Raj rises to the challenge of expanding his store portfolio

Raj Aggarwal is not one to stand still if the past 18 months are anything to go by. Taking over Spar Hackenthorpe was just one of many projects for Raj.

Location: Hackenthorpe, Sheffield

Hours: 7am-10pm Mon-Sun

Staff: 14

Size: 2,995sq ft

Trading since: 1989 (November 2015 under Raj)

Raj Aggarwal is not one to stand still if the past 18 months are anything to go by.

Taking over Spar Hackenthorpe in Sheffield was just one of several projects for Raj in 2015.

Between September and mid-November that year, he launched the UK’s first Insomnia coffee shop and wine bar in Market Harborough, Leicester; opened his second Spar in Leicester, adjacent to the coffee shop; and took over the Sheffield store.

Raj says it was “a learning curve”. While the coffee bar and Sheffield shop both thrived, his Market Harborough Spar failed to achieve the numbers it needed to succeed and Raj was forced to close it.

“It had a lot of potential, but it was in a Grade III listed building, which meant I couldn’t have signage on the outside. People didn’t know it was there and it just didn’t work,” he explains.

When the opportunity arose to buy the Sheffield store, Raj said it was a “no brainer”. “It’s a fairly busy store and does the numbers it needs to do,” he says.

But he has also made changes, investing around £35,000 in LED lighting and refrigeration, and bringing in new products that have higher margins to combat his rising wage bill.

“We’re trying to increase our margins by introducing different products – seasonal lines for Valentine’s Day, for example, where there’s a 40% profit, and Mother’s Day mugs,” he says. He’s also increased his range of bagged sweets, bringing in products with higher margins and is trying to get his staff to be more strategic when buying promotions.

Nudging up spend is not an easy task as the shop’s customers are very price sensitive – many of them ask what the cheapest pack of cigarettes are before deciding what to buy and will down trade for cheaper options.

The shop is filled with great value and strong promotions. “What you don’t want to do is drive your customer away,” Raj says. “Because we’re a big neighbourhood store, grocery matters. You’ll see people picking up a basket and doing a proper shop. Tinned food sells a lot around here.”

Next on Raj’s ‘to do’ list is to give customers the option of paying through new mobile payment app Zapper, which he hopes to have in place in March. “It tracks exactly what people are buying,” he says. “They pay with Zapper and the payment goes into our account the next morning. There are incentives behind it for customers too.”

Plans are also afoot to introduce a Subway franchise. He already has the plans drawn up and approved and expects to bring it in at some point this year.

It’s not just improving the Sheffield store that Raj has his eye on. Despite the setbacks, he hasn’t been put off growing his portfolio of shops.

“I’m gunning to get another store – I have all the equipment sitting there ready to go in the Market Harborough Spar. And I’d like to open another coffee shop,” he says. “I like a challenge.”

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