Beating hearts

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Created by their people for their people, community-owned shops offer a distinctive and increasingly successful retail proposition capitalising on high levels of local engagement

Profitable, professional, innovative. A few years ago these would not be words necessarily front of mind when describing the community-owned shops sector. But it certainly wears them well now.

While the number of UK convenience stores has remained relatively flat, the community-owned sector has grown by more than 20% over the past five years and is up 3% in the past year, says The Plunkett Foundation. At the time of writing there are now 368 community-owned stores trading in the UK, contributing more than £54m to the economy.

According to Plunkett, most of these stores are also turning a tidy profit, a fact that is particularly noteworthy when you consider that in many cases these community-owned stores replaced examples of market failure. Their five-year survival rate of 99% also compares extremely favourably with estimations for UK businesses, at 44.1%, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Grant funding, lower rates and running costs do, of course, help, but it certainly would not be fair to say that these are the only reasons for the sector’s success.

These days almost 60% of community-owned shops are run by teams of paid staff who work alongside volunteers, while 8% of stores are run entirely by paid staff. There has also been a move towards loan finance within the sector.

Product ranges are changing, too. While 95% of community-owned shops sell local products, with locally-made goods figuring highly in the bakery, dairy, alcohol and chilled categories, most community shops also buy from one or two national wholesalers to ensure a comprehensive range that meets the needs of local people.

Created by their communities for their communities, by their very nature community-owned shops are perfectly suited to tailoring their product ranges to local and even individual needs.

Sue Davies, assistant manager of Cletwr Shop in Machynlleth, Mid Wales, explains: “The ability to really listen to our customer feedback and respond to it is a particular strength,” she says. “We do everything we can to stock the products that people want, at the prices that they want, even if that sometimes means a bit of negotiating with a supplier, or a hit on our bottom line,” she says.

“For example, in line with customer requests, we have been stocking environmentally-friendly wooden toothbrushes for a few months now, but just last Monday a shopper told me that they were too hard for her gums. Within two days I had sourced a softer bristled wooden toothbrush for her and she was thrilled. It’s the little things like that which add up to big love for the shop.”

And the store’s environmentally-friendly product range doesn’t end with wooden toothbrushes.

“Customers are becoming increasingly aware of the need to reduce plastic consumption and now regularly ask us for products in plastic-free packaging,” Sue adds.

As a result, the store now has a refill station for detergent and stocks a range of shampoo bars, hand-cut blocks of beeswax, and beeswax wraps that can be used instead of clingfilm, all of which can be ported home in eco-friendly jute shopping bags adorned with the store’s branding.

And to parade their lovingly tailored range of products and services, a great number of community-owned shops also boast a vibrant social media presence, with regularly updated Facebook pages to complement websites and e-newsletters.

But the professionalism of the sector certainly hasn’t been at the expense of its core community values. Today’s community-owned shops don’t just act as lifelines for products and services, they also perform an incredibly important emotional function. With the vast majority of community-owned shops trading in rural locations (62% of shops suggest their next nearest shop is between three and five miles away, while 24% say that it is between five and 10) these shops are vital for helping combat loneliness and social isolation.

And as the following examples clearly demonstrate, community-owned stores are raising the bar in community engagement. This month alone, Cletwr community shop is organising a ‘Benthyg Bag’ day, where shoppers can transform old pieces of fabric into reusable bags, two ‘storytime’ sessions for pre-school children, one talk by a local author, a community dinner and film night, a Welsh language speaking class, a book launch, a gin tasting and a pre-Christmas ‘sweet treat’-making event.

Most of these events take place within the shop’s in-store café (almost half of all community-owned shops offer some form of a café or community space in which local people of all ages can come together), but it also organises a raft of events outside of its four walls, including organised walks and landscape painting classes with local artists.

“A community business can completely transform a community,” Sue adds. “Lots of shops say they are community focused, but we really mean it. We’re not just paying lip service to it.

“We strive every day to make the store a place that people don’t want to just shop in, but spend time in.”

