You'd probably be surprised at how many c-stores there are on the isles off Scotland. And if you were, then you'd definitely be surprised at how well these stores are doing and how happy the retailers are who work there.
They're definitely a hardy bunch, fighting through gales every winter to serve their communities, but always happy to see the first signs of summer and the ferry loads of tourists that brings.
Dawn McGovern and her partner Dennis Lang run D Langs Mini-market on the tiny island of Scalpay, off the Isle of Harris. Originally from England, they moved to the island three years ago to "get away from it all". Dennis first worked in a fish factory on the island and Dawn ran a bed and breakfast before she, too, moved to the factory. Unfortunately, the factory closed but the couple were so keen to stay on the island that they bought the local shop. They've been running it for the past 14 months. Says Dawn: "It is hard work but we enjoy it. We love the laid-back way of life -it's much less stressful than on the mainland."
Just 320 people live on the island, which is connected to the Isle of Harris by a bridge. Much of the shop's stock is delivered from the mainland via a ferry. "The weather can make deliveries late but we're used to that and so are our customers," says Dawn. "It's the way of life on the island. Sometimes we don't get our bread until 7pm but it's just one of those things." Dawn also uses a cash and carry in Stornaway - it's a 100-mile round trip but she makes it twice a week.
Not every island community is lucky enough to have private individuals to run a store for them, which is where the community store comes in. Elaine Newton is manageress and postmistress of the Uig Community Shop in Timsgarry, on the Isle of Lewis. It's 40 miles from the nearest town and serves some 400 people in the Uig area. As well as being a
c-store and post office, it is also the local filling station.
Elaine says the premises used to be a privately owned shop but the owners decided to sell. "That was in March 2004. We had a public meeting and decided that the community wanted to carry on running the store. We managed to get funding from the Scottish Land Fund, the local council and local enterprise people."
She says it all went very smoothly and the help they received was excellent. The community had to form the Uig Development Trust to secure funding and show that the locals were behind the scheme by issuing shares for sale. Shareholders can attend an AGM, but there is also a committee that deals with the day-to-day running of the shop. Says Elaine: "We meet regularly to discuss how things are going. At the moment, we're talking about an extension to the shop to create a holding bay area for stock and a staff room, because we don't have any staff facilities."
Although it is an independent store, Elaine says they are able to tap into the Co-op's retail network. "They've been very supportive as they are keen to support local communities."
The Co-op delivers to the store two or three times a week - and as the summer's coming, deliveries have been upped to three times a week. Elaine also uses local butchers and bakers.
However, deliveries are not always on time. "Gales are a big problem in the winter and hit us at least once a week. Mondays are usually the problem day because we don't have Sunday sailings as everyone strictly adheres to the Sabbath here. Plus, we don't have a Saturday night sailing either because it would land on a Sunday. But everyone understands and we just get on with it."
Elaine runs the shop with five other members of staff and she reckons the majority of the 400 locals use the shop: "They can get everything they need here. We have a good range of fresh vegetables and even things like fresh herbs."
The store runs a limited delivery service which Elaine plans to expand: "We do have regular orders that we deliver and we want to do more of that. We charge £5 for delivery because putting the order together is quite labour intensive."
The island's remote location means fuel is pricey. At the time of writing, unleaded petrol was selling for 106.9ppl and diesel at 109.5ppl. "We've had to reduce our margins on diesel, otherwise we'd be selling at more than £1.10. The nearest petrol station is 40 miles away and I think you can probably get fuel 2ppl cheaper there. Some people choose to make the journey to do that but a lot just fill up here," says Elaine.
Finding a reliable company to deliver is really a godsend to these retailers. Wick-based Sutherland Brothers is one such company. A family-owned wholesaler, it delivers to the Highlands and islands. Sales and marketing director Colin Sangster says it delivers to Raasay and Skye; with the furthest customer being Fasgadh Stores in Dunvegan, on the Isle of Skye.
