Three years ago when Chris and Juliet Porter had had enough of a busy London life they decided that retailing would offer them a fresh challenge and provide them with a new, slower-paced lifestyle. So after much searching they moved to Corfe Castle in Dorset to start the next chapter in their lives.

"I was passing through the village and saw a convenience store for sale that I knew had huge potential," says Juliet. "I fell in love with it immediately and wanted to put an offer in right away."

With the existing owners approaching retirement and keen to sell, the Porters' offer was accepted and they became the new owners of Clealls of Corfe. However, the dream very quickly began to turn into a nightmare.

"We faced a lot of resentment from some locals who couldn't get over the fact that Londoners were coming to run their village store," says Chris. "We were warned that it would take us years to be accepted, and some people even stopped shopping here when we took over."

In an attempt to fit in, the Porters began asking customers what they'd like from the store, but this only meant they started spreading themselves and their funds too thin. "We were trying to please everybody but ended up pleasing nobody," explains Chris. "If a customer asked for a certain brand, we'd rush out to get it, only to be left with a load of stock that could take months for us to sell. It was destroying our cash flow."

Juliet adds that locals who were used to the old owners were unwilling to accept any changes. "Any time we did anything different such as rearrange the stock or cut out some lines that weren't selling well, we would be accused of ruining the shop or 'turning it posh'," she says.

A tough, demanding customer base and an even tougher economic climate put huge pressure on the couple. "We were rushing around, trying to please customers who were only spending a small amount in the store and then when the recession hit people had less to spend and our costs jumped," says Juliet. "To be honest, we were considering selling up after two years. We had a terrible November and couldn't see how it was going to turn around. We had help from Rural Shops Alliance, but money was going out quicker than it was coming in."

In desperation, the couple responded to a flyer looking for shops to appear on a TV makeover show. The show was hosted by fashion and retail expert Mary Portas and they decided that they had nothing to lose by applying.

Their application was accepted and Portas, along with a television crew from the BBC programme Mary Queen of Shops, headed to Corfe to revamp the store.

"She was very hard on us right from the beginning," says Chris. "All three of us went through the store and it was similar to a headmistress talking to some naughty schoolchildren.

"Feedback is always good, but she went much further than that and told us straight away exactly what we were doing wrong."

Not all of Portas' criticisms were well received. "She accused us of being lazy, which I found to be very unfair," says Juliet. "We work seven days a week, offer deliveries to our elderly customers, and are always willing to go the extra mile for people. Later on she did take it back and explained that she meant that we were lazy when it came to looking for ways to save costs."

One of Portas' main concerns was that she didn't find the shop "inspiring", so the couple set about revamping it. They renovated a store room and turned it into a community room where people could sit and relax. The counter was moved so it faced the front door and all of the fixtures were changed to brighten the place up.

"The previous owners had the store a certain way and we didn't really deviate from that," says Juliet. "I think it was the fact that we were too afraid of offending any of the locals. It wasn't in the best state when we got it, with lots of dark corners and stock everywhere, so the interior was one of the first things we changed after speaking to Mary."

The front of the store was also altered. The dark windows that hid the shop away were replaced with bright displays that allow in plenty of natural light. "People can now see into the store properly from outside and although off season passing trade is not huge, customers who haven't been in the shop in several years are venturing in again," says Juliet.

Chris and Juliet also decided to play to the strengths of a typical village store. "We now stock as much local produce as possible and communicate this to customers," says Chris. "We sell locally sourced fruit and vegetables, ice cream from the nearby dairy and locally made chocolate. We've also worked with the local brewery to come up with our own beer."

In addition, they have been integrating themselves further into the community and are finally starting to win people over. "We have a community noticeboard on which local businesses can advertise and let the local school showcase art projects in our window," says Chris. "We also leave leaflets at all of the campsites, B&Bs and hostels in the area so that tourists know we're here."

Another part of the makeover involved installing a coffee machine to complement the new community room. "Even though there are a couple of tea rooms in the village, people have responded well to the new addition," says Juliet. "We try not to take trade from each other so if one person wants tea and cakes we'll send them to the tea room, but if anyone is looking for coffee they'll send them here. We even have a chalkboard to keep the children entertained while their parents relax."

Although happy with the new machine, Chris does have some concerns. "It gets so busy at times, we may have to get someone to man the machine full-time," he says.

Reinvigorated after the makeover, the couple are eagerly anticipating the summer trade so they can really gauge the revamp's success. "Most of the other shops either close or open only part-time during winter, so it is important for us to maintain links with the community during these months," says Chris. "We could close, but that would affect the customers who depend on us."

The couple haven't just changed the look of the store, they have changed their outlook on convenience retail. "At first we were just playing at running a shop and when bills started mounting up and turnover was down, we knew had to change our approach," says Juliet. "Before, we wouldn't even look at margins, or would happily overstock without worrying about cash flow, but now we take it more seriously. The store is a hub for the village and we want it to survive. Some of our elderly customers rely on us a lot and if the store were to close, they'd be isolated.

"Instead of getting upset when a customer accuses us of ruining the shop, we focus on the great customers who are loyal to us," adds Juliet. "We also learnt not to be afraid to ask for help. Any other store that's going through the same thing should use whatever resources they can to help them survive. If it hadn't been for help from the RSA and Mary Portas I don't think we would still be in business."
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Clealls of Corfe, Dorset Size: 1,500sq ft Staff: six Weekly turnover: £8,000 Services: delivery, National Lottery, off licence

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