With companies like Tesco and Sainsbury’s and with the arrival of discounters like Aldi and Lidl, the convenience store market can be tough for small shopkeepers. Luckily, around 80% of the UK’s 41,000-plus convenience stores are still independents or belong to buying groups (such as Costcutter or Nisa) and convenience stores are an increasingly important player in the UK food market. The industry is believed to be on the rise, with Britons turning their backs on weekly shopping trips in favour of more regular top-up shops. I spoke to Ahmet who runs Cifci, an independent convenience store on Kingsland Road. He joined the family business in 2013, which was previously run by his dad and uncle and then his cousin. We chatted about the changing area, the rise of conscious purchasing and… robots!

How did it all start?

“Well it started about 18-19 years ago, it was run by my family my dad and my half uncle they had the store first. And then my cousin took over but it wasn’t going too well so my dad kicked my cousin out and then in 2013, I came into the store…I mean I used to go there as a kid, I would be in the shop so I know how everything’s run and how everything works. And then I saw potential, the area was up and coming, it was changing. In 2006-7, the train station came in … there was change in the area. The building was in a bad state and it needed some refurbishment, so it was a great opportunity to do something a bit more unique. So we refurbed it in 2015 (it was supposed to take 6 weeks, it took about 6 months!) and then we opened up at the end of September 2016.”

Why this area?

“The only thing I didn’t anticipate that would happen in the store I would say is the community, as in the customers. So before, because it was like a generic Turkish off licence…you know they usually have like 600 different soft drinks and 600 types of beers, all these chocolates and crisps and I didn’t want to do that because I was sick of that! The demographic was different too, so you would have more trouble with stealing etc. I didn’t anticipate that I would have much nicer customers and custom. I literally know everybody, our locals, by name now ad they’re really nice and it’s a changed community a little bit, but it definitely boosts the moral a lot more than it used to. Before you would come in and dread it, on friday and saturday nights you’d have a lot of drunks and have to deal with that kind of stuff. But now, it’s a small grocery store and it’s a bit more ethical, the customers are more aware of what they’re buying and buying into. It’s not just about what you’re buying, like if you need rice you need rice. But you want to know certain things, is it organic, the people making it are their staff being paid well for them to survive, is it mono cultured or does it come from different farms…that kind of things, it’s more conscious purchasing. That surprised me a lot.”

What is local to you?

“Ooh. How big can you say is local…I’d say a 2 mile radius?! I mean local is more of a relationship thing, you can be living in Shoreditch and you can come to my store everyday and then you become my local. It doesn’t define where it is, it’s more of an interaction, more of a relationship that you have that defines you as a local.”

What’s been your biggest challenge so far? How did you overcome it?

“Trying to get my mum and dad to use the tills for the deli counter… that is still a challenge!”

Where do you want to be in 5 years?

“I want to have 3 shops, a warehouse and then a secret project – with a different business model. Something like the Amazon store in Seattle, where there are no workers in the shop, but with a bit of a tweak. Norway’s done it, there’s a store in Sweden and Switzerland and they’re trying it in Seattle. I think it’s a perfect idea. It’s a mundane job at the end of the day. In our deli it’s lovely to interact with people and see what cheeses they like, it’s a bit more of an art but on the tills, that part is not a career it’s a job. Of course it’s lovely to interact with people but yeah, we could get rid of that bit. I would love to see my dad not having to serve someone at the till but rather just interacting with them just for the sake of him wanting to.”

Doesn’t that mean less jobs?  

“I don’t see it as giving less jobs, I see it as innovation where it’s creating time for people to educate themselves better. For instance my job, scanning items, is a job that is needed but it’s not a career. I’m totally for innovation, robots taking over jobs so we have more time to spend on the stuff we actually care about whether it be music, art, sciences, English, theatre, chopping wood, whatever your passion is – you should be able to accomplish your passion, you shouldn’t have to have a job and then cutting wood as a hobby, that’s how I see it. I like Elon Musk’s idea of a universal basic income too, that should grow in popularity.”

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