The death of the corner shop?

Laura Hadland

They used to be a feature on almost every residential corner—but corner shop numbers are in decline. Can the tradition be saved?

With more than 46,000 convenience stores in the UK, we could be forgiven for thinking there truly is one on every corner. However, the number of independent, unaffiliated stores has been steadily on the decline in recent years.

The growth of the corner shop was stunted by the relentless march of the Big Four supermarkets' "express" formats which swooped onto the scene from 2002 when Tesco bought the T&S group of convenience stores. Even more significantly, corner shops are starting to change hands and uses as their original owners retire.

a green corner shop in Hoxton with fruit and veg outside

Leicester is a richly diverse city, one of the first ethnic majority cities in the UK. One of the many communities that make their home there are families exiled by Idi Amin. He expelled Uganda's Asian population in 1972. It was a bewildering and tumultuous time.

Around 30,000 of these migrants found their way to the UK and one in three of those settled in Leicester. This was despite the council investing in newspaper adverts telling potential migrants to stay away. Suddenly people who didn't know the name of a single place in England had somewhere to head for. A spectacular misfire for the council.

"24 per cent of small shop owners work more than 70 hours per week"

Most of the Ugandan Asian settlers were professional people. They were forced to leave behind comfortable homes and successful businesses. When they came to Leicester they quickly began establishing new enterprises in a range of industries. Some families took up failing and empty corner shop units. They were inexpensive businesses to start from scratch.

There was no quick win—this was certainly not an easy life. Competitive advantage was clawed back from their British-run counterparts by opening for longer, or on days that were traditionally British holidays. This meant interminably long hours spent standing behind the counter. From the 5.30 am newspaper delivery to switching the lights out past 11 pm. Even today, 24 per cent of small shop owners work more than 70 hours per week according to the Association of Convenience Stores.


A new generation

Pratik and Bee Master outside their shop

Fast forward a generation and the well-educated and cosmopolitan children of these migrants are now selling the business their parents worked so hard to establish. They have no desire to work the same long hours as their parents. The profit margins are low in a sector squeezed by supermarket discounters and high customer expectations.

Running a corner shop is hard and thankless work. Many people who grew up around them aspire to leave as soon as possible, seeking careers in more lucrative sectors.

Pratik and Bee Master (photographed above) of Wigston Fields News & Deli—tucked away in a sleepy Leicester suburb—are bucking this trend. They are third generation shopkeepers who inherited the business from Pratik's father, who took semi-retirement in 2019. Behind the unassuming red brick walls, they have breathed new life into the business, bringing a dynamic twist to the corner shop model.

As well as selling sweets and newspapers, the News & Deli offers goods from more than 50 local producers. They are a showcase for the very best of Leicestershire's food and drink. Milk and eggs come in fresh from their respective farms every day or two. Each morning, Hambleton Bakery drops off an assortment of artisan goodies including sourdough loaves and cheese straws.

Nathalie Salles

French patisserie chef Nathalie Salles (photographed above) runs her business Choux'tique out of her home in Leicester city centre. She was one of the first to feature regularly at the shop's weekly producer showcases, a key opportunity to grow her business.

“Choux’tique featuring at News & Deli has been an important step to develop exposure to my products,” she says. “It is also an opportunity for local communities to support, boost and take pride in regional produce at a time when mass distribution foods come from further afield. Yes, Choux’tique is French-inspired but it is all made in Leicestershire!"

"At the beginning of COVID-19, Pratik and Bee began offering free deliveries to nearby neighbours who were unable to get out to the shops"

The shopkeepers describe themselves as "#NotJustACornerShop", and their local community wholeheartedly agrees. At the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, Pratik and Bee began offering free deliveries to nearby neighbours who were unable to get out to the shops. They also started contactless collections outside the store for people who were shielding.

While supermarkets had with row upon row of yawning empty shelves, Pratik was visiting various wholesalers up to ten times a day to ensure that his customers had everything they needed. They were making donations of toilet rolls and essential items to the Leicester South foodbank when elsewhere they were scarce.


A beacon of hope

Bethnal Green's corner store

Far from a struggling corner shop, Wigston Fields News & Deli is becoming a beacon for food lovers across the region. Pratik was named Local Food Hero by the regional Great Taste Club in their annual awards in 2019 and his customers value the personal service that News & Deli offers.

"I feel proud to continue my parents' legacy," says Pratik. "I barely set foot in the shop until my mother passed away in 2012, but then it became important for me to continue the work she loved. I am proud to take the flag from her and my dad and continue to serve my community."

"I feel proud to continue my parents' legacy"

Outwardly at least, it would seem that he is well on his way to achieving a commercial as well as community success. On the shop's popular Facebook page customers put in pre-orders for special menus of locally produced goodies and enjoy long-running jokes about Pratik's samosa consumption. Made by Leicester's Sona Foods less than four miles away from the shop, these samosas are held to be the best in the city. A lot of people are in on the joke—the tiny shop sells nearly 900 samosas a week, up from just 50 a week a year ago.

"I hope our successes will inspire others and show that shop-keeping is a viable and rewarding choice, not a dead-end job” Pratik enthuses. “We work hard, but our customers have become like family to us and so I can't imagine enjoying any other job quite as much."

This is one independent corner shop whose fortunes are on the rise.

 

Photography and words by Laura Hadland

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