Home-baked cakes and strong community interaction ensure this small village store is thriving. Sarah Britton stops by for a cuppa

Few people have heard of the small Somerset town of Curry Mallet, and neither had C-Store, until we happened upon its village shop’s website. While many retailers bemoan today’s difficult trading conditions and the lack of consumer spending, Curry Mallet Stores is busy promoting its wares to potential customers in the most cheerful of manners.

A welcome message on the homepage describes the shop as “a tardis full of things both useful and lovely. From toilet rolls to bread rolls to fig rolls, from homemade chocolate crunch to Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, from handmade doorstops to bread for doorsteps…” We’re only half way down the first paragraph and we already know that the store sells homemade cakes, handcrafted gifts, and fresh bread, as well as plenty of store cupboard staples, so C-Store heads off to the green pastures of Somerset to meet owners Julia and Tim Langley, and see what they have to offer firsthand.

The store is a delight, both inside and out. A tiny stone cottage-like unit, with bright red signposting and a mossy green roof, it fits perfectly with its rural surroundings. Inside, the atmosphere is equally charming. A young girl has come in with her mother to collect her birthday cake, and there’s no hiding her smile when she sees the mass of sponge, decorated with lashings of butter icing and tiny pink roses.

But it’s not just the cake that’s sweet, it’s the margins. “Cake sales make up 15% of the business,” says Julia. “We’d only get a 20% margin on cakes sold in a bakery set-up and there would be high wastage, whereas the profit margin on freshly baked cakes is high - more than 50% depending on the type,” says Julia. “We normally offer four or five different varieties, plus cookies. Brownies are really popular - we sell 70 a week.”

Julia bakes most days to ensure the cake cabinet is brimming with goods, and makes cake hampers and celebration cakes to order, which can be posted on request. “It’s easy to do that as we have a post office,” grins Julia. “People who live locally like to send them to their families, especially at Christmas. We’ve also posted cakes to Afghanistan, Iraq, France, Germany and Japan.”

She claims that in the past, the store was largely frequented by elderly customers who came in to use the post office and then shop at the store. Older people are, of course, still welcome, and the shop even houses a couple of tables and chairs so that they can settle down with tea and cake. “People who live on their own come in and sit at the tables - they know that they won’t be on their own for long in here,” says Julia.

However, in order to keep the business going the couple were keen to increase their customer base. “We knew it was important to get the next generation involved to keep the business going,” says Julia. “It was vital to bring in the local mothers and children.”

So the couple decided to take the store beyond the confines of the four walls and get involved with the community. “Last Easter we put up a marquee outside and ran a craft club where local children made Easter cards and egg mobiles. We even set up a pen with a real lamb and challenged people to guess its weight. Then we organised a bunny hunt that started and ended at the shop,” says Julia. “The mums would stay and have a coffee while the kids were busy, so it was a good PR exercise,” she says. “We’re planning to do it again this year. You need to keep doing things to maintain people’s interest.”

She has also mapped out a nature trail, which costs just a few pence. “It only really cost a bit of time and a few sheets of paper, but it brings families to the shop.”

Ensuring that the store is a hive of activity over the school holidays is especially important. “It’s a nice way to make people remember their local store, because otherwise when the schools close for the holidays, people’s routine changes and they can forget we’re here.”

Store profile
Curry Mallet Stores, Somerset
Staff: two part-time, two full-time
Size: 360sq ft
Opening hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday 9am-4pm, Wednesday and Saturday mornings
Additional services: post office, mobile top-ups, hot drinks to go, fruit & veg box delivery, cakes

Marketing the store efficiently has been vital in ensuring it remains at the forefront of customers’ minds. “In addition to the website and posting on Facebook, every time we organise a new activity or have new products we send an email out to our mailing list,” says Tim. “The village only has a few hundred residents, but we also have customers from the four surrounding villages where stores have closed. We’re the only shop in seven parishes, so we advertise in the church newsletter to get the word out.”

Tim also helps with merchandising the store. “Tim’s background in retail at Holland & Barrett has massively benefitted us. Sometimes I want to put things in baskets, but he says eyeline is buy line! Or I’ll put things at jaunty angles, and he’ll go to straighten them,” grins Julia.

Nevertheless, her creative touches are very much part of the shop. Shelving has been covered in a pale blue fabric with white polka dots, and she has made a card display from hessian cloth which not only adds to the rural flavour of the store, but also hangs flat against the wall, meaning that it takes up minimal space.

Making the most of the limited available space is an ongoing challenge for the couple. “We’re quite hard about which lines to stock. If something doesn’t sell we can’t keep it,” says Julia. “We’ve reduced the number of regular grocery items we sell and focused more on products that will bring people here specifically to buy them, such as local meat.” However, there is still a decent range of all the essentials, and enough tinned produce to make a decent meal with. “We had to cut down on everyday lines, but we aim to keep a range of stuff for when mum needs something for dinner,” points out Tim.

Their tough stance on grocery lines means that there is enough room to squeeze in a selection of gifts, from beaded necklaces, to garden trowels. Gifts sell all year round, and give people another reason to come to the store, but they do especially well at Christmas. “We ran a late-night gift event over Christmas. Some people buy all their presents here as they can’t face the crowds at the big shops,” says Julia. “You have to know your market - we have a lot of farmers in this area, so anything with a pig or a cow on it usually gets a good response!”

The shop put on mulled wine and special-edition cranberry chocolate brownies to bring a festive flavour to the store. Their efforts paid off, not just in terms of sales made on the night, but in the longer term. “One of the main reasons we ran the event was to raise awareness of the Christmas range in the local newsletter,” explains Tim. “Rather than just writing a paragraph telling people our new range is available, we actually have something to get them excited.”

One of the biggest challenges, according to Tim, is staying relevant. “It’s about having stuff to tell people and keeping the store in people’s minds,” he says. And so the couple are already busy with preparations for the next event. Over the February half-term they will be setting the marquee up again and running craft clubs, but this time around Julia is also thinking of introducing workshops for adults.

It’s not easy being a retailer, kids’ club organiser and baker extraordinaire, but somehow Julia and Tim manage. “We try hard to make sure it’s us running the business and not the business running us!” says Julia. “You have to be clear about what you want out of it, but it’s a rewarding job.” ■