Despite lacking in retail experience, Jo Buist was destined to utilise her business skills and passion for local produce in rural Hampshire
Rain showers may have been sprinkling the Hampshire countryside when Convenience Store visited the chocolate box village of Chilbolton, but under the thatched roof of its 16th century village store, business was bright.
Since buying the store back in 2006, Jo Buist and her partner David Johnston have worked tirelessly to make the store a shining community light, an achievement all the more admirable considering that neither had ever worked in retail before.
Jo had previously worked for Vodafone, while David - a former restaurateur from Winchester - worked as a web consultant in the online recruitment sector, a role which, after helping Jo to sort the newspapers in the morning, he still holds.
“Enthusiastic and maybe just a little naive, at 33 I don’t think I was what most people expected of a shopkeeper. However, the retail life had always appealed to me and after being made redundant I was keen to try my hand at it, and move back to my childhood home of Hampshire,” explains Jo, between greeting customers and exchanging banter with the local postman who’d dropped in for a quick cup of coffee from the popular bean to cup machine.
Opening hours: Mon-Friday 7.30am-6pm, Sat-Sun 8am-5.30pm
Additional services: Post Office, National Lottery, book exchange, PayPoint, hot tea and coffee to go
“I Googled around for shops for sale, found Chilbolton Village Stores and fell in love with it immediately,” Jo continues. “We put our house on the market, sold it that same week, bought the store and adjoining accommodation, and jumped straight in,” she laughs.
“Neither of us had any retail experience, but we both have keen business minds and a passion for quality, local and artisan food and drink. We also believe strongly in the importance of a village shop and its place in the community, so from day one, establishing the shop as a welcoming community hub was absolutely paramount.”
And a split second is all it takes to see that the pair have most definitely achieved this goal.
The store’s commitment to its local community via the support of its customers, staff, producers and other businesses is as genuine as it is effective.
A weekly delivery from Batleys and cash & carry top-ups ensure that the store offers a full range of convenience essentials. However, local goods are the stars of the show, and thanks to Jo’s recent attendance on a gift wrapping course, the cakes and biscuits have never looked so appetising.
Fresh pork, bacon and sausages are supplied by the award-winning Greenfield Free Range Pork, and Lyburn Cheese and quiche from Taste and Cottage Savouries.
A tray of plump chickens are delivered from the local farm while we chat. “I order them on a Monday, they’re slaughtered on the Tuesday, and delivered fresh to me on the Wednesday,” says Jo. “You can’t get better than that.”
Wines are supplied and recommended by the local wine merchant Caviste, and the range is promoted by a series of regular in-store tastings which, unsurprisingly, never fail to pull in the punters.
Another string to the store’s bow is fresh fish, an area where many convenience store owners are still reluctant to dip their toes.
“We have a fantastic working relationship with Edward’s Fishmongers, which are based in Launceston, Cornwall,” explains Jo. “They buy day boat fish only, so 80% of our fish comes from Looe, a small tidal port, where the boats leave early in the morning, returning in the evening. The fish is then auctioned early next day, prepared by Jamie and Eddie, and then shipped to us in Chilbolton. With no factory trawlers involved the fish is the freshest possible. It comes in early on a Wednesday morning and normally it’s all sold out by Thursday evening.
“We sell all the usual suspects such as salmon and cod fillets but also more unusual varieties - including dab sole and ling - that the fishmongers tell me are good. Both myself and David love to cook so we’re always on hand to offer shoppers recipe suggestions.”
However, Jo and David’s reliance on small producers isn’t purely for the point of difference - it’s also practical.
“One of our biggest challenges is getting national suppliers to deliver to us. Our rural location and the winding country lanes that have to be manoeuvred to get to us is quite off-putting for some. Robert Wiseman, for example, simply won’t deliver to us, and Dairy Crest will only do so three days a week, which can be difficult as milk is such a big seller, particularly in the colder months. That’s why we try to get as much of our stock as possible from local suppliers,” adds Jo.
On the subject of local, you can’t do better than homemade. When he’s not busy sorting papers, doing his regular day job, or updating the store’s very well ‘liked’ Facebook page, David can be found in the kitchen, cooking up batches of delicious ready-meals which he then packages and freezes for sale.
“We had had problems getting supplies of ready meals that were both quality and affordable in the quantities that we sold them,” Jo adds. “David’s past experience running a restaurant meant that he had the background for it.
“He does batches of 12 and freezes them. We make them slightly larger than the multiples’ and use our free range and local meat, herbs from the garden when in season, and our fish. Fish pies, lasagne, chicken and lamb curries are all popular.” This summer, following a number of requests on Facebook, they plan to extend the range to include a beef meal as well. “The meals are really popular with busy village mums and elderly people,” she says. “Another advantage is that we have next to no wastage from our fresh meat and fish.”
David’s passion for cooking is also put to good use at the Chilbolton Village Fete BBQ, where this year he’ll be feeding hundreds of hungry mouths with his speciality Mediterranean-style leg of lamb.
“We started this five years ago and we now make kebabs from 18 legs of lamb and cook about 300 sausages and burgers. We supply the meat at cost, but it creates great PR for us and our suppliers.”
Local marketing, and in particular social media, are also vital for link building, says Jo. “Our website and Facebook page work in harmony to do this and have been a godsend these past couple of years. Last year we ran a social media competition encouraging people to photograph their Chilbolton Stores’ bag for life in unusual places. The top prize was a Kindle. It attracted a huge amount of attention locally and the site has continued to grow in popularity since then. The website has been great too, helping us to bring in orders from further afield, recruit new staff, and attract new customers.”
They also use the website and Facebook to promote other local businesses. “We independent businesses all need to work together on supporting each other. The healthier we are, the better for the whole community.”
The store’s website and Facebook page also played a crucial role when the store underwent an extensive refurbishment programme in 2010. “There was going to be disruption and we needed to keep our villagers informed,” Jo says.
In addition to a new integrated post office and shop counter, a smart red and cream checked floor and new shelving, the store was given a fresh new thatch roof.
“Our customers were delighted with the transformation, and we owe much of it to Hampshire County Council, which gave us fantastic support. Having a good relationship with your local councillor is definitely a good idea, although I think we are luckier than most in Hampshire. Our council holds regular village shop workshops where independent retailers can meet each other and learn new skills. The last one I went on included a gift wrapping workshop. It was great fun and I use the skills learned to add an extra touch of glamour to some of our local products. It’s amazing how a bit of ribbon can really heighten the sense of value for shoppers.
“Offering that little bit extra is definitely becoming more important in these austere times.” However, despite the tighter times, Jo is adamant that the past 12 months have been some of the best. “The business is growing and we are leaner and fitter from a period of austerity,” she says.