Crucially, this focus on engagement spans all ages, with as many activities for the under-fives as there are for the over-50s.

The store’s café even features a small children’s play area with a pretend shop till and grocery items, as well as a Welsh language library complete with comfy cushions.

“Kids are genuinely welcome and we really provide for them,” Sue continues. “We understand that if you truly want to attract young parents then you need to offer proper kids’ facilities. That means a safe, clean, welcoming environment, good toilet facilities and a space for them to play. It’s not a large amount of space by any means, but it’s there and the parents really appreciate it.

“We even hold regular activities just for the under-eights. Last week, for example, we had a kiddie cleaning session. We had a group of local children whom we kitted out with mini aprons and play cleaning equipment. With the help of their parents they even cleaned the windows and doors with buckets of soapy water. It was so much fun!”

Cletwr is by no means unique when it comes to its exhausting calendar of engagements. Established in 2012 following two years of hard work, Chiddingly Village Shop and Café in East Sussex also boasts a lengthy list of events.

The store’s paid manager Julie Bates elaborates: “We have an oral history club, a French language club, a book club, a film club and this autumn we are planning to set up a games club where people can come, play a game of Scrabble and enjoy a coffee and some freshly baked cake.

“For the French club they get a free coffee and a croissant as part of the price. Social events like this are incredibly popular with the community, especially in the cold and dark winter months when it’s so much more difficult to get out and about.

“We also have an art wall which is updated each month by different local artists, or work from the local school children,” she says.

But, of course, it’s not all about coffee and croissants. As the issue of food poverty becomes increasingly acute for communities up and down the country, 86% of community-owned shops also actively support their shoppers on lower incomes.

“A number of community-owned shops work in partnership with food banks, some discreetly offer discounted goods and many price match or are able to beat supermarkets on price by purchasing locally,” The Plunkett Foundation says.

Some claim to offer community meals for free, or subsidised rates, by making homemade meals and using short-dated food.

From installing or funding defibrillators to establishing consulting rooms for visiting GPs and nurses, acting as drop-off points for prescriptions and offering free home deliveries to the elderly and housebound, 71% of community-owned shops also actively offer ideas or initiatives to improve and protect the health and welfare of the people living in their communities.

The sector’s success may also come down to utilising community members’ strengths. “Everyone has different superpowers and we strive to work out what they are and use them where we can,” Sue explains. “We have one volunteer who makes the best cappuccinos outside of Italy. Jane, the kitchen manager, can cook up a marvellous soup from waste vegetables in minutes, while my strength lies in local marketing and communications.”

However, it’s not all plain sailing. Managing large teams of paid staff and unpaid volunteers of all ages, and from all walks of life, can create issues which can only be overcome with solid, open lines of communication. Expectations for both parties need to be crystal clear.

And with the same legislative requirements in terms of food hygiene, underage sales and more, staff training also has to be on point for volunteers and paid staff alike.

At Cletwr, Sue claims her biggest challenge is actually the store’s success. “In the five years since we opened, it’s gone from a little shop selling bread and milk on the site of an old service station, to a fully-fledged convenience store and café, and sometimes that can be hard,” she says.

Following a refit and extension last year, the café is now trading up 200% and the shop’s retail figures are rosy, too. At the time of our meeting (11am on a drizzly Thursday morning) the in-store café was brimming with more than 35 customers.

“The store’s success has opened up a whole load of new challenges with regards to availability, customer service and staffing,” she adds. “It can be hard at times, but none of us would have it any other way.

“From customers to employees and members of the committee, we are all on this journey together. The shop means everything to us. It is us.”

And that could be the crux of the sector’s success, and the reason it will remain that way for many more years to come.

Typical premises for community shops

38%

Existing building hosting a previous shop

21%

Existing building converted to a shop

16%

New Building

12%

Village hall

9%

Portable cabin / Pre-fabricated building

3%

Building with religious purpose

1%

Pub/Pub car park

Source: The Plunkett Foundation

Readers' comments (1)

  • Looks fantastic I have seen these before and they are great. Myself and my husband will support as much much as we can

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