"We deliver to these customers weekly," he says, "They just have to be well organised and hope that they get their ordering right and we get our supply right, otherwise it would mean a trip for them to the cash and carry in Inverness. If the roads are bad we will still deliver. The only time we don't is when the snow gates are closed. The delivery would then be made as soon as the gates open."
The ordering/delivery process is straightforward. The customer places their order on day one, either via their rep, telesales or electronically. It is processed and made up on day two and it is delivered on day three. The delivery to Skye is a two-day trip because of the distance involved in getting there and back.
Surprisingly, retailers do not pay a delivery charge - Sangster says Sutherland Bros absorbs the costs. "Fuel prices are absorbed as an overall cost. We do not inflate our prices to penalise people in the remote areas. What tends to happen, though, is that fuel increases lead to price increases from suppliers and these are obviously passed on to the retailers."
Sharon Brandreth and Amanda Black run the aforementioned Fasgadh Stores in Dunvegan on the Isle of Skye. Both are from Derbyshire and have been running the Skye shop since last September. "It's going okay," says Sharon. "It's been a challenge but business is good; it's a busy shop."
She'd run a CTN/post office in the Peak District about five years ago and was drawn to Skye by holidays spent there. Dunvegan is a village with a castle and Sharon's store overlooks the loch, but hers is not the only shop. "We've a bit of local competition; there's a fruit and veg shop and a newsagents in the village. Otherwise, people have to drive 20 miles to the Co-op in Portree."
Trade comes from a mixture of people in Dunvegan and surrounding villages plus tourists. "A lot of people use us for their main shopping," says Sharon. "They rely on us so we try to be everything to them by having a varied range - as much as we can squeeze in, really.
"Sometimes the sourcing is a bit of a struggle but we manage. Sutherland Bros are very good and we also get deliveries from Palmer & Harvey. There is a Booker cash and carry at Inverness but it's a three hour journey each way so we've only made the trip a couple of times.
"The fact that you can't just nip to the cash and carry if you run out of something can be frustrating - sometimes we have to go for as long as a week without an item - but customers are used to it. They realise it's not because we've forgotten to order it, it's just a fact of life where we live."
Sharon and Amanda have survived their first winter, and it wasn't as bad as they'd expected: "There were a lot of gales but business was not interrupted because of it," says Sharon.
She adds: "We've learnt about winter trading and so now we're learning about summer."
Finally, to Barbara Brown, who runs a hotel and a shop - The Trading Post - in St Margaret's Hope on the small island of South Ronaldsay in the Orkneys. She's got help, though - from her husband Fred and another couple, Gary and Dawn Steeple. The island measures just seven miles by four miles and the village home to 300-400 people. But as remote as it is there are plenty of shops. Barbara says there are two more general stores, a post office, a craft shop plus the award-winning The Creel restaurant.
Tourists make up a lot of Barbara's trade. "The Pentland ferry from Gills Bay near John O'Groats comes right into St Margaret's Hope. It comes four times a day in the summer and three times a day in the winter. The tourist season starts at Easter and goes on to the end of September, so we're in full swing now."
Business is good for Barbara - she's had the shop for 18 months and has already extended it to double its size. Supplies come from the two wholesalers on the islands but she also uses lots of local producers. "Tourists like the Orkney beef and scallops, and also the whisky. Two malts are made on the island - Scapa and Highland Park," she says.
Landmark member JW Gray & Co in Kirkwall, Orkney, delivers to Barbara's store. Depot manager Karen Scott explains: "We deliver three times a week to Stromness, which is about 15 miles away, and once a week to St Margaret's Hope, which is again about 15 miles away. Other delivered goods go to a pick-up point in Kirkwall where the local island hauliers take the goods on to their destinations. At the pick-up point there's a holding depot for chilled and frozen goods - it's needed in the winter when sailings can be hit and miss because of the weather."
Scott says business is good. "The winters are quiet but we've got a really good tourist industry. Visitor numbers have been rising each year for the past five or six years."
And it seems that what attracts the tourists to these islands attracts the 'get away from it all townies', too, looking for a quieter, if not easier, retailing life.