New directions: Harry Singh, Londis of Carstairs Junction

After finishing school aged 18, Harry Singh stepped into the back of his family’s Carstairs Junction store to pore over sales data. Now he’s at the helm of a tightly-run ship.

How did you get started in retailing?

I was born into it, pretty much. When I was four years old we moved up here from England, and my mum and dad took the shop on blindly. They didn’t know how to use the till, my mum didn’t even have experience with the Post Office. It was a complete gamble. Through my school years I was in and out the shop anyway, left school at 18 and then just took the shop more seriously and evolved the business that way. I’d say I had to build my trust up first. It’s not like I left school and it was, “Harry here you go”, it was more like “What can you do Harry?”, with a question mark on my name. I think my mum and dad saw that I was serious about it.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far?

One of the biggest was when we lost three streets of former council housing in the village. It was like, “are we going to be able to survive where we are?” We’ve never gained those houses back. We got a new school built, which is fine, the train station has been developed a little bit, but I had to overcome that and realised I had to try and catch a bigger audience. That’s where Facebook comes in. If you don’t have Facebook you’re missing out. I wouldn’t say Facebook was the sole reason we survived, we just had to adapt and to realise we couldn’t just sell x amount of bread every week and survive.

What technological tools do you find useful in your business?

I started the Facebook group page about one year ago, and recently we’ve been pushing Slimming World with everyone trying to get healthy at the start of the year. Everybody kept talking about Slimming World and talking about ‘syns’. So we made our own point of sale listing how many syns are in this or how many in that. We’re actually making it easier for people to find out for themselves and, because I was using Facebook, I was able to do preorders.

We’re here in Carstairs Junction and I was getting people from Biggar, which is 11 miles away. I had women come from Wishaw and Lanark. Since we’ve started using Facebook our customer base has changed. I know I’ve lost a lot of houses here, so because of that I had to push to see where I can get extra custom from.

If you’re just sitting in the house, you’re on Facebook and you see me put something on, it’s a wee bit enticing. Today we just got a delivery in from Asia tandoori, that’s a local takeaway in Newmains and we get a lot of products in. We do preorders with pizzas, calzones, curries, same with the local butcher, James Chapman from Wishaw.

Which categories do you find offer the most opportunity?

Chilled food and food to go. Food to go I do small, I don’t do a big selection, but the future is in food to go and chilled food.  I do get small passing trade, so we do filled rolls with sausage and rolls and bacon. We do pasties, steak bakes, chicken tikkas, cheese and hams, we can sell about 12-15 a day in total. We have a cut off point, the last bake of the day will be at 12 o’clock, once it’s finished that’s it done.

Nothing wasted: Harry Singh is committed to ensuring every square foot of his store can generate sales.

I don’t get the passing trade but I do offer things to people. There’s a primary school next door and some of the teachers will come in for a sandwich or they might get something warm, and juice or whatever. Chilled is always going to grow. If I could get a bigger chiller I would, I’m thinking about condensing a section down to accommodate more chilled food.

What effect do you think the introduction of plain packs and the loss of smaller pack tobacco will have?

I don’t think people are going to be able to afford 20 cigarettes. If they can afford 20 cigarettes we’re not going to have customers coming back as often. So that’s going to be a bit of an issue, but that’s going to be up to me as the retailer to entice people to keep coming in as often.

Cigarettes isn’t going to do it. I don’t rely on cigarettes to drive footfall because you can’t advertise cigarette on any Facebook stuff. I’m always advertising stuff. The small newsagent guys, they’re going to get hammered.

What’s your opinion of AG Barr reformulating Irn-Bru?

They’ve been a bit slow haven’t they? Everyone else has already been doing it. I think they’ve left it late. Everyone loves Irn-Bru, everyone in Scotland loves Irn-Bru. Irn-Bru Xtra was a flop for us, it was a complete disaster.

I hope that’s not the taste it’s going to be with the new Irn-Bru. What they should do is bring back Irn-Bru 32, that was nice. Bring back the Irn-Bru chew bars and stuff like that, get back to your roots. Get the weird stuff out again.
How do you feel about the Tesco/Booker merger?

I’m genuinely excited. The reason I’m excited is because of the range of products and chilled that’s going to come. We’ll be able to compete better with the big stores. We could have so much more, in fact, it could actually simplify life for me. Instead of me trying to get my butcher to give me decent mince and get pork chops and get this and that I’ll be able to just buy that from Londis, which would actually simplify my life.

What are your thoughts on a proposed bottle deposit return scheme for Scotland?

I’d like to know how they’re going to enforce it and how they can monitor it. If push came to shove I would do it but only if everyone had to do it.