Teamwork is often an overused word when it comes to business, but for one small village shop and post office in Hampshire it’s been the key to its very survival.
The store recently celebrated its third birthday but the real story began way before then.
In 1998 the former commercially run shop and post office in the picturesque Abbotts Ann, near Andover, was sold when the owners retired. Villagers were approached for suggestions on how to retain the facilities, and the new owners, who had decided to convert the shop into a home, allowed an area to remain on a temporary basis until an alternative site could be found.
Trade continued out of that small front room for almost three years with the help of a determined team of volunteers. But the locals needed something more permanent. So in April 1999 the villagers formed the Abbotts Ann Village Shop Association - a non-profit-making organisation whose aim was to provide and maintain a shop and post office.
The group decided to buy some land and build a new store. But this cost about £300,000. Selling off a rear building plot would reduce the borrowing, but it still meant the group had to find £141,000.
Rental from installing a flat above the shop - which is now occupied by the subpostmistress, Linda Reading - would fund a £70,000 mortgage - leaving the association with a mountain to climb.
Test Valley borough council awarded the project £5,000, which was then matched by the parish and county council. And with the help of some interest-free loans from generous locals and a number of fundraising events, the site on which an old barn stood was purchased and the village was back on track to having the store and post office it needed.
Planning permission was granted in May 2000 and later that month Community Action Hampshire awarded a grant to help pay for shopfittings. In August 2001 an agreement was reached for the village to take over the Post Office contract and builders were on site by November.
It took another 10 months to complete the project - but the hard work wasn’t over even then. Staffing needed to be addressed and so a small team of paid workers knuckled down to run the business and 30 unpaid volunteers signed up to offer their services for a few hours a week.
Leading the team now are managers Geraldine Heather and Carol Murphy, with Linda Reading supported by two part-time members of staff in the post office. “We’ve really gone from strength to strength,” says Carol. “There’s no way we would keep the shop going without the help of the volunteers. I think the reason we’ve been successful is through teamwork and because everyone sticks together.”
Fundraising was obviously the number one priority for the association when it first embarked on the project but money still needs to be raised. A collection bucket sits on the counter and is topped up with loose change, and a committee is in charge of initiating fundraising events.
Carol adds: “When the original fundraising was taking place we wanted to raise £10 a brick. People were very generous and there were lots of large donations. The money is now being paid back interest-free and everything should be straight in about two years. When that’s done we will be able to offer even better deals for our customers.”
The services on offer range from dry-cleaning to a book club, which alone boosts profits by about £300 a month. Bread is baked on site each morning, fresh meat and fish are delivered from local suppliers, there’s a small gardening section, popular off licence and home delivery service. The weekly turnover is rarely below £3,500 and is expected to easily exceed £4,000 in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
The post office plays an important role in the success of the shop. “The post office is vital as it brings in a lot of business,” explains Carol. “It’s very handy for people to have a good range of services in the village. A lot of our older customers don’t need to go into town very often at all. We really are the heart of the village and try to make the shop very homely.”
It’s this homely aspect that hits you the moment you enter. There’s a table and chairs at one end and a constant flow of shoppers who are always made to feel welcome and often stop for a quick cup of tea.
“Because of the history of the shop and the service we provide, people are loyal and there seem to be more coming in every week,” says Carol. “The secret is to be pleasant to everyone. The bigger stores and post offices don’t have the same atmosphere - it makes a world of difference.”
Carol is adamant that the volunteers are the reason for such a successful three years’ trading and why the whole project became a reality. “Most of our volunteers come in once a week for about half a day,” she says. There are 30 on the books now. Some are able to help on a regular basis and others are on standby if we suddenly need them to come in. Without them we couldn’t have achieved all this.”
Volunteer Neilma Swan told C-Store: “I’ve been helping out at the shop for about 18 months now and usually work a few hours each week with my husband. One of the jobs we do is to check all the sell-by dates and keep everything stocked up. It’s good fun and a great way to get to know people, as we haven’t lived in the area very long.”
Carol is confident the shop has a bright future and adds: “This Christmas is going to be busy for us. We’re going to be offering free mince pies and mulled wine as a way of saying thank-you to all our customers, and we’ll hold a party for our volunteers.”
It was clear from chatting to locals that the efforts of the association are much appreciated, and for the volunteers dedicating a few hours a week is no hardship if it means a vital community service stays alive. Abbott’s Ann is a classic example of a community clubbing together. Full-time staff, volunteers and locals all make this new-build store feel like it has been at the centre of the village for decades.