As the former manager of Amberley football club, retailer Colin Woods knows the meaning and value of teamwork. He knows that without it, his business - the picture postcard Amberley Village Stores in the heart of the rolling West Sussex countryside - wouldn’t be the success it is today.
Colin, who had completed an apprenticeship in retail management in his youth, came to be the proud owner of the 600sq ft store in a converted barn in 2001, after he was made redundant from his former role in the insurance business.
The keen golfer had at first viewed his redundancy as the perfect opportunity to take early retirement. After a few months of afternoon tees, though, he started to get itchy feet. Aware that the village store - which at the time was being run as a community enterprise - was in trouble, and armed with a generous redundancy package, Colin felt he was the man to bring it back to life. And so it has proven.
“There was very little here when I first took over,” Colin explains. “The store was turning over just under £2,000 a week, a sum which has now increased to almost £6,000, not bad at all when you consider its size.”
Amberley Village Stores,
Size: 600sq ft
Opening hours: Monday-Saturday 7am-5pm, Sunday 8am-5pm
Additional services: post office, dry-cleaning, parcel collection, National Lottery, mobile phone top-up, home delivery
Having lived in the village for years, one of Colin’s first actions was to bump up the store’s range of locally-made goods. From the fresh fruit and vegetables that adorn the store’s exterior, to the cheeses, cakes, ales and fresh meats inside, local produce is now one of the stars of the show, much to the delight of local shoppers and the thousands of walkers who tramp over the South Downs and through Amberley’s lanes each year.
“Local produce is one of the most important aspects of the store,” says Colin. “Not only does it create a point of difference from the supermarkets, but it also cuts down on food miles, which is becoming an increasing concern to many people. It suits our way of doing business, too. We order little and often from the suppliers, which enables us to keep costs and wastage in check, and that’s how they prefer it as well.”
Colin’s close working relationship, and in many cases friendship, with the area’s local producers certainly reaped rewards this year when disappointing weather conditions led to a dismal harvest. He explains: “The cold dry weather conditions at the start of the summer meant that the local cherry crop was badly damaged,” Colin explains. “Most of the supermarkets around here were unable to source any local cherries at all, but thanks to our close working relationship with many of the small local suppliers we were able to get quite a few!
“We get about two or three fresh produce deliveries a week to keep the items on display as fresh as possible. Quality is essential when selling fresh fruit and vegetables as just one bruised apple can tarnish people’s perception of the entire range. The minute it starts to fade we take it off sale, and donate all wasted goods to the local animal sanctuary where it’s very much appreciated.”
His next step is to invest in a chalet-style structure to house the produce and improve its appearance and quality.
Keen to build on the success of home-grown, Colin has launched an own label brand for the store. With the help of Bramble Foods he’s been able to develop his own logo and labels which have been attached to a range of jams and preserves, also designed by Colin.
“Perfecting the range was great fun, but I knew that it had to be good quality if we were going to put the store’s name against it. In my opinion it’s better to pay a slightly higher wholesale price to get a really great product that people will come back for again and again.” And that they do. In fact, when Convenience Store visited local shoppers were all but fighting to tell us how highly they prized their local shop.
“The villagers are so supportive of us,” Colin adds. “There’s not another shop for miles around, especially since the one in Fittleworth a few miles away closed last year. There’s also little public transport in and around Amberley, and with it being a retirement area many of our customers are in their late fifties and some in their nineties. For these people we perform a most valuable service.”
Colin is only too happy to deliver groceries to the more elderly residents and has a branded van in which to do this. However, he finds that most customers would rather walk in to see him.
At the far end of the L-shaped store is a newspaper collection point. “Each morning we put their favourite paper in their slot ready for them to collect. It’s like a daily ritual most will come in to collect their paper, something to eat, and have a chat. It’s also a nice way of keeping an eye on them. People always let me know if they are going away so if someone doesn’t come in when they should, I’ll check up on them to make sure they’re okay.”
Colin’s impressive local produce range is bolstered by weekly deliveries from both Booker and P&H, enabling the store to offer a full range of convenience groceries at competitive prices.
“We’ve not got a huge amount of store space, but we always try to offer a good, better, best proposition wherever possible,” says Colin.
As such, promotions also form a key cornerstone of the store’s business plan. “We might be in an affluent area, but even wealthy people like to know they are getting a good deal,” Colin adds.
The launch of a new affordable housing development just a mile away from the store has also upped the need for Colin’s store to offer a range to suit all wallets.
Promotions are changed on a weekly basis and, thanks to store manager and technical genius Lee, are advertised on the store’s website, Facebook page and a weekly online mailshot.
“Promotions are really important, but you have to keep them fresh and exciting,” Colin adds.
In the summer the store got behind the Olympics with a medal-themed promotion, which helped the village feel involved with the Games. “When Team GB won its 29th gold medal we came up with the idea of launching a ‘29 gold offers’ promotion, which was really popular with everyone.
“We also offer a Christmas savings club to help people pay for their locally-sourced turkeys and trimmings at the end of the year. People have to put in a minimum of £2 a week and we add 5% to their total on December 1.”
Colin’s enthusiasm to involve the whole community doesn’t stop at local shoppers, but encompasses neighbouring businesses, too. “We promote local artists and writers by letting them exhibit or do signings inside the store, and we also have an agreement with the tea shop next door to not sell hot drinks. In return, they don’t sell ice cream. The community police also hold regular surgeries here,” Colin adds.
A close working relationship with nearby bed and breakfast owners means the store’s website promotes local B&Bs. In return, B&B guests are given an Amberley Village Stores discount card, offering them 10% off anything they buy.
The aim now is for the store’s website to link to even more local businesses, and push up its hit rate.
“When we launched the site, Amberley Village Stores was on page 22 of Google, and today it’s at the top of the first page, which I’m thrilled with,” explains Lee.
“There’s always more to be done, though. Like the promotions that we offer, the key to a successful website is keeping it regularly updated. We now have 1,800 visits a month, which for a small village store in the heart of the Sussex countryside is not bad at all.”
Judging by the many positive and heart-warming comments left on the store’s Facebook page and website, locals and visitors alike are already pretty chuffed with what’s on offer, but as Colin says: “You can always go the extra mile.” •