The sleepy Devon seaside village of St Ann’s Chapel has been brought to life by a buzzing c-store. Gaelle Walker went to visit it

A low roar permeates the country tracks and twisting roads that snake through the small village of St Ann’s Chapel in Devon. And although it’s less than a mile away, it’s not the sea that can be heard, it’s trade.

Holywell Stores enjoys the enviable position of being the only true convenience store in the village. However, as Convenience Store soon discovers, its exclusivity has certainly not meant that the owners, husband and wife team Dane and Hilary Vanstone, have had their sales served up on a plate. In fact, when the couple took over 16 years ago, the store was on the verge of closure.

“We started off looking only at post offices, but then we saw this business for sale. It didn’t have a post office at the time, but we could see the potential, plus it had the perfect living accommodation above the store and a separate granny flat downstairs which suited us down to the ground, as we had all four of our children and my mother living with us at the time,” Dane explains.

“Back then the store was in a very poor state, so much so that we really struggled to get the banks to lend to us. In the end we managed to cobble together a deal with the vendors’ bank where we were able to take over their mortgage with the option to buy the freehold after two years.”

In that time, the business went from strength to strength, and continues to do so to this day, thanks to Dane and Hilary’s unwavering focus on quality, diversification and community engagement.

Being in a highly touristic location, just a shell’s throw from the golden sands of Bigbury beach, certainly has its plus points. If the sun shines before 10am on a summer’s day, Dane knows he’s in for a busy one, with the store easily raking in more than £3,000. However, given the fickle English weather, he also knows that the next day could well herald showers, and equally damp sales.

Shop profile

Size: 1,000sq ft

Opening hours:

Monday to Saturday: 7am-6pm (7am-8pm July and August)

Sunday: 8am-5pm

Staff: two full-time

Services: Post Office Local, home delivery, national lottery, cream teas, marquee hire, cash machine, internet, DVD rental

“It’s a balancing act, but after 16 years it’s one we’ve become pretty good at,” he says. Buying locally, and little and often, are ways of dealing with the problem, and a good relationship with Booker’s Paignton branch as well as with Palmer & Harvey also helps, he says. In the winter months, sales of hot local pasties and DIY products take over from the surfboards, ice creams and soft drinks.

“Owners and builders are always looking to spruce up their holiday homes and lets, but with the nearest DIY shop miles away in Plymouth, I realised that we had an opportunity to introduce a hardware sideline,” says Dane. He was right. Paintbrushes and silicone foam are huge sellers. “The same goes for compost. We sell 10 pallets of 75ltr bags a year to gardeners,” he laughs.

With their homespun appearance, local products prove popular with tourists and home-owners alike and, in association with speciality food company Fosters, Dane and Hilary have even launched their very own Holywell Stores range of goods.

However, tourism also presents its challenges. The increasingly high number of second homes and holiday lets in the area means that Dane and Hilary have to work harder than many other retailers at connecting with local people.

“We can’t change the property market, but we can react to it by working harder to make ourselves known to home owners and holiday makers, and striving to keep that community spirit alive,” he adds.

For years the pair have been heavily involved in the local youth club, and have done countless rounds of fundraising for the local Royal British Legion and children’s hospice. One of his highlights of 2012 was when he and Hilary organised a community hog roast for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. “We had some fantastic food and drink as well as local musicians, and to our amazement almost 750 people turned up. We charged £1 for a glass of wine and just asked people to donate what they liked for the hog roast. Unbelievably, we ended up making more than £2,000 in profit, which we dished out to various local charities.”

Dane and Hilary own two large marquees which they are only too happy to rent out to other local villages for community events, or to their customers for weddings.

“We ask customers for a small fee for hire, but we always give them to youth clubs and good causes for free. It’s a simple way of fostering community spirit.”

Online approach

The store also boasts an impressive website which features promotions as well as local and national news, and even links to a local dating website and other local businesses. And all this community loving and good publicity goes a long way to combatting Dane and Hilary’s newest challenge - the supermarket delivery service.

“Our biggest competitors are not physical supermarkets it’s the home deliveries that they are now increasingly making to rural areas,” Dane explains. “Last week we counted 14 delivery vans driving past the store in just one day. People are even getting their groceries delivered to their tents in the campsites.”

The pair are now looking at fighting back with a new online ordering facility. And the website has become a key tool for raising awareness of the store and its wide-ranging and surprising offer.

“Once they’re in, people never leave empty-handed,” says Dane. “They are always shocked at how much bigger the store is on the inside, and by all the unusual items and extra services that we offer.”

In addition to a self-serve antipasti bar complete with olives, sun-dried tomatoes and Peppadews, the store boasts a cream tea delivery service, freshly frozen fish and a vast selection of local wines and ales to complement its local foods, including 30 local cheeses.

A DVD rental service of current titles is also on offer, much to the delight of locals and holidaymakers on those inevitable wet and windy days. And while the softly rolling hills and craggy cliff tops certainly paint a pretty picture, they are murder for mobile phone signals and internet connections, meaning that the store’s broadband-enabled computer is highly prized.

“It can be really difficult to get an internet connection around here and most of the holiday lets don’t have Wi-Fi,” says Dane. “We used to charge for usage, but we don’t anymore as most people will buy a coffee and one of our homemade sandwiches or hot local pasties to snack on while they’re here.”

Regular product tastings also play a key role in creating in-store theatre and excitement, and boosting sales. “We do lots of samplings and one thing that always proves really popular is our annual Christmas tasting. Hilary cooks an entire Christmas lunch using all the local meats, vegetables and trimmings that we sell and we invite local people to come down and taste it. Anyone who orders a turkey or meat on that day gets a 10% discount and we always sell loads,” says Dane.

Keeping the store fresh and interesting is an on-going process and one which sees the pair travel all over the country in search of inspiration. “We love to do mini- trips to visit other convenience stores to get ideas. It was on a recent visit to a wonderful farm shop in Eastbourne that we got the idea of doing a local ale range,” says Dane. “We’re always tweaking the range and services that we offer.”

And keen to keep standards up, Dane has recently signed up to Community First’s Store Is The Core advisory programme supporting village retailers across the South West.

“I’m a strong believer that every now and then it can be beneficial to get someone in from the outside to help you see your store from a fresh point of view,” adds Dane.

“For me it’s not work. I love it,” adds Dane. “We’ve not had a proper holiday in 16 years, but neither of us really feel like we need one. It’s like that when you love what you do, especially when you get to do it in one of the most beautiful parts of the country.” ■