Ancoats General Store, Manchester

Ancoats General Store is described as being “no ordinary corner shop”. People can buy everyday and more specialist grocery products but they can also sit in, drink coffee and play board games. Sonya Hook talks to Mital Morar:

How did you get started?

It is a new store and I started it from scratch with a vision of what I wanted to do. I had a very deliberate reason for creating it this way, and I have been lucky to have had help via a government initiative aimed at kickstarting communities, which fitted well with my vision.

I previously operated three stores and two restaurants, which I sold in order to create this store, and I now have four stores again.

It’s been a journey of growth in retail. I wanted to twist up what retail is all about.

I have a big interest in hospitality and a huge love of food and drink and I think retail has suffered in this area. There are some retailers that focus on the premium end and the luxury shopping experience, but a lot of people can’t access them apart from in a bar environment, and even then premium bars are of a certain type. I have an interest in alcohol and best serves and over the years I have noticed all of these trends happening. We used to have a store in Manchester that had premium alcohol and a restaurant, and it worked very well.

What is the competition like?

We have an Aldi 100m down the road but we don’t think about our competitors. We have an agenda and vision and we ensure we offer people a balance of necessity and luxury. Most stores offer one or the other, but people want a bit of this and that nowadays, not just one thing.

We see all ages and types of people coming in and all generations are exploring these new things that are coming out. They all enjoy seeking that sense of community, especially where high streets in the UK are becoming increasingly bleak places.

How does the shop differ from other convenience stores?

With Ancoats we had the space to do a bit of coffee and we have a bar on the side as well and takeaway food options. We run sampling events do- ing best serves and not talking down to people is our approach.

We offer a really good retail price and it has done us well. You can get everyday groceries and local products and also premium offerings in the same store in each section.

We wanted to mix it up as people don’t want all the same stuff all the time. Even in soft drinks we are seeing this trend for natural and premium options, so we have a range of nice tonics, colas and ginger drinks.

There are some products we have shied away from because we just can’t get the volume, but we are open to suggestions from customers if they want us to stock something in particular.

We engage with people and overall it is hugely exciting and a concept I want to keep evolving.

In what other ways does the store tap into community needs?

We run a lot of events. We do quizzes, and there is a Sunday record fair. The latter is all about record swaps and we have some for sale, and there is a live DJ.

We have a regular art event called Overdrawn, where people can come and scribble on pads and there is often a competition and local artists selling their work. We have a street food event every Thursday where we support local small food businesses.

If we look at what convenience stores used to be about, which was community, then it all makes sense. We are working well with the community here and we are engaging and inspiring them to come out of their apartments and enjoy their local shop. People often visit a few times a day and we have great footfall.

It is very informal and we keep in touch via social media a lot.

Without blowing our own trumpet, we have created a community which would usually be lost in this area. Before people were too busy and there was a lot of city hustle and bustle with people rushing in and out of shops for quick purchases and not engaging with anyone.

We are embracing that new lifestyle choice people are making, so we always have bread and milk but we also have gluten-free, dairy- free and other options to suit health and lifestyle choices.

How important is the balance of retail and on-trade?

I think it is really important. As a country I think we are really behind on it. The only options you see are Subway or Costa concessions, or Greggs, but people don’t aspire to that any more. In places such as Spain, Asia and New York you can get street food or you can grab things on the go as a way of life.

What sells well in BWS?

Gin is doing really well, especially local and interesting brands. Craft beer is massive and I think we will see a continued push on that. Wine is hugely in fashion and we source from a number of places. People like brands with unusual and interesting labels, so we look for these.

I think rum will be the next drink to take off.

What’s next for Ancoats?

I am about to sign a lease on my next venture. It will be more food and drink and more activities. This is the way forward.

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