DIFFERENT IN MY DAY
A father and son talk about how the business of running a corner shop has changed over the last two decades…
“EXPECT TO START WORK EARLY AND FINISH LATE – SEVEN DAYS A WEEK”
Jayendra Master, 66, and his late wife, Ranjna, opened Masters General Store in Wigston, Leicester, in 2002. Their only child, Pratik, is 34 and married to Bee, 32
“I was 48 when Ranjna and I took on the shop. I’d been working in one of Dunlop’s warehouses for 23 years when changes in the company meant I had to choose between commuting much further to new premises, or taking redundancy. We decided we could use the lump sum to invest in a business, and Ranjna and Pratik, who was then 16, started looking at local stores coming on to the market while I finished up at Dunlop.
This one, in Wigston, was the third shop they’d seen, and they’d already fallen in love with it when they showed it to me. It was going to be different from anything we’d done before, but I wasn’t fazed. I could see that the business would use many of the organisational skills – ordering, checking in deliveries and so on – that I’d honed as a warehouse operative.
I took a shop-owner friend along for a second opinion, and his instant response was, ‘What are you waiting for?’ He did warn me, though, ‘Be prepared to start at 5am every day. You’ll be working long hours – and opening seven days a week.’ But I was used to early starts at Dunlop, and I’ve never been afraid of hard work.
Relatives who also owned shops talked Ranjna and me through the day-to-day logistics of running a store, and showed us what to buy from the wholesalers. We stuck with the sale-or-return basics that were the mainstays of the business when we took over – newspapers, tobacco, sweets and cheap toys. It was a classic newspaper shop, and we kept it as the previous owners had. Papers and magazines were our biggest sellers. Our customers were the same locals who had been coming to the store to buy their papers, cigarettes and chocolate for years.
We didn’t employ any extra staff, so that saved on wage bills. Instead, we put in all the hours ourselves, opening at 6am and closing at 6pm, seven days a week. Ranjna had a bit more imagination than I did when it came to exploring new products, and I was the one who kept on top of all the paperwork, so we worked well as a team. We loved our new way of life so much that when eight years ago our landlord decided to tear down the parade of shops we were part of, we remained open for business as usual while demolition work went on, eventually leaving us with detached premises.
The work had only just finished, and things were just getting back to normal, when Ranjna tragically passed away. I was grieving and found it hard to maintain my enthusiasm for the shop without her. It had always been a two-person job and Pratik, then 26, came to help me because he could see it was more than I could manage on my own. But even though my heart was no longer really in it, I resisted his offers to take over the business and let me retire. I wanted him to choose his own career path – not to feel that it had been chosen for him.
He’d always been interested in food, and I knew he’d dreamt of opening a restaurant – so that’s what I urged him to do. But fast-forward five years to 2019 and the shop – which had been booming, even when other newsagents were on the decline – was now struggling. Customers’ habits had changed. The market for newspapers, tobacco and sweets had shrunk and I was faced with a dilemma. I couldn’t think of a way to revive the business – but it wasn’t in a fit state to sell on to someone else.
This time, when Pratik said he still wanted to have a chance at bringing the shop back to life, I agreed. I still have a hand in the business. Bee’s father and I help out behind the scenes with paperwork and accounting, which enables Pratik and Bee to focus on their suppliers and customers. I couldn’t be more delighted at how the shop is turning out for them. I’m so proud of what they’re doing, and I know Ranjna would be too.
Pratik Master, 34, is married to Bee, 32. They have been running their shop since March 2019
“I WANT TO GIVE PEOPLE A REASON TO COME IN AND SEE WHAT WE’RE SELLING”
Despite being pivotal in helping Mum and Dad to find this store, I barely set foot in it until after Mum passed away. It was always very much their business. In fact, the closest I got to working in it was delivering papers for a few months after I’d graduated from the London School of Economics. I then went off to work in Cambridge for a publisher of School Yearbooks. But, after Mum died, I wanted to help Dad all I could. He didn’t want me to feel pressured into taking over the business, but for his own sanity I knew he needed time off to enjoy hobbies such as antiquing and gardening.
He wanted me to have a career I’d love, and helped me with the business side of setting up my restaurant. And it was through the restaurant that I discovered how much I loved sourcing new foods and meeting local producers. I had a packed contact book for suppliers to bring in when I finally persuaded Dad to let me take over the shop – and I could see that it was no longer enough just to sell newspapers, tobacco and sweets. Customers’ habits have changed a lot in the last few years.
We changed the shop’s name to Wigston Fields News & Deli: Not Just a Corner Shop. We’re there from 6am, and we are now open from 9am to 4pm Monday to Saturday, and 9am to 2pm on Sundays. It is still primarily a newspaper shop. And our biggest wholesale bill each week is for papers and magazines. All the papers are still there, so we’ve kept the same regular customers, but papers no longer occupy the huge expanse of space they did in Dad’s day. We have given some of that space over to showcasing the fantastic food and drink producers I discovered through the restaurant, and who now rent space in the store.
I’ve never understood the mentality of general stores that try to survive by selling exactly the same products and brands that customers can find cheaper in a supermarket. Instead, I want to give people a reason to come in and see what we’re selling, even if they don’t buy anything. We have 52 local suppliers, offering – among other things – locally made cakes, Scotch eggs, sauces, pickles, beer, wine and gin, and our sales of local eggs, bread, milk and samosas are close to rivalling our newspaper sales. Now, as well as the regular newspaper and tobacco customers, we have foodies who travel miles to buy something special from us.
We’ve introduced refill lines, meaning that people can buy various dried goods by the weight, without all the unnecessary packaging. We were able to maintain supplies through the COVID-19 crisis, when people were stockpiling and other shops were running out. Every week, we buy a 50kg bakery-size sack of flour directly from a local miller, then bag it up in portions of 500g that are perfect for home bakers. Doing this meant that even when our sales of flour quadrupled during the pandemic, we kept up with the demand. Yeast was also in short supply, but while some stores reacted by doubling the price of it, we have literally given it away! We wanted to help people to cope with the crisis, not make life even harder for them.
We did the same with toilet roll – giving it away to the elderly and vulnerable when it was in short supply elsewhere. And we didn’t just clap and cheer for NHS staff and care workers; we gave them gifts of groceries to show our respect and gratitude. My motto in life is, ‘You have to be the one to make the change that you want to see in the world.’ And my raison d’être is not to make a huge profit, it is to do the right thing. To me, that means two things: helping small local producers to flourish; and valuing our customers and giving them a shopping experience that they’ll love.
Ranjna Master at the shop in 2003
Both Jayendra and Pratik believe Ranjna would be proud of what they’ve achieved today.
As told to Karen Evernnett.
Photos by Fabio De Paola