Why Hampshire’s community shops are thriving
- Credit: Emma Caulton
The community shop is thriving. Why? And what makes the perfect village store? We went in search…
Times are not only tough on the ‘high street’. According to The Plunkett Foundation (an organisation that’s been supporting rural community businesses for a century) around 400 village shops close every year. However, for the past five years an average of 22 shops have opened each year under community ownership. These community shops safeguard vital services in rural areas, but also have wider social, economic and environmental benefits. They stimulate social activity and community cohesion, support local producers and create employment opportunities. They are particularly important to the elderly, the lonely, those with limited physical mobility and those who don’t drive.
Typically, they are the only retail outlet for a four-mile radius, have long opening hours and host other services such as post offices (64%) and cafes (56%). In addition to sourcing local produce with lower food miles, they save an estimated 4 million miles of car journeys each year which would otherwise be undertaken by residents driving to alternative stores.
Most are run according to a model promoted by The Plunkett Foundation: an employed shop manager supported by a team of volunteers - who provide vibrancy while keeping costs down (profit margins are small).
Woodgreen Community Shop, in the New Forest’s north-western corner, was reborn from the old commercial village store. When closure was imminent, with help from The Plunket Foundation, the village set up the Woodgreen Community Shop Association at the end of 2006 and took over its running. This was followed by four years of intensive fundraising efforts along with grant applications which led to the Shop moving into purpose-built premises in 2011 (on a site owned by the Parish Council).
Julie Bottone, one of two part-time managers, attributes the shop’s success to community engagement and research: “When we started we did a tremendous amount of research. We found a lot of village shops focused on high end goods, but had no basics such as baked beans and loo rolls. We wanted our shop to reflect the needs of our customers, encompassing cheaper, mid-range and high-end products. This is a useful shop; people don’t come here simply because they feel obliged to support it. We are really careful with buying and pricing. You can’t compete with supermarkets on price so we don’t, although essential items like milk, eggs and butter are all reasonable.
“As part of our lottery grant we had to source 15% of our produce locally, but that is nearer 30% now with around 50 local suppliers as food miles and provenance are important to people.”
David Mossell, one of the shop’s committee members continues: “We sell huge amounts of meat as the New Forest is brilliant for beef, pannage pork and venison.” Suppliers include local Hale Pig and Poultry and Jack’s Jacobs (and pigs) grazing in the field behind the shop.
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They continue to listen to customers. David explains how they undertook a huge survey two years ago and arranged focus groups “around the kitchen table” – taking onboard many of the findings. Similarly, popular tasting evenings scoring local beers, gins and wines provide valuable feedback as well an opportunity for a village get-together. Initiatives encompass a newsletter, loyalty card scheme which gives back thousands to the community, deliveries to the immobile and events such as an annual Christmas evening that’s become a village tradition.
Services include the post office, although as David explains: “The Post Office makes a loss; always has; always will. So, the shop subsidises the Post Office, however the Post Office brings people into the shop.”
Other services are less tangible. Julie again: “We have an elderly population who come in every day – it’s a real hub for them. They like to come and chat and that’s important.”
Milland Stores is an award-winning community shop in a scattered parish on Hampshire’s border with West Sussex. Since opening in December 2011 its popularity has exceeded all expectations – with the café already having been extended.
Ted Wright runs the shop along with Kriszta Sloan, supported by three part-time members of staff and a bank of volunteers - “Without whom the shop would cease to function!” says Ted.
He explains: “There was nothing else in the village before. For the nearest shops you needed to go to Liphook, six minutes’ drive away, and public transport is virtually non-existent.
“The idea of a village store was pushed by a small group of people, but in order to prove the idea they canvassed every single person in the village. As a result of the very positive response they decided to go ahead.”
There was considerable input from many of the villagers themselves, who included architects, builders, electricians, plumbers and so on. The result is an attractive green oak frame structure built on land owned by the village overlooking the recreation ground.
Ted continues: “We offer a broad range of pretty much everything including essentials and high-end goods, and we are always trying to find new things to stock. We try to source products locally, it is our avowed aim. However, the more run of the mill stuff sells the most, although the ultimate [seasonal] bestseller is asparagus which we get from a local farm.
“Where the village is concerned, the majority now use it on a regular basis. We get people who only want a tin of beans and don’t want to drive all the way to a supermarket, but quite a few do weekly shops here.
“People have realised as the shop has become established, especially with the café, that it’s a good meeting point. We’re next to the village hall where the nursery takes place five days a week and the primary school is up the lane, so a lot of mums come in after they’ve taken the children to school or with the children after school.
“Since opening we have increased the number of services we offer. These include dry-cleaning, postal services, and support for the elderly and less mobile.
“The shop has proved an excellent vehicle for the villagers to get to know one another, especially for those who have moved into Milland recently; a local anchor that makes newcomers and those who commute during the week feel part of the community.”
Braishfield Pantry (Hampshire Life Food & Drink Awards-Winner) is a shop with café attached to the village hall overlooking the recreation ground in Braishfield. This small village, three miles or so from Romsey, had lost its last village shop years ago.
Anne Edwards, Community Shop and Café Committee Member, explains that the Pantry developed from an initiative, started autumn 2013, to raise money for the refurbishment of the village hall by serving tea and cake through a less than glamorous hatch. This quickly evolved, with a committee forming to create a little shop in a storage area of the hall.
Anne recalls: “Grants were sought and volunteers offered time, energy and expertise, boosted by good humoured determination, to clean and kit out our first ‘cupboard’ retail space. Soon it was clear we needed more room and better facilities to meet customers’ expectations.
“Through the hard work of the volunteers and with support from private donors, community groups, Test Valley Borough Council and County Council grants, the shop moved into this purpose-built extension in 2016.
“People seem very happy now to have the chance to ‘live life locally’ again, popping through, often several days a week, to do their shopping. It is an easily accessible social hub at the heart of the village.
“We support local suppliers and producers whenever possible and we aim to respond to our customers’ suggestions; for example our gluten free range was built up following a request from a resident.”
Local products include New Forest Smokery trout pate (“The whole village is addicted to it!”) locally made cheese souffles, and Braishfield Bangers unique to the Pantry and made using local honey and mustard.
“During last summer term we welcomed pupils from our little village primary school one afternoon a week to help as junior shop assistants, learning lots of useful real-life skills such as handling money and cooperating in a team.
“As a small business, we are also committed to supporting teenagers working towards their Duke of Edinburgh awards and have liaised with Eastleigh College’s Business Studies’ students to consider business ideas. We also work closely with groups that meet in the village hall and host activities including First Aid evenings.
“Our new shop/cafe has really enhanced local life… bringing people together and facilitating the development of new initiatives that contribute to residents’ wellbeing.
“But the main story is the people and how much may be achieved through collaborative effort, good will and self-help.
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