Adozen village retailers operating within the seeming affluence of the Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council (TMBC) in Kent have been given access to an experienced retail consultant because the local residents are worried about their viability.
When a borough council normally surveys its residents and asks about their main concerns for their environment and wellbeing, the most common responses are about local schools, street cleaning, street lighting and anti-social behaviour. When TMBC in West Kent undertook one such survey in 2004 - as required by Government - it was surprised to see that the viability of local services and stores was a major worry for so many. Such concern had not registered in any previous survey.
The survey of 1,200 TMBC citizens was a representative sample of the borough’s residents in terms of gender, social group, age and geography, all overseen by a statistician. Parish councils were also consulted, as were key agencies such as the police and primary care trusts, and Kent’s various rural and environmental agencies.
As TMBC corporate services manager Mark Raymond confirms: “It was clear among local groups and parishes that the vitality of local stores and services was a major concern. This was unusual in an area generally regarded as affluent.
“We didn’t have major resource to throw at it and decided the best thing we could offer would be expert advice. We could not adopt a paternal approach, intrude and run the businesses for them, although we genuinely wanted to help and give them the best chance of survival.
He continues: “A two-phase action plan was put in place to help us look at it closer, set aside money, and then take it forwards as part of our economic function.”
TMBC made contact with Sean Carter, rural retail consultant for Action with Communities in Rural Kent, the agency based at Folkestone in east Kent, and part of the Rural Community Council for Kent & Medway. They commissioned him to proceed on what turned out to be a very revealing fact finding mission (see box above right).
Carter identified 12 independent village and quasi-rural stores that he believed would benefit from direct help, then submitted his action plan to TMBC. The ‘village’ stores in the less rural spots were included due to the key social and community focus they provided for their customers.
“Much more than simply businesses,” comments Carter. He confirms: “The 12 stores identified could be split into three defined groups: doing well; doing okay and those in desperate straits. Then further by retailers who wanted help and those who did not. The response from retailers to a visit by an advisor was very good but as is often the case, the better retailers were open to suggestions while the poorer retailers did not want to attend training courses or talk about the financial details of their businesses.
“The quality and viability of the stores and retailers varied considerably, with some excellent examples of independent retailing. In others, a lack of investment was very apparent and there had to be serious concern about their future. Among the latter group the prevailing view was ‘I can’t wait to sell it’ but I was determined, where I could, to overcome apathy. In every store there is something that can be done.”
From the borough council’s point of view, Carter was able to provide plenty of items for it to consider in rate relief and rateable value, marketing, funding, multiple competition, local food and training.
Carter suggested, for example, TMBC consider upping its rate relief from 80 to 100% (three of the stores highlighted didn’t even know about it). He also suggested the council think about a match funding scheme for items such as epos and refrigeration, citing the former Countryside Agency Community Services Grant as having been highly successful in helping other Kent stores improve turnover by up to 20%.
Under marketing, Carter urged TMBC to consider funding marketing/promotional literature to boost small clusters of independent stores, stressing that it would need to be ongoing rather than a one-off to induce the desired increases in footfall.
Meantime, given the go-ahead by TMBC to help those retailers who welcomed input, Carter returned and moved from basics to an in-depth survey. This took in accounts, a complete range review, levels of investment, training, and extraneous factors affecting the village such as new roads, housing estates and competitors. From these Carter identified opportunities for each store and suggested implementation timeframes. Additionally he was able, as chief executive of the national Rural Shops Alliance and as a consultant for Action with Communities in Rural Kent, to draw input from other agencies: the Post Office, Business Link, Produced in Kent, Invicta Retail Systems and Kent brewer Shepherd Neame.
“I had no intention of letting good intentions fade away,” smiles Carter. “For stores to survive you have to explore all avenues. Too often, for example, parish councillors don’t shop in their village stores. Why? So we involved Kent Association of Parish Councils. Retailers need to talk to their local councils and test ideas - it’s vital. In other situations you might combine the village pub and store under one roof, or link PO services with the village hall.
“The TMBC initiative served as an early warning system to ensure that in each location a plan was in place. It has to happen right across the country. Too often we are called in when it’s too late.”
RECEPTIVE TO ADVICE
Judy and Jack Jarvis have been running their store in the village of Wouldham for 18 months and were delighted to “pick Sean’s brains” when offered his advice by TMBC.
