This Store Review was originally published in the December 2016/January 2017 issue of C&I Retailing magazine

Bypassed, but not forgotten

The South Kempsey Corner Store stands on a site with a proud retailing history, on what was once a major coastal route. However, the recent Kempsey bypass has seen traffic diverted around the town, leaving many locals wondering about its commercial future. Regardless, the Marks family have seen a new opportunity as the town reinvents itself, and have embarked on a journey from landlord to retailer, renovating their store and focusing on community and family.

We all jump in, whether it’s cooking, cleaning, serving behind the counter or making coffee – Everyone contributes to our success.

In the recently bypassed town of Kempsey on NSW’s Mid North Coast, a new business with an emphasis on family and community has become something of a talking point.

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With historic good looks, The South Kempsey Corner Store, occupies a prominent position on what was once a major thoroughfare but is now a relatively quiet, local street. The site at 46 Lachlan Street, South Kempsey has been in the Marks family for some time, although the store – which most recently operated as an IGA – was previously run by a variety of tenants over the years.

Two generations of the Marks family have made the decision to band together to create a family business which has received a warm welcome from locals and passersby alike. Earlier this year Ben Marks, together with mother Jenny and wife Kira, took the opportunity to reinvigorate the site and run the newly renovated space as an independent SPAR-aligned store.

According to Mr Marks, “The SPAR values really resonated with us.

“Working with SPAR helps us to bring value to our customers. Every SPAR store is independently owned, and stores have the freedom and independence to make local decisions that benefit their customers and their broader community. Like us, SPAR puts customers first and values individual contributions.”

With a staff of 15, individual contributions matter, and this is seen in the day to day running of the store.

“We all jump in, whether it’s cooking, cleaning, serving behind the counter or making coffee – everyone contributes to our success,” Mr Marks said. Later this year, he hopes his sister and her family will also join the business.

The building has now been renovated, with a modern, rustic and almost industrial feel enhanced by smooth polished concrete flooring and large airy windows. A dividing wall which previously split the space into two areas connected by a narrow passageway was demolished, opening the space up to allow clearer visibility. The result is both functional and modern, yet attractive and sympathetic with the quaint architecture of the original building.

On entering the store, one of the most striking features is its welcoming atmosphere. A large Chesterfield couch dominates the area and is complemented by on-trend, crate-style seating, with a large communal table and bar stool seating along the windows.

A children’s area has been carved out in a small niche with child sized tables and chairs plus a range of entertainment options – including some classic board games – on hand to keep pint-sized patrons occupied.

Beyond the Chesterfield, a gleaming coffee machine marks an attractive café offering, and, to the right, the store’s extensive range of convenience and grocery options beckons.

In keeping with the family and community focus of the store, the open communal space provides ample opportunity for quick catch ups; coffee; a light meal or just to chat with the store staff.

The outdoor, kerbside seating is also a popular meeting place and the store’s traditional wide awning provides plenty of shade.

The store boasts professional coffee-making facilities and a small food preparation area. The glass-fronted display cabinets feature an array of meal options and tasty treats.

The café caters for meals from breakfast to dinner, with lunch and a variety of snacking options provided throughout the day. Like the men, the store’s clientele is varied and constantly changing. From the early morning breakfast trade keen to get on the road and on with their day; to the shoppers looking for a last minute addition to a school lunch; to the post school drop off crowd; the regular shoppers; the occasional tourist; the after school snackers; as well as those after an easy dinner option: The South Kempsey Corner Store is all things to all people.

From landlord to retailer

Having taken the step from landlord to retailer, the family has risen to many challenges, learning new skills and developing existing talents.

Mr Marks said that the decision couldn’t have been better for the family. Having grown up in the Kempsey area, the (junior) Marks family relocated from Sydney to join the family business.

Mr Marks, who is an experienced graphic designer, is the driving force behind the store’s retro branding and had a lot of input into the look and feel of the store, although he is keen to point out that it is a collaborative effort with all the family pulling together to create a place where they all feel happy hanging out.

“If we’re comfortable and relaxed, that passes on to the customers and we really want our customers to feel welcome and valued. It’s important that we all feel happy here and we want our customers to experience that too,” Mr Marks said.

Mr Marks’s wife, Kira, has proved to be a dab hand on the coffee machine, while Mr Marks said he’s “still practicing, but getting better”.

“Dad helps out too,” said Mr Marks, “We built all of the furniture together and dad is a great support. Very hands on and always ready to help out.”

At home, Mr Marks (senior) is regarded as a great cook and many of his recipes have made it onto the café menu.

Locals are enthusiastic about the store and have offered assistance in all manner of areas, from the hand-made cushions that grace the sofa to the provision of local produce. Mr Marks said the support from the community has been readily forthcoming and is something the business continues to foster. “It’s great, there are local farmers and producers who are keen to get their produce on our shelves, and the local connection is something we are really keen to develop.”

The store is something of a learning experience but Mr Marks said the challenges are worthwhile and the family is learning on their feet. In fact, they are doing pretty well if the response from locals is any indication. The store is trading from 5.30am to 6pm, Monday to Sunday, and consideration is being given to both extending the trading hours and range.

Journey of reinvention

The Kempsey area has seen major changes recently and new infrastructure (such as the South Kempsey Travel Centre which houses a MacDonald’s and other quick service restaurants) has been both a blessing and a curse for the area. The influx of workers associated with the roadworks has been beneficial to many local businesses but as the project progresses the income derived from this temporary stimulus is disappearing – as have many of the town’s visitors as the new bypass no longer sees such traffic volumes through the town.

There’s not a typical customer really, it changes throughout the day, but mainly we are drawing in the locals and it is the community that drives us; we are aiming to be very inclusive and to appeal to a wide range of customers

Mr Marks say he sees this as an opportunity, a chance for Kempsey to reinvigorate itself. But this in itself is challenging. Asked to define the store’s ‘typical’ customer, Mr Marks is somewhat at a loss: “There’s not a typical customer really, it changes throughout the day, but mainly we are drawing in the locals and it is the community that drives us; we are aiming to be very inclusive and to appeal to a wide range of customers.”

The store faces stiff competition from both QSRs and the two major supermarkets who all have an established presence in town. This is no deterrent to the Marks family who have responded with price points that are attractive across the board.

 

“Our grocery pricing is competitive, our alliance with SPAR helps with that, and we have a good range. In the café area, our prices are similar to that you’d expect to pay at a QSR but the difference is our meals are homemade, healthy and generous,” Mr Marks explained.

Further down the track, the addition of ready-to-go, reheatable, locally-produced meals is one opportunity that the Marks family are keen to investigate further as they continue to develop community contact and local opportunities.

Although it is still very early in the store’s journey, all indications are that The South Kempsey Corner Store is well on the road to success.

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