Four candles pleaseWritten by Nick Jones Thursday, 21 August 2014 23:33
Julian Stewart’s shop sells thousands of household items from screws to saucepans, shopping trolleys to garden seeds, and has become a much-loved institution with countless loyal customers.
In November, Julian will celebrate the 35th anniversary of the shop’s opening.
At sixty-six, he says he has no intention of retiring any time soon.
He believes Bargain Buys’ longevity on the High Street is due to a combination of personal service, customer care and reliability.
“People coming into the shop see that I am enjoying myself. I really do like working and helping people and that is infectious.
“I don’t fear the competition because a shop this size can change to suit the trading conditions of the time.
Multiples won’t stock slow-moving lines but I do. I will keep an item at the back of the shop even if I have only one regular customer.”
Looking back on the differing patterns of trade, Julian says the biggest change has been in the sale of dustbins.
“Because plastic bins are now provided by the council I sell less in a year than I used to sell in a week twenty-five years ago.
“Sales of crockery and fancy goods have also fallen off the side of a cliff. I used to sell so much china it paid me to go to Stoke-on-Trent in my Transit van and load up with stock. Now it all comes from China.”
Julian says the decline in the number of hardware and do-it-yourself shops has worked to his advantage. “I have always sold paints and varnishes but I’ve now made a point of increasing the range of products I sell and some of my most regular customers are builders and decorators.”
His terms of trade with suppliers and wholesalers have changed dramatically over the years.
“I now get very few sales representatives calling at the shop. Twenty years ago there would be one rep in the shop, one just outside on the door step and another waiting in his car.
Now I have to do all the work myself and order my stock on the telephone or online at home.”
In the fifteen minutes I spent interviewing Julian he served three customers: one lady bought three saucepans; another wanted a sheet of sandpaper; but he couldn’t help the third customer.
She asked for a seat to lift her out of the bath. “No,” said Julian, “that’s not something we stock.” His dog Sam looked on wistfully as these transactions proceeded.
Well yes, it did once take me a couple of days to find something
Standing amid the piles and piles of goods reaching up to the ceiling, I felt I couldn’t ask when Julian last did a stock-take.
Nor did I have the heart to ask what he thought might happen to Bargain Buys once he retired; that would have been a question too far.
Do you ever get a “Four Candles” moment, as in The Two Ronnies?
“I get asked either for four candles or fork handles every other week. I have to pretend it’s the first time I have heard the joke.”
What was silliest request you’ve ever had?
"One bloke asked if he could buy the kitchen sink. I thought he was joking but I kept a straight face and just looked around the shop while thinking what to say.”
What request stumps you every time?
“A customer will ask for a plug. I then have to reply, ‘Do you mean an electric plug, a sink plug, a wall plug . . .?”
What is the most popular item you get asked for?
“Sorry, it’s batteries, something really boring. But I do have over sixty different types of battery in stock.”
Is it difficult to remember where everything is stocked?
“No, I can find well over 99 per cent of my stock almost straight away.”
What’s the longest it has taken you to locate an item?
“Well yes, it did once take me a couple of days to find something.”
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