Over the past 25 years Paul and Karen Stephenson have built a convenience store empire across the north west. Yet it’s their first store, in Barrow-in-Furness, which remains their “baby”.

Specialist alcohol is a category often associated with major cities like London and Manchester, but husband and wife team Paul and Karen Stephenson are proving it can be profitable even in a tucked-away coastal town such as Barrow-in-Furness. 

The couple now own and run 16 stores around the north west with a combined turnover of £20m, but Barrow, and its Bargain Booze store, is where the couple’s retailing lives began a quarter of a century ago.

Keeping the 560sq ft store profitable and ahead of the curve is therefore of particular importance  – especially with the threat of a Co-op and Post Office nearby. 

This challenge led Paul and Karen to visit a gin trade conference 18 months ago to see if the much-discussed craft spirits market could be a winner for them. 

“After the conference we had the idea of really concentrating on niche alcohol. The suppliers there suggested we try stocking more specialist drinks because it’s a growing trend,” says Paul.

“There was a bit of reluctance at first because the majority of customers we get are from working-class families and we weren’t sure they would be convinced to buy anything other than the standard core products, which tend to be more affordable.”

Nonetheless, they gave it a try and brought brands such as Edinburgh Gin, Bathtub Gin, BrewDog craft beer and a number of successful locally-sourced products such as Kin Vodka onto their shelves. 

Creating the demand for specialist alcohol didn’t come easily, however. The difficulty for the Stephensons lay in trying to persuade shoppers on low-incomes to trade up to alcohol costing at least £40 and they had to go beyond simply being knowledgeable about the niche products they sold. 

“The trick has been how Paul and I communicate with our customers,” says Karen. “These drinks are never going to be big volume products. It’s important to know about them, where they come from and how they differ from the other brands on the shelf, but this alone doesn’t help drive sales. Shoppers aren’t going to trade up because of how we describe a product.

“Paul and I, along with our six employees, are local and we know a lot about our shoppers because we chat to them on a regular basis." 

"We know what their own individual tastes are and we’ll push them towards a product which matches their own preferences for a particular product or style. It means we’re more than just experts because shoppers knows we listen and look out for them individually.”

By following this strategy, success came quickly. Within months, specialist alcohol was contributing an average £3,000 towards a weekly turnover of more than £30,000 overall. 

And this wider success meant Paul and Karen were more than happy to invest in the store as a whole. A £60,000 refit in September has helped update the 25-year-old store while the couple are now perfecting their next niche category: vaping

 “We have over 100 different flavours of e-liquids and we also sell the machines for them as well. Margins are good at 35% and having expertise here helps again."

"It’s a difficult area to grasp and knowing your products really helps, whether that’s through staff who have tried the products themselves or speaking to the supplier.” 

The successful experiment with these two growing categories is now being gradually rolled out across the couple’s other 16 stores.

But when it comes to finding the best opportunities and exciting innovations the shoppers of Barrow shouldn’t be surprised if it’s their local store which gets the updates first. 

“The store in Barrow is our baby and all the success we’ve had since entering retail shows we made the right decision when we opened the doors on this store all those years ago.”

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