Less than a year ago Lakes & Dales Co-operative Keswick was knee-deep in flood water. Yet now it is once again a thriving store valued by its close-knit community, with trade up thanks to an extension and investment in new chillers and freezers.
Everything was going swimmingly before the floods hit. The Lakes & Dales Co-operative store in Keswick had been revamped at the tail end of 2013, just a few months after the merger of the Scotmid and Penrith Co-operatives, and sales were peaking at £85,000 during the tourist season.
“It was a huge change when Scotmid took over. It was kind of a relief - Penrith had taken the business as far as they could take it,” says store manager Becky Smith. “Within three months Scotmid had the builders in for a refit with new fridges and freezers, flooring, and new methods of working such as better back office systems. Instantly we started seeing customers we had previously lost starting to come back in. We’d hit highs of £85k and I thought ‘we’re doing really well here’.”
And then, on 6 December 2015, disaster struck. “I was at our Seaton Valley store [near Newcastle] when I got a call from my deputy, telling me I needed to get back. There was no way in on the usual roads, but we managed to get in eventually the next day via Carlisle.”
On arrival she was confronted by a scene of devastation. The flooding had subsided, but a six-inch blanket of water was enough to have taken out all the refrigeration and flooring. “We lost about £45,000 just on food, and about £80,000-worth of damage altogether,” she adds. The community, meanwhile, was left without a major grocery store, with the nearby Booths supermarket also taken out by the flooding. The timing couldn’t have been worse - it was mid-winter and just before Christmas.
However, within a week Scotmid had set up a pop-up shop next door, selling the basics. It was open from 8am until 8pm and meant customers no longer had to travel the 17 miles to Penrith for a loaf of bread. “The feedback we got was fantastic; people really liked the fact we tried,” says Becky.
Lakes & Dales Co-operative, Keswick
Size: 4,750sq ft
Staff: 20 (part- and full-time)
Turnover: up to £70,000 low season; up to £103,000 high season
Opening hours: 7am-11pm Monday to Saturday; 10am-4pm Sunday
After the Christmas break the community pulled together to get the store up and running again. “We had schools knocking on the door asking if their kids could come and help, and the local army came to help us get the fridges out quicker. Everyone helped,” she says. “By the time the shelving was up we managed to get the store stocked and ready to go in two weeks.”
The store reopened on 26 January, with the contractor completing a two-and-a-half-month-long job in just six weeks.
In some ways the flooding was a cloud with a silver lining, says Katie Kipling, Lakes & Dales membership and community officer. “The flooding was an awful thing to happen, but it gave us a chance to show people we’re not just somewhere to come and buy products from - we’re actually there to support the community.”
In addition to donating produce to the flood relief effort, the store also donated £500 towards the restoration of the local park, which had been severely damaged. About 6,000 tonnes of silt had to be removed.
The staff played their individual parts, too, most notably C-Store’s former Sales Assistant of the Year finalist Sarah Hayton. “She got behind the community to show her gratitude for coming back to us,” Katie explains. “She walked from Keswick to Cockermouth and back, raising £1,600 to help rebuild homes destroyed in the flooding.”
After the store reopened in January, Scotmid turned its attention to a store extension, which had been in the pipeline before the floods. In considerably calmer circumstances, the store was extended from 3,400sq ft to 4,750sq ft and the number of chilled bays increased from 11 to 22. Since the relaunch in May sales have increased to upwards of £100,000 in the high season, and between £65,000-£70,000 in the low season. “Scotmid were quite shocked by the figures,” says Becky proudly.
The product mix is a winning combination of Co-op own brand, Scottish products from its regional suppliers, and local Cumbrian produce. “We get the best of both worlds being in Scotmid, with products such as Walkers shortbread,” she adds.
Local products include eggs, strawberries and tomatoes from a grower in nearby Carlisle, and beer. As in many Scotmid stores, a local baker - Bryson’s of Keswick - has an in-store concession with a wide range of breads, pastries and hot food. The off licence, which comprises 20% of overall sales, includes a comprehensive and eclectic range, from craft gins to Scottish whiskies, while a number of promotions cater for the bargain hunter.
A large selection of beers, ciders and white wines line the chillers, all of which have doors. “We never did chilled booze before the merger. People would walk out in the summer because of it,” says Becky.
The store also caters for guest homes and caravans with its range of household appliances. Meanwhile, sales of frozen are rising week on week, driven in part by the Co-op’s £5 promotion, which offers exceptional value. “The promo is a loss leader, but it drives people in. Customers are dumbfounded you can get that much frozen food,” Becky says.
The store has gained a number of customers since the floods. Booths, the nearby supermarket which was “three foot under” during the flooding, was out of action until April. When it re-opened the impact on footfall was modest. “We’ve kept 35% of Booths’ customers,” says Becky.
A grocery home-delivery service operates every Friday from the Lakes & Dales Lazonby store, which is valued by house-bound elderly customers. But Becky isn’t too concerned by the impact of online shopping. “I don’t think online shopping is much of a threat here. People just like coming in here; it’s a good meeting place and we have the car park,” she says.
Through the Lakes & Dales community grant scheme they are able to support local charities and organisations, and the store also has close links with local schools. “We go into primary schools to talk about products and Fairtrade, which is really popular here. Keswick’s a Fairtrade town so we promote it throughout the year, especially during Fairtrade fortnight,” says Katie.
While the flooding may have made its mark on the store, the store has stamped its identity on the community. And with new flood defences - such as angel bricks - in place to ensure protection against future flooding, the store’s long-term forecast looks more than healthy.