Ken Parsons of the Rural Shops Alliance talks to Dave Visick about life after the PO closures

It's easy to think of the Rural Shops Alliance as an extension of the Village Green Preservation Society, all church fêtes, coffee mornings and Hovis-bearing delivery boys struggling up cobblestone lanes. Even the address of its head office - the Little Keep, Dorchester - has an air of twee country charm.
Just don't mention any of those things in front of Ken Parsons, seven months into the job of chief executive of the RSA, and a fervent believer that traditional village stores need to adopt professional retailing principles if they are to survive in the current difficult trading climate. It's time for some hard realism behind the rose-covered doors of the nation's rural shops.
"We expect about 1,000 of our 7,000 members to be affected by the Post Office closures, and we're not expecting all of them to stay in business," the pragmatic Parsons tells Convenience Store. "We want to keep them open, but realistically a few hundred will probably close. The primary issue now is not fighting the closures, but learning how to adapt and thrive after them."
Many rural stores are owned by elderly couples or people who dreamt of semi-retirement from well-paid jobs to take up a simpler life in a beautiful village. The reality, of course, is totally different, but for some of them balancing the lifestyle they seek against the longer opening hours and more professional selling that will be required in future may be too much to contemplate.
These are the groups Parsons believes may decide to close their shop when they lose the PO salary, but, for the rest, there's only one possible use for the payout of 28 months' remuneration that sugars the closure pill.
"I visit stores every day and find most of them are determined to carry on," he says. "Many of them are superb shops, but for the rest the message is, you will get through this, but you're going to have to invest in your business and catch up with the rest of the convenience sector. So when the Post Office counter comes out, use that space - look at what customers expect from local stores these days, and if necessary invest in chillers and increase your stock of categories such as ready meals, soft drinks, snacks and confectionery."
Too many store owners cling to outdated notions, he adds. "They can be a bit behind the times - too much space given over to cans and packets. Rural retailers have resisted moving into fresh and chilled because they worry about wastage, and also because they want to give loyal elderly customers the lines they expect. Getting up to speed with the latest convenience ranges - fresh and chilled, off licence, local produce - may upset a few older customers, but in the longer term a new generation of younger customers will emerge."
Opening hours will have to change, too. The RSA estimates that 50% of residents in some of the rural communities commute out to jobs in nearby towns. That means they will be returning home at about 7pm, looking for dinner, snacks and a bottle of wine for tonight - and the local store will have to be open to sell it to them.
Parsons relates the story of a store near his own North Somerset home which has been through the painful process of transformation. "The building was all wrong, with small rooms on different levels, but they had the advantage of being on a main road, with parking," he says. "The retailer had the courage and vision to invest in the business, and was prepared to accept that he might have to struggle through a whole year as the community adjusted to the new offer before he started to see a return on his investment."
Such a journey won't be an easy ride, he adds, and it will need the understanding of family - you may have to tell them there won't be a big holiday this year, or next.
The new professionalism extends to every aspect of the job and requires pin-sharp retail skills. "You've got to price to make a profit. Too many just sell at the recommended retail price, but you have to mark up or down to suit demand."
Parsons is keen to see retailers invest in epos as the key to control. "It's something which many struggle to justify the cost of, but even those with a turnover as low as £2,000 a week would benefit from learning to trust digital data," he says. "Epos will also help productivity, enabling you to schedule staff to cover times of greatest demand, and cut back during quiet periods."
Externally, too, there's room for improvement. "Some independents look excellent, but others don't meet the public's expectations of what a modern store looks like," Parsons points out. "There can be some resistance to symbol group fascias, but they send a message to the customer about standards."
Above all, however, the local store has to play to its strengths, and here's where those traditional values still have a place. The village store is and should be the heart and soul of the community and that's something that has to survive the modernisation process. "It's simple stuff," Parsons says. "You've got to get people to like you, and hard as it is to keep smiling when you're in contact with the great British public for 70 hours a week, it's something you and your staff have to get right. I've noticed that the supermarkets are working hard to improve customer contact at the checkouts, so you've got to stay one step ahead."
Stores will still need to house community noticeboards, and still sell tickets for the school concert, he says - as well as being open when the neighbourhood wants them.
Local involvement goes further, however. Employing locals is only the start - the big opportunity now is to work with local suppliers and display their products prominently.
"I don't tell retailers this is going to be easy," Parsons admits. "In some rare cases, when there is no hope of turning round the business, I even have to tell them they should close. But for the majority, the pain of change will be worth it. I genuinely believe that supermarkets are losing popularity, and the public's love affair with Tesco, in particular, is on the wane. It hasn't shown in shoppers' behaviour yet, but add this to the rising cost of petrol and environmental worries about car usage, and you can predict a shift in the market.
"I tell our members, hang on in there. In three years' time, with some hard work, you'll be in a better position, and you'll find customers are driving past the Tesco forecourt on the edge of town to come to you. But you're going to have to make significant changes to stay in business long enough to reap the benefit."

Topics