Kate and Andrew Mills came back home to take over the village shop in Horsmonden, Kent, transforming it into a true community hub in an inspired farm shop and c-store fusion
It is apt that one half of the couple crowned Community Retailer of the Year at CRA 2015 returned home to set up shop. Andrew Mills came back to the village of his childhood, Horsmonden in Kent, to take on the local shop with his wife Kate in 2011. At the time both were scientists with no retail experience, but felt a calling to revive a store which was floundering on weekly turnover of less than £7,000 a week.
“It was a tired-looking shop with inconvenient opening hours, some loyal customers, but otherwise used only by locals in emergencies, or by passing trade, and employed only one member of staff,” says Kate.
At the beginning Kate continued to work from home in her scientific research job while Andrew managed the shop, until they embarked on a £100,000 refit and relaunched in November 2012. “The vision for the shop was to create a fusion of a convenience store with a farm shop,” Kate adds. “We wanted to be a place where our locals could get all the groceries they needed while offering value for money, plus artisan, local, luxury and ethical products which would draw customers in from the surrounding areas.”
Cue a plethora of local products gracing the shelves, including meat from a local butcher, milk, cream and yogurts from a local dairy, bread from a local baker and locally-sourced fruit and veg. “It is extremely important to us to support all our local food producers,” says Kate. “For example, our milk is only a little more expensive than a supermarket’s, but the farmer receives a significantly better farm gate price.” They also sell eye-catching mini casks of local ale from breweries in Tonbridge and Westerham in Kent.
Size: 1,600sq ft
Weekly turnover: £23,000
Services: PayPoint, Health Lottery, home deliveries, community space, Outreach Post Office
Staff: Four full-time, 15 part-time (including 12 young people)
In addition, a dedicated freezer houses a local curry range, Chai Stop Curries, alongside two freezers for the Cook frozen ready meal range. The delicatessen is a growing part of the business, and includes local cheese and hams and home-made pies, while customers can order takeaway pizza from the hot food-to-go area. A local fixture showcases some of the best of the local products near the entrance, while local suppliers also regularly come in to promote their products and hold tasting sessions.
However, with the help of their core supplier Londis, the couple also ensure they can compete on price. “Every month we check our fruit and veg prices against Tesco and ensure that 50% of our range is cheaper than Tesco’s,” Kate says. To highlight value, the store has a promotional bay which changes every three weeks, as well as a £1 bay. “These allow us to compete with supermarkets and encourage shoppers to use us more often.” It is a strategy which is paying off, with average turnover currently at £23,000.
The store’s commitment to local suppliers did not go unnoticed by the CRA judges - and neither did its support for young people. Currently, the couple employ 12 young people part-time, based on a policy of employing teenagers from the village. Young people start at the store when they are aged about 13 or 14, initially delivering leaflets or shelf filling, before performing all shops tasks, including working at the till and placing orders.
They recently made an 18-year-old joint supervisor for the day, and a number have managed the running of the shop in the evening. “It is commented on regularly by the community just how the young people working for us quickly gain confidence and seem to come out of themselves and become comfortable in the work environment,” Kate says.
They also have a policy of employing young adults from the village just starting out in their careers. “We employ them knowing that they will be with us only for six to 12 months. In their time with us we are able to introduce them to the world of paid employment and give them as much responsibility as possible, encouraging them to be responsible for a particular area of store or certain orders,” Kate adds. “Being employed then improves their CV and we have seen a number of these young adults go on to ultimately start in the career of their choice.”
It is not just the young who are looked after, though. The couple have created a dedicated in-store ‘community area’, which is mainly used by elderly ladies who can bring their own biscuits and enjoy a cup of tea and the company of their friends - thereby relieving the isolation they are vulnerable to, Kate says.
The community area has also been used by the parish and borough councils for surgeries with constituents, as well as the community police officer. The store also provides space to the Post Office three afternoons a week for an outreach service.
Staff deliver groceries to a number of vulnerable customers, or parents who can’t leave home if they have a sick child. In addition, many customers hold accounts, meaning they can “get what they need without worrying if they have cash available and avoiding charges for use of cards on small purchases”.
The store’s support for local charities and schools is both commendable and imaginative. It holds a number of themed events throughout the year, raising money for the local kindergarten, primary school and charities which have a local connection (for example, cancer charity Clic Sargent was a recipient of money raised from a ‘wear a wig’ day last year because a lady in the village had a child with cancer).
In 2014 they held three events for the kindergarten, including a two-day Brazilian carnival to celebrate the World Cup, raising hundreds of pounds. This year they’re planning a ‘Ready Steady Cook’-style event at the primary school to raise money for facilities and promote awareness of local food. “Hopefully, the children in the community will grow up thinking milk comes from cows and not supermarkets,” Andrew says.
For Children in Need they held an in-store superhero day and raised £300, while they held a bake-off for Comic Relief. They also raised £400 for Prostate Cancer through two events - Movember and Talk Like a Pirate Day - which they aim to repeat annually. The latter is an international event which takes place on 19 September every year. Heath Stores’ contribution involves Kate, Andrew and staff “dressing up and talking like pirates” which elicits generous contributions to a collection box. For Movember every member of staff, including the females, dresses up as a famous person with a moustache on the last day of November.
Their commitment to local food is also manifested in an annual apple, cider and beer festival which they hold every October to celebrate the local harvest. “We have many local products on sale as well as 10-12 varieties of local apples for people to taste and buy,” Kate says. And in keeping with the ‘think global, act local’ philosophy, they were promoting Fairtrade Fortnight when C-Store visited in February, while also collecting donations for the local Food Bank, with those closer to home in mind.
The couple also support the annual village festival by sitting on the organising committee, providing food and drinks at cost, running the Pimm’s and ice cream stalls and donating all profits to the festival.
The store has an active online presence, with a regular newsletter which includes a ‘supplier of the month’ section, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts. A number of locals have left reviews on the Facebook page, so we’ll leave it to them, who Andrew describes as the real owners - “we’re the caretakers” - to have the final word. “Quite possibly the nicest village store in Kent, Heath Stores has a fantastic range of products and really helpful and friendly staff,” writes Sarah Keith-Lucas. David Coatsworth adds: “Heath Stores really does everything that you could wish for in a truly local store.”
Community Retailer of the Year
The CRA judges agreed that Heath Stores stands out thanks to its support and development of young people, providing education, training and work experience opportunities despite knowing the young people will be moving on to university and other careers within a short period of time.
The store’s impressive range of events, sponsorships and fundraising also impressed. Heath Stores’ support for a wide range of local suppliers, not just grocery products but crafts, flowers and even joinery, also made an impact. One judge commented: “They embrace the concept of ‘doing a good turn’, such as taking care of elderly and house-bound customers, storing ready call loan equipment (such as a wheelchair, walking frame) and providing a daily meeting place in the store for those who live on their own.”
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