When she took over her dad’s business full time in March this year, Harsha Raja decided that a full re-fit was called for.
Located in bustling and quirky Exmouth Market, close to the heart of central London, City News now looks the part and gives convenience shoppers somewhere to pick up their cigarettes and a snack on their way to or from one of the trendy food stalls or bars on the street.
After learning the ropes of retailing over the last 10 years, Harsha is looking to make her shop a bigger part of the community and also to increase sales. She says her dad Vijay, who still works at the shop, is her inspiration, but that he is also “silently impressed” by the changes she has already made in the two months since she took over.
“There is a very diverse community in this area and I want to provide what the people need,” she says.
“I want to reach out and say to people ‘We are here and we can do what you want us to do’.”
Her customers include a lot of office workers from the nearby area, including the large Post Office building across the road. She also caters for a lot of local residents, some of whom are fairly wealthy while some do not have much money to spend. The biggest selling categories in City News are confectionery, tobacco and greeting cards.
“We used to have a 99p card range but for this area people expect a certain quality,” she says.
“It’s a really good offer – we sell these cards at £1.99, when someone would pay £3 for them in WHSmith. We just have one price for the cards now. That way it’s simple – what you see is what you get.”
Although she sells papers and magazines, she says the category is not what it used to be and the challenge now is finding a way to grow the business in other areas. She says that e-cigarettes are picking up in popularity and she has also introduced a stationery range.
It is early days in her tenure but she already has plans to double up the size of the chilled food section with more packaged sandwiches and introduce a meal deal, potentially with a coffee offer. She is also looking at introducing a poundline range to compete against the discounters.
However, she does have some frustrations with the business – for example she would like a National Lottery terminal but has so far not been lucky. Many of her customers from the Post Office building tell her they don’t like having to walk all the way down Exmouth Market to get to a shop that sells tickets.
“There is a big demand for lottery tickets here but it is a challenge for us to get a Lottery machine. I want to work with Camelot and help them make more money for the great causes they support.”
Plus there are the other administrative headaches that come with taking over any business. In April, Npower charged her a £913 electricity bill that covered a six week period. She is still in dispute with the supplier and feels that small businesses should be given more protection against “unfair” energy prices.
Looking to the future, she feels the best chance she has of pinching custom from the multiples’ c-stores is by being a part of the community. Whenever charities, churches or local groups want to advertise in her shop she lets them put a notice up free of charge. In her second shop, based in East Finchley, she stocks prospectuses for a local centre that runs language courses and other classes.
She says: “I want to support people who are trying to do something good, and I want the community to be a part of our business.”