The Critchleys have found the recipe for success in turning around the once-ailing Croscombe Village Store - and it lies in catering for their foodie customers. Sarah Britton went to find out more

No produce, no customers, and no future. The store in the village of Croscombe, Somerset, had been up for sale for years and was in much need of some TLC. But in 2009 its fortunes changed when it was turned from a failing newsagents to a fine food emporium.

Despite its sorry state, locals saw that the unit had great potential, if only the right people were in charge, so they clubbed together and bought the unit. They then leased it to a village not-for-profit society, who in turn advertised the building for lease in the local paper in the hope of finding someone to take on the mammoth task of getting the shop back on track.

Most people would have run a mile from the project, but Shellie and Phil Critchley rose to the challenge and introduced a raft of initiatives to rescue the store.

The main hurdle was low footfall. “A lot of villagers didn’t even come in the shop, so our biggest task was getting people through the door,” says Phil. The couple embarked on a leaflet drop to the village and surrounding areas and ran some free tasting evenings in order to spark people’s interest. They also started up an email newsletter, containing new product lines and a recipe of the week.

The store was redesigned in line with the villagers’ traditional tastes, with wooden-framed windows and wicker baskets to help create an ‘olde worlde’ feel.

Store profile: Croscombe Village Stores, Somerset

Size: 350sq ft 
Opening hours: Mon-Fri 7am-7pm; Sat 7am-6pm; Sun 7am-12pm
Staff: five 
Services: home delivery, van shop, cash-back, mobile top-ups, dry-cleaning drop off and pick-up

Another idea that drew people to the store was an official opening day attended by local celebrity and Glastonbury Festival organiser Michael Eavis, to celebrate the shop’s rebranding as Croscombe Village Stores. “Michael was instrumental in what we were doing and gave us £3,000 out of the Glastonbury Festival charity fund to buy a van,” says Shellie.

But what really won the locals’ hearts was the way that the Critchleys involved them in the store’s progress by challenging them to come up with products that they would like to see on shelf. And we’re not just talking about a favourite golfing magazine, or a new flavour of Doritos. Croscombe’s customers are foodie fanatics and they regularly come up with weird and wonderful ideas for new additions to the store. “One man asked if we could find some confit de canard for him, and Phil searched the internet until he found it,” says Shellie.

Priced at a hefty £17.99 a tin, it was something of a risk to order it in, but the couple were hopeful that their affluent customers would lap up the foreign delicacy. “It’s been a steady seller,” says Shellie. “We had a gentleman who came in especially for it as he’d heard about it through word of mouth.”

Another top seller is Mike’s Smokehouse salmon pâté. At £3.44 for a 134g tub, it isn’t exactly cheap, but the locals can’t get enough of it. “We sell 40 in an average week, and 100 a week during Christmas,” says Shellie.

The couple stock a strong range of premium meats from the local butchers and fish from Brixham in Devon, and they are happy to take orders for customers with more than a few mouths to feed. Everything from shoulder of lamb and veal steaks, to wild sea bass and hand-picked crab meat can be ordered over the counter. The service is going down a storm. Phil explains that on one occasion he ordered in £200-worth of halibut for a customer. And during C-Store’s visit, someone buys £80-worth of meat - not bad for a store that barely stretches 350sq ft!

The couple also actively search out fine fare. “We go to food shows at the Birmingham NEC and we’ve been to the Taste of the West Awards in Exeter,” says Shellie. As a result of their efforts, the store stocks a wealth of speciality goods, such as handmade butter from J Gould, walnut oil sourced from France, marmalade made by a retired archdeacon, and the latest addition to the mix, Labneh - a Lebanese yogurt-based cheese.

“We’ve also driven around on the lookout for farm shops to see what they have to offer,” says Shellie. “We found a great garlic farm on the Isle of Wight.”

For those who aren’t in the know about garlic, there is an informative leaflet placed near the display telling consumers about the supplier, and providing numerous recipes including garlic scape pesto, oven-baked garlic and smoked garlic chicken, to name but a few.

Another leaflet in the sauce section explains all about Madhuban’s Indian curry sauces and again offers some recipe suggestions. “We want people to know that they can visit the store and come out with a meal,” says Phil.

He explains that the shop often stocks a standard brand that people will be familiar with, alongside something for the numerous foodies. “We’ve got two kinds of ketchup: one Heinz priced at £2.49 and one Stokes, which we sell at £3.69. The Stokes one is the bigger seller.”

But having such a large range in a tiny store does have its downsides. “We have to be very ruthless in the stock we order because we are so restricted on space,” says Shellie. “If something doesn’t sell, we discount it and try something else.”

It’s a constant battle for shelf-space. “We use every single inch, so fitting in promotional stands is tricky as there just isn’t room,” says Phil. And negotiating the size of an order isn’t as straightforward as the couple would like. “A lot of producers have a £250 minimum order, so part of the challenge when finding new suppliers is getting them to adapt for us,” says Phil. “Sometimes we find a great product, but we can’t get it in the right quantity.”

However, many suppliers are willing to be flexible. “We have a new range for Christmas from Chase Distilleries,” says Phil. “They let us have one case of mixed product, which is really helpful.”

And for people who aren’t able to make it to the shop, the shop comes to them. In addition to home and news deliveries, the couple turn the van into a mobile store on Thursdays and drive to neighbouring villages to sell additional produce and further raise awareness of the store.

Van sales are growing, but once people find out about the store they usually prefer to come to the outlet itself because they love the banter, explains Shellie. C-Store experiences this first-hand when a regular enters the shop and tells us that our car has rolled down a hill into the road. Everyone in the store is in fits of laughter as C-Store rushes out to find it’s just a hilarious joke at our expense!

But you soon get used to the fun-loving customers, many of whom are in the shop for a good 10 minutes simply having a natter. “We make time to talk to people’s kids, and we bring out stools for some of our regulars so that they can sit down and have a chat,” grins Shellie. “Generally, people aren’t in a rush. They like to know what we’re up to, how the kids are, and what’s happening in the village.”

On the day of C-Store’s visit everyone is talking about the shop’s Christmas tasting session at the village hall, which is taking place later in the month. “We’ve done a few tastings in the past, but this is the first time we’ve had a ‘meet the suppliers’ event,” says Shellie.

Any retailer who has held such an event will know that it takes an enormous amount of organising to ensure everything goes to plan, but the Critchleys have a bigger job on their hands than most because their huge product range means they have more than 50 suppliers. Shellie is unperturbed by the hard work involved. “We’ve found you can’t rest on your laurels - you’ve got to get out there and drum up as much business as possible,” she says.

So far, the Critchleys’ approach appears to be working a treat. “Our basket spend was just £2.35 when we started. It’s now £6,” beams Phil. “It’s hard work, but good fun,” adds Shellie. “We’re turning over double that when we started, and we’re 15% up on last year.”

She is full of hope for the future, too. “If we’ve made that much of an impact in less than three years, just think what we can do in five years’ time!”■