The day of my visit to meet Paul Gardner is during the lull between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. With so many people away from the capital during the break, business is quiet and Paul is busy planning his promotions to get sales off to a cracking start in 2013.

“We just had a very good Christmas – our sales were the same level as last year’s,” he says.

This may sound modest, but in context it is impressive. In 2011 the store had a brilliant Christmas and this year the shop had to compete with a new Waitrose just around the corner, so to hold its ground against last year’s figures is significant.

Paul learned the trade at his father’s award-winning newsagents in Walthamstow, east London, after leaving school at 18. He joined the Met and enjoyed a nine-year career as a Bobby before returning to the retail industry – this time teaming up with Budgens to take over this store at bustling, cosmopolitan Highbury Corner in Islington.

“It was a steep learning curve coming back to retail because so much had changed with health and safety and food hygiene rules, plus this is a much busier store than what I was used to before,” he says.

But after getting to grips with the challenges he is now enjoying life as a retailer, along with his business partner Andrew Nash.

As well as selling interesting Budgens products such as ‘purple potatoes’, Paul takes great pleasure in seeking out small suppliers who can offer him something out of the ordinary – such as meats like pheasant, rabbit and partridge. The store recently became the first shop in Britain to sell a fruit known as ‘citrus caviar’.

“I’m not going to make a fortune out of selling purple potatoes,” he says.

“But what these kinds of products do is get people to browse the shop. It stops shoppers coming in, grabbing their paper and walking straight out the door.”

Next to the fresh pastries stand is a Costa coffee machine. Since Starbucks hit the newspaper headlines at the end of 2012 over its miserly UK tax contributions, Paul has seen his coffee sales jump from 18-20 cups a day to 30-35 and it’s too much of a rise to be simply a coincidence, he says.

He is always thinking how to improve the shop and is now considering opening a delicatessen counter. His high-end premium cheese from Paxton & Whitfield was selling very slowly when it was displayed with the rest of the cheese lines, but since exhibiting it in its own open-topped ‘spider fridge’ sales have gone “through the roof”. He says this is a sign that there is a market for high end, high margin goods with their own counter.

Alcohol and tobacco account for just 17 per cent of the store’s turnover, with fresh food the key category, accounting for 35 per cent. Attention-grabbing, ‘rustic’ floor and shelf displays are clearly a very important way of driving this part of the business and getting customers to shop the fresh foods. But equally important is to shout about the good value on offer. In every corner of the shop there are dozens of shelf barkers advertising special offers and deals at £2 or £1.

“The £1 price point – they love it,” he says.

With so many competitors in this corner of London it is really important that the shop keeps the feel of a community grocer. They have a charity token scheme where shoppers who bring their own bags can pick one of three local charities to support – Disability Action in Islington, a Christmas crisis fund, and the Almeida Theatre fund for children. It is similar to the scheme in Waitrose supermarkets but Paul quickly points out that he started doing this well before the multiple.

Another big change since he took over the shop in 2008 was to employ people who come from Islington rather than students – a big advantage because they have friends and families who live nearby.

He says: “Holding onto our staff gives us a community feel. Our staff know the customers and they know their neighbours.”
SHOP AT A GLANCE

  • NAME: Budgens of Islington
  • LOCATION: Islington, North London
  • SIZE: 5,500sq ft
  • OPEN: 7am – 11pm, Mon to Sat; 12 – 6pm, Sun
  • Staff: 50
  • Date trading began: March 2008

PAULS TOP TIPS

  1. Have a bright, clean store. You want people to buy their food here.
  2. Have very good, friendly staff who can chat to the customers
  3. Have a point of difference to the multiples – offer something no-one else does