Scottish Grocer & Convenience Retailer

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SG profile: The Corner Shop, Crossgates

Sales rep Robert Kirkwood took the plunge into the world of convenience retailing in 2015 with the opening of his first store. A few months ago, he opened a second just up the road. Scottish Grocer paid a visit to learn more about the remarkable journey the Fife-based retailer has been on and discover just how much can be achieved in a relatively small space

The 450 sq ft shop unit was a letting agency before Robert Kirkwood took it on, recognising the potential it held in its location. Robert has since opened a second store within walking distance.

IF you ever find yourself embarking on a new challenge that threatens to consume your entire life, it’s likely someone you know will advise you to “start small”.

In the world of convenience retailing, you couldn’t start much smaller than Robert Kirkwood, who opened his first store, The Corner Shop, in Crossgates, Fife around two and half years ago.

At just over 450 sq ft, space is at a premium and Robert has maximised every inch of it – quite an accomplishment, considering he started entirely from scratch.

“It was a letting agency before I took it on,” he said. “But I saw an opportunity, because there wasn’t a convenience store in the town centre. I sat across the road in my wee van, day and night, just watching footfall, seeing who was going back and forth.

“People warned me it was too small, it was in the wrong location, on the corner with no parking, but I thought it could be a good wee business.

“Then it was a case of getting in touch with the landlord and negotiating what he could do to help me. He was kind enough to rewire and refloor it all. I got in touch with a couple of shopfitting companies, got some quotes and took it from there.

“It has been built from the ground up. I needed extra shelving, building it up as far as it can go. I’ve lost count of how many different lines I have, but the majority of the products are all single facing, because I needed to get as many products on shelf as possible.

“Two years on I’ve got quite a healthy turnover. It’s quite a chunky basket spend – somewhere between £7.50 and £8.20, on average. I’m quite proud of that, coming into it from a different line of work. I think I must be doing something right.”

Formerly a sales rep working mainly with independent retailers, Robert had harboured a dream of opening his own store for many years, but was too preoccupied with other commitments to pursue it.

Robert Kirkwood

It was only after the death of his mother in July 2015, that he decided life was too short to put his ambitions off any longer.

“I just thought there was more to life than what I was doing,” he said.

“I registered my mother’s death on a Friday and handed in my company car keys on the Monday afternoon.

“It was a shock to my wife when I told her I’d quit my job, but I reassured her we’d be fine. She’s been brilliant. She’s a full-time nurse, but she does all my bookkeeping for the business, looking after the paperwork.”

A couple of weeks on from his resignation, Robert bought a van and began his search for the right location, finding it in the small mining village of Crossgates, near his home in Cowdenbeath.

He eventually settled on Nabco as his shopfitter and Premier as his symbol partner.

He said: “I had a couple of meetings with different groups. The first meeting was with Booker, and after the next two meetings I went straight back to them. The professionalism stood out and they really look after you.

“More than once I’ve been in the shop, realised I’ve forgotten to get something, phoned them up and they’ve had someone deliver it from Dunfermline or Kirkcaldy. They understood that I was just starting out and they were there to help.”

One of the biggest challenges for the store, unsurprisingly, has been space – or the lack of it.

“At the start it was easy because I didn’t have a lot of stock,” said Robert.

“I didn’t know what would sell and what wouldn’t. But as it’s grown, the challenge has been getting the range right – which has increased quite a bit – and making space for it.

“I knew I would need a big chilled area. I got my fingers burned at the start buying in a lot of chilled pizzas and ready meals, assuming that was what people here wanted. It wasn’t. So I had to keep adjusting as I saw what sold and what didn’t. It was a lot of trial and error, with a lot of cost involved. But Booker again helped me in a big way.”

I haven’t worked in over two years. Everything I did before was work, but this isn’t work. This is a real joy, from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. It’s just a joy to make a difference.

In the world of convenience retailing, you couldn’t start much smaller than Robert Kirkwood, who opened his first store, The Corner Shop, in Crossgates, Fife around two and half years ago.

At just over 450 sq ft, space is at a premium and Robert has maximised every inch of it – quite an accomplishment, considering he started entirely from scratch.

“It was a letting agency before I took it on,” he said. “But I saw an opportunity, because there wasn’t a convenience store in the town centre. I sat across the road in my wee van, day and night, just watching footfall, seeing who was going back and forth.

“People warned me it was too small, it was in the wrong location, on the corner with no parking, but I thought it could be a good wee business.

“Then it was a case of getting in touch with the landlord and negotiating what he could do to help me. He was kind enough to rewire and refloor it all. I got in touch with a couple of shopfitting companies, got some quotes and took it from there.

“It has been built from the ground up. I needed extra shelving, building it up as far as it can go. I’ve lost count of how many different lines I have, but the majority of the products are all single facing, because I needed to get as many products on shelf as possible.

“Two years on I’ve got quite a healthy turnover. It’s quite a chunky basket spend – somewhere between £7.50 and £8.20, on average. I’m quite proud of that, coming into it from a different line of work. I think I must be doing something right.”

