New York is supposed to be the city that never sleeps, but here in east London the Mare Street Service Station is there for the people of Hackney 24 hours a day.
The shop opened under the Mace fascia one year ago, but the Nanthabalan family has had a shop on the site for more than 20 years. When store manager Thayalan’s father Balasingam first set up shop, having someone working on the premises at all hours was a way of providing cheap night time security.
But now it is a source of turnover on Friday and Saturday nights, and a way of competing with the nearby shops and services that operate through the small hours. There is a great sense of hustle and bustle here. In neighbouring Dalston the Turkish community has an extremely strong work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit. It must be one of the only places outside central London where it is possible to visit a 24-hour restaurant.
“If you want, you can even find a 24-hour hairdresser,” says Thayalan. “There are ‘24-hour people’ here who are prepared to work extremely hard at their business and we have to be on our game.”
As well as staying open day and night, the Mare Street Service Station also has a 24-hour alcohol licence, which brings in plenty of thirsty customers at weekends. “The downside of a 24-hour shop is that you are always on call and if there’s a problem, you need to be there,” he says.
“But it does have rewards. I can plan my work and my free time flexibly because I’m not restricted by set hours.”
The shop has been “super lucky” with its location, he says. There used to be dozens of forecourts in Hackney, but now there are just four left. Most of their immediate rivals have sold their land for development.
Many of his customers are drivers passing through – today this is the first filling station anyone entering London via the A12 will see. These shoppers buy all the usual things you might expect besides fuel, such as snacks, crisps and soft drinks.
But lots of his visitors are locals. While Hackney has latterly had an influx of Boho-types with some disposable income, most people living near to Thayalan’s shop are on low incomes.
To appeal to these folk he has created a pound zone, and he wants to expand it very soon. The margins are not as strong as in other areas of the store, but it captures a certain type of customer who likes to shop exclusively at the £1 price point.
And price-marked packs are something he has increasingly brought in to show people that the business is trading in the real world and understands people’s cash is squeezed.
“People see the price-mark and think ‘Coke aren’t going to rip me off, so it must be a good deal’.”
But apart from these concessions, the shop is on the pricey side. There are lots of world food stores in the neighbourhood, most of which sell alcohol at much lower prices than Thayalan’s Mace. But it doesn’t matter. Since he began working in retail, he has realised there is more to the business than offering cheap prices.
“I really thought that’s all people were looking for at first, but it’s not. Some of the neighbouring world food supermarkets are dirty and dark. They do okay but could do much better.”
And convenience is worth a lot. Crisps and snacks are key, but so are essentials. People who need to nip out to buy a loo roll could probably save 30p if they walked a mile to the supermarket and queued up to pay for it. But the truth is most cannot be bothered.
In the future Thayalan would like to support the community more – perhaps by sponsoring a football team. And when the old shop building is demolished, it could pave the way for up to eight parking spaces – something that will give him another trading advantage in the neighbourhood that never sleeps.
SHOP AT A GLANCE
- Mare Street Service Station
- Hackney, East London
- Trading since Feb 2012
- Staff: 10
- Size: 1,700 sq ft
THAYALN’S TOP TIPS:
- Present yourself well – Make sure your shop is nice and clean
- Provide good service – people come to the shop because of it
- Get your core range right – Stock a good range of the leading brands