Surekha Patel took her business back from the brink two decades ago and has evolved her offer successfully ever since.
As she tells Helena Drakakis, it’s all about catering for and valuing your customers’ needs
In the 20 years that Surekha Patel has been running her convenience store in Bexhill-on-Sea, customers have come and gone, trends have appeared and disappeared, but her place as a community stalwart has remained constant.
Surekha, who has just won the NFRN Community Retailer of the Year award, remains modest about her achievements, but her store continues to serve the changing population of this East Sussex seaside town.
“Our customers were always older, retired people, but younger people are moving in,” she says.
Back in 1996 Surekha bought a bankrupt business and has built her shop up from scratch. Where counter newspapers and confectionery were once on offer, she’s introduced HND and now delivers to around 125 houses every morning.
She has expanded her convenience range and now “sells everything”, and has also become a one-stop shop for auxiliary services.
“The dry cleaners in the village closed down around a year ago, so I take in dry cleaning and contract it out,” she explains. Over the past few months she has also introduced a selection of local products, for example handmade cakes from Ruby’s – a well-known Sussex bakery.
Competition exists in the form of a nearby Tesco Express, however there is only a hairdressers and kitchen appliance shop in the immediate vicinity.
I do well on wine and beer promotions in particular. I need to be competitive on price because of the increased competition, especially from Tesco Express
When another local business – a greengrocer – closed recently, Surekha was determined not to let her customers miss out and decided to trial a range of fruit and vegetables in-store.
Another successful addition to Surekha’s offer has been a range of bedding plants, which the shop sells all year round. And, having previously offered a parcel delivery service, she is looking to restart this offer with another company.
“I offered myHermes, but the contract ended with Payzone. I got good secondary sales from the increased footfall, and I’m next to a large car park so people found that easy for parcels,” she says.
Having started life as a Spar when she first opened, Surekha moved over to Best-one five years ago. At the same time, she refurbished with new LED lighting, shelving and a fresh lick of paint. Prominent in store are the monthly cycle of promotions she accesses through her symbol group.
“I do well on wine and beer promotions in particular. I need to be competitive on price because of the increased competition, especially from Tesco Express which has had an effect, but I do need to survive too,” she says.
In a previous life, Surekha managed a Woolwich Bank branch, before it began trading under Barclays. Her business acumen has stood her in good stead, she says, always seeing the store from a business perspective.
“My background has helped me run the shop with an eye on the finance, rather than only as a shopkeeper.
“I now have a different clientele but having that business background and interacting with people has helped,” she says, adding that her husband, an engineer, also lends a hand when he can.
However, Surekha’s real strength is her connection to the residents around her, her emphasis on customer service, and how she involves her business in the heart of the community.
“I know my customers and I fundraise for the local community,” she explains. After losing a friend to cancer recently she held a coffee morning in the shop, raising around £800 for Macmillan Cancer Support charity.
“Everything from delivery to elderly customers to helping them hang their curtains is all part of the service.
“It’s all about making their lives easier and serving my community better.”
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