Be it through their mobile shop, or their veg box delivery service, Susan Mason and sister Amanda have really gone the extra mile to help their customers. Sarah Britton reports
The mobile shop was a hit at the Festival of Living History usan Mason went to bible school to become a vicar, and left to become a retailer. It’s not your average introduction to retail, but then Susan isn’t your average retailer.
Most store owners like to think that they make their communities a better place, but when Susan went into business, her main priority was to improve the lives of locals. “I went to bible school to study theology with a view to becoming a vicar, and while I was there I worked in a local post office,” she says. “I’d often go to old people’s houses to help them fill in forms, and when I saw how some of them lived, I realised that my calling was out in the world, rather than in the church itself.” She felt that if she set up a store, she would be able to service the needs of the local community and ensure they were able to access good quality food.
She couldn’t afford to buy a store, so in 2008, she bought a mobile unit and turned it into a shop called Rural Trading. Her “box on wheels” measured just 144sq ft, but she filled it with a strong range of fresh produce and used a generator to run fridges and freezers. Joined by her sister Amanda, Susan (pictured, left) started off serving around 20 isolated villages. The business was initially successful, but within 18 months the price of diesel had climbed, and the supermarkets had latched on to Rural Trading’s customer base, and set up their own delivery services.
But, rather like its owner, it turns out that the mobile shop had an unusual calling all of its own. “We were approached by English Heritage to attend some of their events, and we never looked back,” says Susan. “We now regularly man the Festival of Living History.” Held in nearby Kelmarsh, the event involves history enthusiasts dressing as historical figures and imitating lifestyles and diets from that particular era.
They also attend numerous other events. But it’s much more than just a quirky pastime - the captive audience means they are real money spinners. “There are real opportunities for retailers looking to run mobile stores at events. You can make a village store’s monthly income from being open three days at these events,” says Susan.
But while attending events has proven to be a great success, the real reason the sisters went into business was to provide a service for elderly people in need. So they are selling their mobile unit and have set up shop in the small village of Foxton, Leicestershire.
Foxton Village Store currently operates in the old Skittle Alley of the Black Horse Pub, but the girls are hoping to move to a unit deeper in the village later in the year, so apart from an A-board signposting the store, it still looks very much like a skittle alley from the outside. But despite the shop front’s plain appearance, it couldn’t be more lively inside. The sisters have worked hard to turn the unit from a putrid orange boozing joint, into a relaxing rural retreat where locals can find some top quality produce and catch up on village gossip.
In place of traditional shelving, they created a countryside vibe by stacking apple crates imported from France - “they were £3 a crate, and they would have cost £20 in the UK!” And chillers bulge with top quality fruit and veg, while wicker baskets are brimming with potatoes and onions.
Delighted at the prospect of a shop so dedicated to their needs, locals have also stepped in to help. “Customers offered us their hops for decoration,” says Susan.
“We put a rocking chair by the till so that locals can sit and chat to us, and one of our regulars, Mr Holt, even brought in a cushion to make it more comfy!” says Amanda.
Specialist organic products, such as bags of Goodness Red Split Lentils, and tins of Suma red kidney beans, are located near more familiar brands, such as Batchelor’s Garden peas and Napolina chopped tomatoes. “We have a posh next to nosh policy, whereby we’ll have organic foods next to standard foods, so that customers have a range of price points,” says Amanda.
The pair also showcase local products on rotation. As well as having them on display in-store, they also flag them up on Facebook. When C-Store visits, Amanda has just psted an image of Hedgerow Products’ apple & ale chutney on the site. “We get paid commission for selling products we showcase, so we don’t have to pay for them upfront,” says Susan. “And having new products gives people a reason to visit the store.”
And to help the older folk, the store home delivers boxfuls of goods. But they don’t just send the usual multi-packs. Instead, they allow elderly people to choose single portions so they don’t have to worry about buying too much. “We have people ordering a tiny roast pork, one tomato, one mushroom and a couple of fishfingers, so we buy catering-sized packs of fishfingers and re-package them,” says Amanda. “There are a lot of rules on labelling them, in terms of ingredients and cooking instructions - you can’t just sell them any old way.”
While meeting the needs of old people is certainly a commendable service, it isn’t very lucrative, concede the sisters. “We’ve had to look at income streams to subsidise the ones that have to be run as service, rather than profit,” says Susan. So using their entrepreneurial flair, the girls have started up a veg box scheme. “We’re not making money on the small-level stuff for older people, but the veg boxes in their entirety cover everyone, so some people will make much larger orders. We do 60-70 boxes a week, but we only visit villages that don’t already have shops as we don’t want to tread on toes,” says Susan.
Despite making a healthy profit, the sisters still offer their customers excellent value for money. “We’re 20% cheaper than Sainsbury, even when we’re adding our own margins to the veg boxes,” claims Amanda. “The multiples are making an extortionate amount by using clever packaging.”
However, you have to be on the ball to deal with fruit and veg, explains Susan. “There are big fluctuations in vegetable prices - they change every day,” she says. And of course, ensuring that the store’s offering is seasonal is vital. “We go to websites, such as www.eatseasonably.co.uk, and download lists of seasonal produce. At the moment root vegetables, sprouts, and cauliflower are very popular. We’re selling leeks, red cabbage, and muddy beetroots. I’d like to get purple carrots in next.”
The veg boxes currently make up 10-15% of the business, but the girls aim to grow this even further by expanding into online ordering, and offering a range of pre-packs.
Their veg box website went live at the beginning of the month, and they are also looking into customising their offerings for particular customer groups. “We’ve spoken to the nearby leisure centre to get veg box orders from the zumba group,” says Susan. “Further down the line, we plan to customise boxes, so we’ll have a zumba box, or a pensioner package. We already have a BBQ box which does well.”
In addition to veg boxes, the store offers a ‘Go Large’ option, which enables community groups, such as the local school and church, to order in bulk. “It’s really for groups that are too small to use a cash & carry, but need to buy in bulk,” says Susan. The veg boxes might sound like a lot of extra work, but they are key to making the business work, and allow the girls to focus on their key goal of helping the elderly. “When Susan first started the business, her vision was to get decent food to people who can’t access it currently,” Amanda says. “We’re still doing that, but you can’t be just a little village store. There isn’t enough footfall, so we’ve had to branch out.”
It might not seem like the most obvious place to do the Lord’s bidding, but the store is undoubtedly a blessing for its customers.■