Taking beer sales to another level

Onker Singh

After listening to customer demands for a wider beer and wine offering, Glasgow retailer Onker Singh’s shop has morphed from a c-store into a specialist store offering over 300 craft beers. And he has his sights set on helping other retailers grow their beer sales.

by Kevin Scott

There’s diversifying and then there’s turning a standard convenience store into something else entirely. It’s not something SLR sees very often, but when we do, we get excited. Such was the case with Onker’s Singh’s store in the southside of Glasgow.

Maxwell’s has a range of over 300 craft beers, including four on draught. Along with that are a similar number of wines ranging from £5 to £40. To complement this there’s a fine range of malts, and around a dozen gins – many of them Scottish.

Of course having a store which has dedicated around 75% of its space to niche alcohol products isn’t for every retailer, but for anyone looking to expand their wine range, or break into the growing craft beer market, Onker’s advice is well worth heeding.

“You have to know your customers first and foremost,” he says. “You have to listen to them. My customers give me my best ideas – it saves me having to think of them.”

He laughs, but the message rings true. Five years ago Onker was working in recruitment and when the recession bit, he decided a new direction was required. As it happened a store formerly occupied by Threshers in the affluent Pollokshields area of the city was available and after consulting with his brother-in-law – himself a Costcutter retailer – Onker signed up to take over the lease.

“From day one it was about the customers,” he says. “I didn’t join a fascia, I asked them what they wanted.”

What they wanted, it seemed, was more wine and beer and so over the past five years Maxwell’s has evolved into more of an off-licence with a convenience offering.

“Retailers have to look at what they can provide. Think what you’d want from a shopping experience. If I go into a shop and I’m forced to buy something that’s not quite what I wanted then I leave dissatisfied and I’m less likely to go back.”

In that time Onker has gone from working with a couple of small distributors as well as United Wholesale (Scotland) – which continues to supply grocery – to having a wide network of distributors.

“It’s all been organic growth, one bit at a time. You can still come in and buy what you need from newspapers, to sweets, bread, milk, teabags. But you couldn’t do a weekly shop, that’s not what we’re about. That’s not what our customers wanted from us.”

That philosophy is practiced day in and day out. “I still ask for feedback. I ask customers, do I have what you want? Supermarkets don’t do that. They’re not personable; they just sell stuff. I like to ask where I can make improvements.”

Little extrasFreezer stocked with Porelli's ice cream

When Maxwell’s decided to improve its ice cream offering to try and drive additional sales, it wasn’t simply a case of stocking up the freezer. Instead the store did a deal with local supplier Porelli’s to stock a huge range of flavours, which are available in cones or tubs.

“If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it properly,” says Onker. “It was my wife’s idea. We get a lot of couples shopping together for beer and wine, so we thought we could increase their spend with complementary items, so we’ve got the ice cream and a range of premium cheeses.”

And it’s worked – both the ice cream and cheese do a roaring trade, particularly at weekends when couples are more like to indulge a little.

This ethos is very much in line with local retailing. It’s obvious really. Give the customer what they want or they’ll go elsewhere. It helps when you begin to take a real personal interest in your area of speciality, as Onker has done.

“I read a lot about beer and wine. I can tell the difference between one wine and the next by taste. I couldn’t do that when we opened,” he says. “That helps when a customer wants a recommendation or I’m holding a tasting session.”

Tasting sessions take place every Friday evening, and whether it is beer or wine, they’re promoted on the store’s Facebook page.

“We try to spread the word on Facebook,” he explains. “It helps make people aware of us – we get customers coming from Newton Mearns and as far away as Kilmarnock. I know of people who’ll drive past Majestic to come to us.”

It’s that sort of demand that has convinced Onker to open a second shop. “I’ve started looking. It will be the same concept, a focus on craft beers and good wine, along with a convenience offering, but I know there are only so many places that will work, so I have to secure the right location.”

Another aspect of Onker’s future plans that is intriguing is to supply other convenience stores. His plan is to supply on a sale or return basis, much in the way that local butchers or bakers do in store. They take over a shelf, stock it with what they choose, and take a cut of the retailer’s profits.

“I’ve started speaking to a couple of retailers. They could give me a shelf, I’d stock it and manage that for them. There’s a lot to learn with craft beer, trends move quickly.”

There’s a lot of outlay too. As we’ve discovered at Woodlands Local, it can cost around £500 in stock to put a decent selection in. For stores not keen on investing that much, Onker’s proposal certainly has merit.

Ecommerce is another area he is keen to move into. “I’ve worked hard to build up a network of European suppliers and there’s a lot more I want to do with that.”

By creating a store with a difference, Onker has given himself the opportunity to develop his business in new areas. That’s what diversification can provide, and in an era when competition is tougher than ever, having that point of difference makes all the difference.

Feeling the draughtBeer pump

One of the stand-out features at Maxwell’s is four founts on the tillpoint next to the chewing gum display. Identical to those you’d find in a pub, Onker offers draught beer in one-litre bottles, which can be ‘rented’ for a £2.50 deposit. At around £5 for a litre with a good margin, it’s been a winning experiment for the retailer.

“A customer asked me if it was something I could do as he’d seen it at Wholefoods. I contacted West in Glasgow to see if they’d be willing to supply me, and the experiment started there,” he says.

Currently there are beers from West, Brewdog and Williams Bros. To buy the beer you simply pay your deposit for the glass along with your beer of choice, then wash it when it’s emptied and return the glass for a refill or refund.

“People maybe want a pint but either don’t want to go to a busy pub or have a young family so can’t. This gives them the chance to sit down at home with a proper pint. It’s worked really well for us.”