Redfern Convenience Store has more than 14,500 followers on Instagram and is known, literally worldwide, for its range of international products. But why is this particular store so popular? Convenience World Deputy Editor Adam James went to find out.
As far as convenience stores go, they are there to serve the local community and provide those everyday essentials. Hazem Sedda (right) took over the reins of Redfern Convenience Store in 2005 from his father at the age of 19 and set out to deliver “the most convenient” convenience store in the area.
By making the customer more important than the products or balance sheet, Mr Sedda has turned a small corner shop in Sydney’s inner suburbs into a real treasure trove. His customers adore him and, as soon as he starts talking, anyone who meets him (including the Convenience World team) is captivated and drawn in.
In this exclusive interview, Mr Sedda speaks candidly about his time at the store and shares some delightful insights into why he and his store have gained a reputation for being the kings of convenience.
When did Redfern Convenience Store open?
My dad started it in 2000 after he moved to Australia by himself. Then, three years later, my family and I came over from Palestine and I was pretty much working here from day one. Two years later I was running the shop by myself.
How did the store’s fame begin to spread?
Firstly, our store was unique, with all the products we had, especially after the changes I made when I took over from my dad. After the big supermarkets started to move to Redfern, the small corner stores began to die. Around us were another five convenience stores and they all closed down. My idea was to get things that supermarkets didn’t have, and I started to bring things in from overseas. But we didn’t have any social media or anything, so we depended on the local people of Redfern, which kept us surviving for a while.
If you can remember, what was the first crazy product someone asked you for?
It was an American drink like Dr Pepper or A&W Cream Soda. These were the first products we got from overseas and then we started to get more and more from that day. People came in and asked for something else and then someone else asked for something else and it just carried on like this. Then we got Cheetos and were the only supplier here for three years as no one else was able to get them – now everyone can get them. Then people started sending me texts of things they wanted, and I knew I could get them.
So why did you decide to put your store on social media, particularly Instagram?
When we started ranging the drinks from the US, that’s what made my friend (2GB radio show host) Ben Fordham recommend Instagram. He’s the one who told me I needed an Instagram account, because the range we have is so different to any other convenience store.
When we started it, we thought to take good pictures of the products and post them, but that’s not something I thought would work. So we then thought we should take pictures of the customers with what they bought, to concentrate on the customer and not what they buy. And that’s what made us really famous. Customers felt they were special, they were cared about and not just there to buy products. Then we chose the customers with great stories, anyone with an amazing story. We always shared them with our other followers and they got really appreciated. They loved the feedback from the community about their story.
What impact has social media had on your business?
The business was running good and now it’s better.
It was making money before, even with all the shops starting to close down when some of the larger supermarkets opened in the area, but now it’s better. Yesterday I had a customer come from Fairfield (in western Sydney) to buy stuff for his girlfriend’s birthday. He spent $80, and he texted me, ‘Please don’t close the shop before I get there, because I’m driving but I’m an hour away’.
Your store has a huge range of international products. From how many countries do you source?
Probably between 10 and 12. The most popular being the US and the UK, like Hershey’s chocolate from America and Fry’s from the UK. We have products from Ireland, New Zealand, Brazil, Peru, Argentina … Italian and German chocolate.
How are you importing products?
I have a distribution contact in America because if you go to the manufacturers you have to buy a lot in. Most of the time, American companies don’t want to sell to Australia. So you have to go through a distributor over there – like how we have Campbells Cash & Carry here, through someone in America. I started it with one of my relatives who lives there.
One time I went to the US, met him there and then we went to the distributor and told them what we need, and then he was following it up from there. So that’s how we started with that. Like I said, it’s really hard to buy from the company direct.
So have you got regular contacts around the world that you use?
Yes. With some of them, I just look on the internet to find the best distributor, and in some of the countries I’ve got contacts of people who are there that I ask to look for certain things for me. Then what happens is they send a small shipment to me, which is good because you need to know the company is real before asking for big quantities.
Have you ever thought, ‘this is going to be really popular’, so you’ve bought a load in, but it hasn’t sold?
I haven’t had that because I’ve never bought something in a large quantity before I’ve tried it. I always buy a small amount, but if it does go well, then yes, I need to be the king of the market. I have to buy a lot, so I don’t run out.
But I’ll show you something I’ve lost money on: these special batteries. Three years ago, someone came and asked me for battery type 1616 and I told them I could get them for him the next day, and I went out and bought some. I only sold to him, and this is an example of a loss, but I’m not upset. I know one day someone else will come in and ask for them. That’s my strategy: if someone asks me for something and I don’t have it, I still get it in because it also means someone else will need it.
This is a small store, so where does it all go?
The shop floor is about 85sqm and I have the same size upstairs for storage. And I’ve got another storage space in my house.
How many hours do you work in a week?
On a regular week, between 40 and 45 hours. But on the occasions my full-time staff are away, like the past four weeks, I’ve been doing 100 to 110 a week.
Do you think other convenience stores look at you with an envious eye? What advice would you give to other convenience stores to up their game?
With the convenience store industry it’s a bit tough because, if they’re in a different location, they adopt a different strategy for their different customers. Every location is different, so you need to look at the people around you to find what products these people need. For a convenience store, you really have to have everything people ask you for – that’s very important.
Sometimes people ask you for one thing, you don’t have it, and then they leave. A lot of the convenience stores say, ‘Oh sorry, that’s not going to be back in stock’. But when someone came and asked me if a had a hot water bottle – something you might think that no one else will ever ask for again – instead of just getting in one, I bought in five, just in case someone else asked for one. I always want to have more on the off chance that someone else wants one.
Just have a look at these: car jump leads. I don’t have to buy 20 sets. I only get two at a time. If I sell one, I’ve got another one. I don’t even have to display it. If you have the space to do it, even better. If someone asks, that means someone else will ask me as well. Anything people ask for, I get. It doesn’t matter what it is.
But if it’s one product, like that specific battery, how do you go about getting it?
I use my main distributor and ask if they have it. If they don’t then I will search other places where I can get them and buy them off the shelf full price – just in case I get asked for one.
Will there ever be another Redfern Convenience Store?
Since we started on Instagram, I’ve had over 200 people requesting a partnership or the opening of another store, all around Australia. But I like to work by myself. I don’t like stress.
Having more shops might mean you’re going to have a bigger name and more money, but I’m not into that. I like to go home every day. I know I only have one thing to look after and that’s it. One good thing is better than 50 other things that consume all your time.