Within minutes of his arrival, reports a still thankful Judy, she was on the phone to the council to apply for rates relief. They were oblivious to this entitlement. For Jack and Judy that meant waving goodbye to £1,800 a year. “Getting that back made a huge difference,” confirms Jack.
“There are have been so many positive points to our conversations; we were clueless when we got here,” say the couple.
Looking for a change in career from their respective banking and sales backgrounds, and a return to a village in the county from which they originally hailed, the couple discovered the Wouldham store via their son, who lived nearby. With a post office, off licence, lottery and news rounds, they felt the store offered plenty of opportunity. It was a change they haven’t regretted, and though it has been tough, they’ve doubled turnover.
After looking at their location, business and customer base Carter advised the Jarvises to reconsider their home news deliveries to get more customers into the store and spending.
Says Carter: “Stopping home delivery was right for this premises, but is not a move everyone should make.”
Jack estimates that by cutting out deliveries he’s lost 25% of his news customers, but the extra money the other 75% now spend in the store has more than made up for it.
And when the store window was smashed and everyone was urging the couple to install shutters to stop repeat incidents, it was Carter they phoned to canvass opinion. He echoed their view that it would be more of a deterrent to customers than criminals. They are now pursuing a plan for CCTV in the village with the parish council.
Local sourcing is another success. Judy contacted local farms to see what produce could be available and from an initial order of 10 dozen farm egg, sales quickly topped 30 dozen. “I told the farmer that we’ll take anything he’s got; the customers love it,” she reports.
With turnover having doubled, Jack’s twice weekly trip to Booker at Rochester is taking longer but the couple are reluctant to join a fascia. “I don’t want to commit to stocking a high level of own label,” explains Jack. “I want a balance; since we took out the really cheap cakes and stocked premium lines sales have soared. It’s the same with wine. I get great deals at Booker and run three bottles for a tenner deals on branded wines. It’s fun talking customers up to the next level. On Saturday nights off licence sales are huge,” he says.
Judy’s domain is the post office and again, footfall is increasing.
With a housing estate being built in the village the couple are confident and forward-looking. TMBC can he happy that it helped.
At Arun and Daxa Patel’s store in East Peckham, the outlook is less rosy since Somerfield opened a huge new forecourt on the main village ‘bypass’ - an A-road that 60% of villagers have to use just to get home. For Arun and Daxa, who’ve run the store for 19 years, the opportunity to harness Carter’s expertise couldn’t have come soon enough.
Originally a newsagents, the couple have built and expanded their offering, although an extensive range of cards, stationery and magazines urge customers back to its roots. Specialist health and beauty lines have also given the store a reputation beyond the village boundary but clearly, the pressure is on.
At TMBC Raymond acknowledges that current government legislation does not allow planners to examine the economic effect of their decisions, only environmental. He admits that without central legislation to change it, the competitive conflict that results from granting a multiple permission to build in a village situation cannot be taken into account and often compounds on existing problems.
“We need to educate planners and influence government policy to give us the tools to make the right decisions,” says Raymond.
“Planning impact deals with whole town centres, not individual village stores, and cannot therefore be used to justify a planning refusal.”
It’s a national problem that can be seen in all its painful ramifications at East Peckham.
Whilst philosophical, the Patels listened carefully to Carter’s advice to review their petfood fixture and remove duplication; to invest in epos to weed out the slow sellers in their huge range; and to move their off licence section from the behind the the till to prompt impulse purchases. Carter was able to earmark licensed as a potential area of growth and also provided timely advice on the trickier aspects of their licence renewal. Arun admits he’d had the forms for ages but kept putting if off.
To boost sales of alcohol, Carter is also urging the couple to review their opening hours and consider extending beyond 7.30pm on Lottery nights and to definitely consider opening beyond 6pm all other weekdays.
“They would sell a lot more alcohol, snacks and confectionery by extending hours,” asserts Carter.
On the positive side, Arun already attends parish council meetings and has a good rapport with his community police officer so issues concerning crime and anti-social behaviour are addressed.
“I still want to increase the business,” says Arun. ‘I’ve popped into Somerfield a few times to see what it’s doing; I need to act. Sean hasn’t got a magic formula.”
In two years, when TMBC has to consult its constituents again, Carter hopes his involvement will ensure TMBC’s village stores are alive and flourishing and in no need of the borough’s intervention at all.