“I love my store to bits,” says Robert Kirkwood, in what has become a mantra spoken at the beginning and end of any conversation about his business and the big leap of faith he made in late 2016.
Robert was working for Mondelez at the end of an 18-year career in sales when his mother’s death convinced him to follow his heart and open his own business. “I was always visiting stores as part of my job and loved it. It was so exciting – I got a real buzz from the selling, deals and new products,” he says.
Finding a store to take over was the first real challenge this aspiring retailer faced, but his way of ensuring he had found the right site provided a promising omen.
“I had been in contact with a retailer I knew from my job who had a number of stores and asked if he would sell one of them to me. He wasn’t ready to sell any of his businesses but said ‘I do have this empty unit’.”
Robert had initially been wary of taking on the risk of what he called an “empty shell” with no stock, goodwill or customers. To make certain he was making the right step, he parked his van opposite the ‘shell’, in Crossgates near Cowdenbeath, and began – over many hours and days – to watch and understand the potential footfall passing by.
“I became convinced there was an opportunity to open a business,” he says.
With the landlord on side, Robert went about transforming this 470sq ft site into Premier Express Corner Shop, bringing in low-energy lighting and refrigeration and a more extensive range than you might think possible in such a small shop.
Immediately, his experience began to pay dividends. “I understand the deals and their role in the store. My experience also helped me understand how important it is to pass those savings on. Yes, you take a hit, but I’m here for the long-term.”
Not only did Robert know pricing would be vital for securing repeat customers, he knew he needed to get the right range too. Such was the demand for a convenience store in the area, however, that his small store soon began to fill up.
“The shelves have got higher and higher as the months have gone on, to the point where I don’t think they can go any further,” he says.
It has led to Robert needing to show his ruthless side. While beers, wines and soft drinks have been rewarded with strong sales, a number of grocery items and home-baking products have been cut right back.
Still, what Robert has achieved is remarkable. Think of the elements you might find in a 3,000sq ft ‘progressive’ convenience store – a meal for tonight range, meal deals, coffee to go, fresh fruit and vegetables, an extensive range of local produce, an ATM, even a bespoke craft beer “cave”. You will find them all in this store.
Robert even has plans for a food to go offer, working with Country Choice to get a unit that will fit the available space. “Lunch is the big opportunity – we have a lot of workmen locally,” he says.
It is little wonder hungry workmen offer an opportunity – Crossgates is a growing community, with 135 new homes planned.
And as the area changes, Robert is putting himself at the heart of it, sponsoring the local junior football team, providing refreshments to the “Green Fingers” club and raising more than £400 for a terminally ill lady with a raffle.
It is an amazing amount to have achieved in his first 18 months in retail, with a wholly-new store and – with a Costcutter three times his site’s size about to arrive across the road – it is not a journey that looks likely to get any easier.
So has his passion for the trade dimmed at all? “On no, I just love my store to bits,” he says once more.
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