BACK in 2014, Levenhall Newsagents in East Lothian lost its Post Office, the proprietor announced his retirement and it looked certain that the local community would lose its local store for good.
Ferhan Ashiq, a retailer with a Day-Today store in nearby Prestonpans, stepped in to purchase the site. He saw the potential in the location and had a vision to develop an innovative retail business that would be fit for the future. But it didn’t happen immediately.
Deciding to take his time and raise enough money to do things properly, Ferhan closed the shop for two years.
Its recent reopening – as Levenhall Village Store – follows a £110,000 refurbishment with technology, innovation and food to go at its heart.
“I didn’t want to have a convenience store with a bit of food to go,” Ferhan said. “I wanted a food-to-go entity with convenience attached. That was the thinking.
“There were a lot of challenges with the design, many things that I wanted to do but couldn’t, because of the space. Because this is a small store I needed compact solutions.”
These include a high-speed Frymac chip machine, which he first spotted at the National Convenience Show in Birmingham.
“We can literally cook a portion of chips in two minutes and because of its size it’s a perfect fit for the shop,” said Ferhan.
Other food to go on offer includes bacon rolls, freshly-prepared sandwiches, hot pies (available from the counter-top hot plate) and gourmet coffee.
And though space is tight, Ferhan has a number of other food-to-go ideas he’s looking to introduce.
“What I’m doing with this store is building a concept that I can take into my other store in Prestonpans,” he said. “It was refitted in 2004 without any food-to-go offering.
Now, with margins diminishing and retailers like Amazon moving into the market, which could have a seriously detrimental impact on convenience retailers, I’m afraid many are not realising how that’s going to affect them. We need to innovate now to get ourselves established in the new food-to-go led market.
“I’m trying to figure out the best way to do that by using this place as an experiment.”
A trained economist, Ferhan worked for a number of years in Dubai, but returned home in 2013 to take over the running of the family business from his father. He wasn’t short of ideas.
“I came back thinking that I’d automate everything,” he said. “In Dubai, convenience is a lot further forward than it is here. They’re way ahead. London’s catching up, but the rest of the UK is way behind. I wanted to implement those kind of improvements here, but we still have a long way to go.”
Fascinated by technology – and anxious about opening a new store where he wouldn’t be behind the counter every day – Ferhan invested heavily to ensure he always knows what’s happening in Levenhall.
“It’s a very technology-driven store and has to be, simply because I’m not here most of the time,” he said. “The CCTV is linked to my phone. It’s got sound as well. So if anything happens in the store – say a customer’s rowdy or something – it’s recorded and I can show it to the police.
“As long as I’m in a location with wifi I can see what’s going on in the shop.
“With the EPOS system we have I can sit in my office in Prestonpans and know exactly what’s going on here, what’s going through the till, as it’s happening.
“I also have an automated time attendance system. Employees put their fingerprint in to clock in or out. I get the report sent to me to say when they were in. Otherwise, if a staff member was an hour late and they didn’t communicate that to me I would pay them incorrectly.
“I’ve created a WhatsApp group for the store so that staff can leave me messages. If we’re short on stock they can just write down what we need and send me a picture of it.
“You want to minimise as many problems as you can foresee. I’ve now got a change-counting machine for both stores. If I go away for a few days I need to be confident the member of staff shutting the store has counted the money properly and the best way to do that is automatically.”
Another area where Ferhan has automated is tobacco, introducing a cigarette vending machine that sits under the counter.
“It’s very easy. You just press a button on the till and out it pops,” he said. “We have had a few teething troubles. We used data from Prestonpans to prepare this store, because they’re close. But the cigarettes sold here are remarkably different to those sold up the road, so in the first few weeks we were opening it up constantly to restock.
“At Prestonpans, you sell 10 Players for every other cigarette you sell. Over here Pall Mall and Chesterfield are the big sellers, so there’s a big difference. That’s down to having more eastern Europeans as customers.
“That has had an impact, so we’ve had to rejig the vending machine to put the top sellers in the bigger slots.”
Situated on a busy road on the outskirts of Musselburgh, the store certainly benefits from passing trade and a mixed shopper demographic.
But figuring out exactly what people in the area want – or are prepared to pay – hasn’t been easy.
“Levenhall itself is a very affluent area, but it’s right next to one of the poorest areas in East Lothian, so we’ve really got to strike a balance,” said Ferhan.
We’ve tried to go for a core range in each category. We’re avoiding NPDs unless it’s a vaping product.
“Initially, one of the mistakes we made, thinking it was an affluent area, was we decided to premium price. However, in terms of the people that live here and the market we’re going after, which is trade traffic, premium pricing initially wasn’t the best strategy. That’s why we started bringing in price-marked packs.
“We’re sticking with PMPs until we get the foot traffic in. Then we’ll take away one or two to get better margins. Certain things are still premium priced, but we are incorporating a lot more PMPs to give consumers confidence that they’re not getting ripped off.
“Even without PMPs we’d be the cheapest place around here. The way we’ve designed it, we’ve tried to go for a core range in each category. We’re avoiding NPDs unless it’s a vaping product, due to space.”
Despite receiving a lot of help with merchandising from the team at Day-Today, Ferhan ultimately decided not to go with its fascia over his store.
“Because it’s an affluent area I wanted more of a village store feel,” he said. “The concept I was going for was that old-fashioned rustic look as opposed to another generic symbol group fascia. Symbol stores are everywhere around here. We wanted something different.”
It was partly his desire to do things differently that turned Ferhan towards crowdfunding back when he was trying to get the product off the ground.
Aiming to raise £40,000, the campaign was launched in 2015.
“It was difficult getting funding from the banks, so I thought I’d give crowdfunding a go,” he said. “Nobody had tried it with that kind of project. I thought ‘what have I got to lose?’ The local press got involved and people were interested. It wasn’t successful, ultimately, but I learned a lot from it.
“It was ambitious of me, but the crowdfunding platform still has potential. Scotland just isn’t in that place yet. We will be moving towards it, but it needs to establish itself in other markets. In the US it is established and it does work over there.”
With summer now on the way, Ferhan is looking forward to the opportunities better weather and local events will offer.
Percolating in the back of his head are plans to refurbish his much larger Day-Today store in Prestonpans.
And he’s likely to be kept busy with his duties as a community councillor – a role he took on, he says, because he wanted to know about any planning applications for new shops that came in, but which has led to many more responsibilities, including committee treasurer and vice-chair of the area partnership.
“It’s something that’s really taken off, but because my stores are fully staffed and increasingly automated I have a little more free time to give to things like the community council,” he said.
“If you can automate as much as possible, the simpler your life will be and the more confidence you will have.”