year plan, insists Bains. “We never sat down and said we want so many stores by such and such a date. I would just see a site that came up and didn’t want a competitor to buy it. I always think,‘I could do so much with this site’ ”.
Sales growth - running at a healthy 4% to 5% - is driven by soft drinks, snacks and chilled food, says Bains.
“Ambient packaged goods are pretty flat. The big sales are of convenience foods at peak times such as 12 noon to-12.30pm and after 5pm. Our biggest outlay has been on chillers - we’ve probably spent £200,000 in the last 18 months.”
Aside from the inflexibility of the news and magazine supply chain - a source of constant frustration - Bains is reviewing his services offer, as margins go down and stress levels go up. “We have reached the point where we are switching off services at peak times because they are so staff intensive and they don’t make any money. It’s a gamble, but I need to determine which ones are not worth it anymore.”
The review will cover Paypoint, film development, phonecards, photocopying, dry cleaning, lottery, utilities and bus passes - services that might drive footfall, says Bains, but not incremental sales. However, the future is bright, as long as he keeps investing in his stores. The multiples are a threat, he says, because they have the cash to invest in their store formats. “It’s not only a question of price, but store standards.”
They are also interested in his business, he admits. “We do get calls from people asking about our turnover and so on.
“They say they are calling from a ‘large corporate body’ - but they won’t say who they represent. The trouble is, they always want our best sites!”