How Norfolk’s village shops have stepped up during coronavirus
- Credit: Ian Burt
How community and village shops have stepped up to the mark just when we need them most
One of the positives to emerge out of the crisis is the way that small village and community shops have responded. They have been a lifeline for many, especially in rural areas.
It has been a real challenge for community stores, run by the residents themselves, as management teams had to adjust fast to a rapidly changing world.
“We were determined that we wanted to keep the shop open and supplied, which we have managed to do,” says Victoria McArthur, treasurer of Rocklands Community Store, which serves seven villages including Shropham, Caston, Stow Bedon and the Ellinghams.
The team acted to bring in social distancing measures, listened to staff anxieties about working in the shop, installed screens to protect them and worked out how to stock the shelves when, in the early days, even the wholesalers were stripped bare by panic-buying.
“Stocking was a huge issue early on. Supplies stopped because suppliers were out and volunteers went to the stores early in the day to get supplies. We bulk-bought flour and we’ve kept fresh fruit and vegetables coming in,” says Victoria.
The team has also had to make the shop safe for staff and volunteers as well as customers. The store has mix of volunteer and paid-for staff and some volunteers have had to step back because they fall into the more vulnerable category.
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“We have had to say to them look, if you want to come in that is up to you but it is perfectly OK not to come in – if you feel unsafe and vulnerable stay at home,” says Victoria. “But lots of other people have stepped forward into the breach.
“It’s really good news and it’s testament to the value of community and of being neighbours and of just making kind gestures. There has been an incredible outpouring of time and generosity and we’re very lucky.”
The shop is open until 1pm and during the morning a volunteer mans the phone and takes orders which are boxed up and delivered to people isolating at home in the afternoon.
“People have recognised that it is incredibly valuable to get supplies locally,” she says, adding that reaction across the community has been positive.
“For the most part it has been utterly brilliant. Some people have been cross that they’ve had to queue, but we reiterate that it is for the safety of customers and staff. Most people have been hugely positive and generous and thanked us.
“Queuing is not always such a bad thing if you’re isolating or not seeing your normal friends. Being a couple of metres apart in a queue means you can at least have conversations.”
She is hopeful that the increase in trade will continue. “We have been running for six years and have a core group of shoppers. We have brought in some new people and I hope we’ll retain them and I hope the message has got out that without this you’d have been stuck, waiting for a delivery slot from a supermarket.
“It doesn’t matter how much you spend; just spend some money in the shop!”
At Great Ryburgh community shop turnover is 100% up. Like Rocklands they experienced the empty suppliers’ shelves initially but have worked hard to keep the store stocked.
They too have been delivering food boxes around the village and surrounding communities. “We have even had calls from other parts of the country – for instance we had a call from someone in Cornwall to supply a relative in Fakenham!” says chairman Andrew Purdy.
They have come up with a good way to keep the social distancing arrangements in place; “We have set up a one-way system – you come in the back door and out of the front!
But everyone is respecting social distancing anyway,” says Andrew.
“We have noticed people are doing bigger shops – and where the spends were about 50-50 cards and cash it is now nearer 70% on cards and mostly people are spending in the afternoon.”
The store is open seven days a week and Mr Purdy hopes that the community response will be sustained, post-coronavirus. “Everybody is hoping that the people who discovered us in
their hour of need will keep visiting us.”
There has been a village shop in Barnham Broom for well over a century and current owners Karen and Rob Williams have been there just over 11 years.
“Things are a lot busier than they usually are,” says Rob. “People are using smaller local shops more because they don’t want to visit the big stores.”
The shop, which includes a Post Office, has introduced measures to help customers feel safe and staff have access to PPE to help them feel confident. It has also kept its normal hours.
“It’s been challenging,” says Karen. “But our customers have been great. It’s absolutely fantastic – we’re lucky because we have lovely, genuine customers who are appreciative on any normal day. Day in day out people are so thankful that we are open.
“That is just so lovely. We are passionate about village life and small shops – that’s why we’re here.”
The Williams are optimistic about the future post-lockdown. “We’ve seen a lot more people than we’ve seen before and there will be a portion of those that we never see again because some people are busy and can only do what they can do when they can do it,” says Karen.
“But there is a large portion of people who have said that it has changed their mindset... it has made them value local services and they have said that they will continue to support the village shop more because it has proved to be a lifeline. We just have to hope that it will continue”