One tiny convenience store in north London is putting up a spirited fight in the face of competition from a new supermarket next door, but are the days of the corner shop numbered?
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online
A shiny 4X4 pulls up and parks outside the Belmont Mini Market in Chalk Farm, north London. The driver is clearly in a rush and wants a bag of groceries, so he makes a beeline for the entrance of... the neighbouring Sainsbury Local, one of a new breed of micro supermarkets springing up in many towns.
And who could really blame the man? Once he is through the automatic sliding doors, he has the choice of thousands of products. Bread warm from the oven, fresh meat, chilled booze, acres of chocolate, shiny vegetables and gourmet cookies of the kind exulted in Jamie Oliver TV adverts.
He will doubtless emerge from the air-conditioned, brightly-lit store with a snazzy carrier bag full of goodies, which - if they were in stock at all - would probably have cost him significantly more in the dingy Belmont Mini Market.
When the chain store opened up next door earlier this summer, Belmont's Sri Lankan staff thought the 15-hour days they put in at their tiny shop were drawing to an end.
Nescafe coffee 200g: Belmont £2.99, Sainsbury Local £1.75
Heinz Tomato Soup: Belmont 69p, Sainsbury Local 56p
These fears seemed justified when business took a downturn, according to owner Marathas "Dani" Suthakaran.
Fortunately for the Belmont, it found a champion in another neighbouring business - Karmarama, the advertising agency employed by the furniture giant Ikea.
"We've always gone to them to buy our milk," says Karmarama's Dan Norris. "For all the shop's faults, they're nice blokes and we wanted to help them."
Promoting Belmont Mini Market is a task few ad execs would willingly take on, particularly considering they have to finance the campaign out of the firm's own budget.
Mr Suthakaran cannot compete with the mini Sainsbury's store on price, choice or ambience and he opens no later, so Karmarama opted to simply plead with locals to go out of their way to shop at the convenience store.
Making a virtue of Belmont's shortcomings for comic effect and pathos, Karmarama leafleted and flypostered the area with ads admitting that Sainsbury doesn't run out of milk and has sliding doors, but "please do not be forgetting" the Belmont.
Mr Norris - who admits that he and his co-worker buy their lunch at the new Sainsbury - says that the campaign seems to have done the trick. Sales at the Belmont have improved, even beating the pre-Sainsbury days, perhaps because the shop has achieved a local "cult status" as a brave David fighting off a corporate Goliath.
Howard Robin, deputy editor of Asian Trade Publications, doubts this trick would work for corner shop storekeepers in less trendy areas. "That's not a typical area, since the people are more liberal-minded and conscious of globalisation than they are elsewhere."
And it is not just in north London where small independent shops are facing new competition from the major food retailers. Micro supermarkets, such as Sainsbury Local and Tesco Express, are spreading aggressively as market saturation and planning restrictions make building big stores less attractive.
So what if they run out of milk?
There are already more than 50 small Sainsbury outlets and 100-plus Tescos micro stores. Both retailers are also trying to buy up minor High Street chains to use their premises and have struck deals with petrol stations to open forecourt shops.
Convenience store owners once feared that out-of-town supermarkets would bleed them dry by luring shoppers away from town centres.
"These shop keepers realised they could not compete with the supermarkets, but they could complement them by catering to customers who needed to pop in and top up on groceries between visits to a supermarket," says Mr Robin.
Having adapted to the out-of-town threat, Mr Robin now says independent corner shops are terrified of the in-town micro supermarkets on their doorsteps.
"This has struck fear into the whole sector - even High Street chains - since no one has the buying power to face down the supermarkets."
You guessed it. Yes, we have no bananas
So far this new threat seems to have encouraged independent shops to seek safety in numbers, by joining "symbol groups" such as Spar, Costcutter and Londis. These groups offer storekeepers - for a fee - a makeover, marketing advice and the chance to buy stock at discounted prices.
Under such schemes, your local corner shop might look like it has been taken over by a national chain, but it is in fact still operating under its original owner (although with, perhaps, a better chance of survival).
The battle between the corner shop and the micro supermarket is not just a question of business, but also of race. In London and other cities, Asian traders own the majority of corner shops.
This sector of retail often attracted immigrants because it offered the chance for newcomers to open work for themselves and avoid the discrimination found in other areas of employment.
But a 1999 survey of Asian shop owners found that almost half were pessimistic about the future - particularly blaming the supermarkets for their woes - while 94% did not want their children to enter the business.
Will individualism survive?
So is this the end of the traditional corner shop?
"That's a cliché that comes up again and again," says Mr Robin.
"There are newer immigrant groups coming through willing to work the long hours, and British-born Asians who want to run shops, just not pokey old-fashioned ones. It's not even certain yet that the supermarkets will make money in the High Street. I think individualism will find a way to survive."
Some of your comments so far:
Sainsbury's Local might look like it has more choice, but that is an illusion. There is a larger range of many products at my tiny Turkish local. Fresh fruit and exotic vegetables, 6 types of honey, 20 types of cereal, 30 different cleaning products and they've never run out of milk! If people want to buy in to a monopoly, that is up to them, but personally I get a better result shopping with the independents.
Jon Anderson, London, UK
At last, some real competition for the corner convenience store. Maybe now we'll see the end of rip-off prices, surly service, poor choice and unhelpful staff. The mini-supermarket can't come quickly enough to my neighbourhood. If it means the corner store closes down, good riddance!
Alan Brooke, UK
Local corner shops are all very well, but when your local shops are in the city centre, as they are for many Cambridge college residents, the only ones that can afford the rent are big chains. Unfortunately, since our "plain old Sainsbury's" became a "Sainsbury's Central" we get a prettier store in return for a smaller range of stock (particularly at the low cost end of the price range) and fewer special offers.
Nicola Kerrison, UK
I was over the moon when Tesco Express opened up round the corner from me. Every day I walk past the old Spar on my way to Tesco. I love the fact that they have sliding doors.
KP, Reading, UK
Don't forget that Sainsbury's started off as a corner shop, and due to their success they have ballooned into the giants they are. They are just returning to their origins as planners stifle their expansion.
Our local corner shop in Birstall, Leicester is run by the most delightful, friendly and helpful Asian couple you could imagine. It is a pleasure just to go in there and say hello.
Joe Wollaston, Leicester, UK
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