Its serve-over bakery counter from Stuart’s Bakers has proven especially popular

Formerly a sales rep working mainly with independent retailers, Robert had harboured a dream of opening his own store for many years, but was too preoccupied with other commitments to pursue it.

It was only after the death of his mother in July 2015, that he decided life was too short to put his ambitions off any longer.

“I just thought there was more to life than what I was doing,” he said.

“I registered my mother’s death on a Friday and handed in my company car keys on the Monday afternoon.

“It was a shock to my wife when I told her I’d quit my job, but I reassured her we’d be fine. She’s been brilliant. She’s a full-time nurse, but she does all my bookkeeping for the business, looking after the paperwork.”

A couple of weeks on from his resignation, Robert bought a van and began his search for the right location, finding it in the small mining village of Crossgates, near his home in Cowdenbeath.

He eventually settled on Nabco as his shopfitter and Premier as his symbol partner.

He said: “I had a couple of meetings with different groups. The first meeting was with Booker, and after the next two meetings I went straight back to them. The professionalism stood out and they really look after you.

“More than once I’ve been in the shop, realised I’ve forgotten to get something, phoned them up and they’ve had someone deliver it from Dunfermline or Kirkcaldy. They understood that I was just starting out and they were there to help.”

One of the biggest challenges for the store, unsurprisingly, has been space – or the lack of it.

“At the start it was easy because I didn’t have a lot of stock,” said Robert.

“I didn’t know what would sell and what wouldn’t. But as it’s grown, the challenge has been getting the range right – which has increased quite a bit – and making space for it.

“I knew I would need a big chilled area. I got my fingers burned at the start buying in a lot of chilled pizzas and ready meals, assuming that was what people here wanted. It wasn’t. So I had to keep adjusting as I saw what sold and what didn’t. It was a lot of trial and error, with a lot of cost involved. But Booker again helped me in a big way.”

Mossgreen Convenience Store underwent a complete refit after Robert Kirkwood bought it in October. As well as having more space than the Corner Shop, it boasts a few other advantages – not least customer parking

With customers previously having to travel to Dunfermline or Cowdenbeath for food shopping, Robert has found a lot of demand for grocery staples like pasta, bread, milk and butcher meat.

As the first licenced store in the village, his range of beer, wine and spirits has proved popular – with his craft beer selection, in its specially-commissioned driftwood display, drawing in customers from near and far.

“I knew what I wanted, it was just a question of getting it right,” he said of his bespoke craft offering. “I’ve used three local companies and the rest is an array of beers I get from New Wave, a supplier based in Edinburgh. You can get craft beers at the cash & carry, but New Wave offered something really different and I’ve not looked back.”

He’s also managed to find space for an ATM, PayPoint, the National Lottery and Zapper, which he said was proving very successful.

“I introduced it at the end of last summer and it’s going really well,” he said.

“They’ve always got good offers on. We had a big tub of Celebrations on offer at £4 over Christmas, but Zapper were offering another £2 off, so it brought in lots of extra customers.”

It’s hard to see how Robert could possibly fit anything else into the store, but he’s expanded his business in other ways, opening a second shop 400 yards up the road from his first just before Christmas.

While that might sound like a lot to take on just two years into a new career, Robert said the decision was purely practical.

“I heard the owner was retiring last August,” he said.

“I approached him in September and took over in October. It was only because I knew if I didn’t, someone else would and they’d probably do a really good job because it’s a bigger store.”

At just over 800 sq ft, Mossgreen Convenience Store offers a lot more room to manoeuvre, and Robert is keen to make the most of it.

He invested in a complete refit introducing a broader selection of chilled food, coffee-to-go from Espresso Essentials and an extremely successful serve-over bakery counter from Stuart’s.

“I see the footfall climbing up every week, new faces coming in. It gets a lot of passing trade, a lot of workmen and sales reps. It also has parking, which is a godsend. and 136 new homes are in the process of being built just along the road.”

While the store was still awaiting approval for an alcohol licence when Scottish Grocer visited, Robert doesn’t aim to repeat his craft beer offer, opting for craft gin instead.

“It would be folly to pinch custom from my other store,” he said. “It’s the same reason I won’t be getting PayPoint at Mossgreen. I need the footfall at the Corner Shop. And I’ve delayed the Lotto as well, just for the time being, to make sure people keep going there.”

The Corner Shop’s counter area employs every space-saving tactic available to make room for a till, PayPoint box, Zapper terminal and slimline Lottery unit as well as a bowl of free fruit for schoolchildren

But how is he coping running two stores?

“It’s actually been okay, because of the team I’ve got,” he said. “Marzena, my full-timer, is the only staff member I went through an agency for. The rest were all customers first, and I approached each of them personally, asking if they wanted a part-time job. It’s certainly worked for me. They really look after each shop. They care about the business. I’m still busy all the time, but It’s great fun. I love it to bits.

“I haven’t worked in over two years. Everything I did before was work, but this isn’t work. This is a real joy, from first thing in the morning to last thing at night. It’s just a joy to make a difference.”

Robert’s craft beer display makes use of local driftwood from Limekilns beach and has caught the eye of many customers

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