“Wouldn’t it be handy if the village shop was up for sale,” joked Wendy Merrifield as she flicked through the local paper one bright October morning. The joke, though, was on her, because slap bang in the middle of the property pages was a picture of the tiny 17th century thatched store she was referring to, complete with a big red ‘For Sale’ sign. “I couldn’t believe our luck when Wendy showed me the paper,” recalls her husband Trevor, who had just sold his manufacturing business and was looking for a new challenge in the form of rural convenience store.

At 300sq ft, and walking distance from their house in the picturesque village of Winterbourne Dauntsey, near Salisbury, the small store more than fitted the bill.

The single-storey building had just been put up for sale by its previous owners who, after half a century behind the counter, were looking forward to some time in the sun.

“We called the property agents that day and viewed the store the very next,” Trevor recalls.

However, the Merrifields’ retail dream wasn’t to be realised quite as quickly as they had hoped. Complications with the Post Office, and problems linked to the building’s age, meant that it took a full 12 months before they were handed the keys. However, once they were in there was no stopping them. And the first job on their list was a refit. “We wanted to transform the business from what was a small village store selling quite a limited range, to a fully fledged convenience store with loads of products and services to attract even more custom,” Trevor says.

The store has an enviable location on the busy A338 into Salisbury and, as a result, attracts lots of passing trade, particularly builders and lorry drivers. There is also a bus stop directly in front of the store, which is used a lot by the village’s elderly constituents. Trevor was confident that introducing a new chilled food-to-go offer and expanding his beer and wine range would help entice a host of new shoppers. And so the work began, and then promptly stopped.

A routine check of the building’s electrical infrastructure revealed that the entire shop and mezzanine floor needed rewiring, a job which is painful at the best of times, but becomes positively excruciating when a thatched roof is involved.

“The thatched roof meant that we had to seek out special lights and wiring which stood out from the ceiling instead of being sunk in, as is the case in most stores,” says Trevor. After weeks of dealing with various electricians and shopfitters, a solution was finally found and the work was able to progress.

Once the electrics were sorted, the next job was to lay a smart new laminate wood floor and smother every spare inch of wall with slat panelling to boost shelf space. “We also reduced the height between the shelves by half, meaning that we could squeeze much more in,” adds Trevor.

Refrigeration facilities were also moved into a more prime position and an increased display area was allocated for convenience foods.

Despite the modern refit, Wendy and Trevor were adamant that the store retain its old rural charm. The traditional stable door was kept and, at less than two metres high, the low ceiling is a quick, and potentially painful, reminder that you are in an 17th century building. Once all the heavy-duty structural work was completed, Trevor set about researching his range. “I spent a lot of time visiting other stores in the area to find out what sold well, what didn’t, and what the coming trends were. I also spoke to many of our customers to find out what they wanted from their local store.”

Trevor’s painstaking attention to detail has meant that Winterbourne Stores now has an incredibly diverse (and unusual) range. Its prominent news and magazines stand, for example, houses eight different tractor titles. “Tractors are big news in this part of the world,” laughs Trevor. “People come from miles around to buy their favourite magazines.”

Even more curious is the large amount of space given over to nail clippers. “There’s an army base just down the road, and the one thing that all the soldiers forget to pack is nail clippers. We sell them by the bucket-load,” he reveals.

The almost equally large quantity of hair clips on display also has an explanation. They’re for horse-riders - to help keep their hair out of their eyes. I decided not to ask the reason for the sizeable hoard of fly tape.

For the Merrifields, meeting customers’ needs goes beyond just offering a comprehensive range of goods. Trevor and Wendy also provide a wide range of customer services, particularly for the area’s more elderly residents. “I do 12 grocery deliveries a week for some of our older shoppers and we also take their mail back and forth,” says Trevor. “We’re happy to do it and, of course, it’s free.”

Promotions are another tool that Trevor and Wendy use to keep their customers sweet. “Promotions are always hugely popular, so when there’s a good one on I’ll be sure to take advantage of it,” Trevor says. The next step for Trevor and Wendy is to install a modern CCTV system, and they are also investigating the possibility of opening an outreach Post Office in Salisbury. The couple refuse to be bogged down by any gloomy talk of recession and have a healthy attitude to competition, especially when Tesco is concerned. “What outsiders don’t know is that there are two ways into the village, one of which is through quite a deep ford which floods regularly. We always send the Tesco lorries that way, and then the farmers make a pretty penny towing them out!”
Fact file
Winterbourne Post Office Stores

Size: 300sq ft

Staff numbers: four full-time

Services offered: home delivery, post office

Special features: diverse range of magazines,

locally sourced goods