Peter Lamb’s bid for a new life in the country has certainly paid off, with a business that’s brimming with local and home-grown goods. Gaelle Walker reports

Peter Lamb would have been forgiven for being a little blue when Convenience Store visited his shop in the rural East Sussex village of Bells Yew Green one grey winter morning. An anti-social fox had dispatched all 70 of his chickens the night before, depriving him - and the entire community - of their prized supply of fresh eggs. However, despite the crisis, consummate professional Peter was determined to focus on the job at hand. Contacts from his vast network of local suppliers were called on, new batches of local eggs delivered, and the breakfasts of Bells Yew Green’s residents assured.

“Local eggs are a huge seller here,” Peter explains. “In fact, it was eggs that first inspired us to open up a shop.”

Former marketing man Peter moved from Australia to England, along with his wife and children, in search of a new way of life back in 2008. After setting up their dream home, complete with chickens and a veg patch, it wasn’t long before the family started to sell some of their wares locally.

“We realised very quickly that there was an enormous appetite for locally-produced goods, so bit by bit we added to it and the idea just snowballed,” Peter explains. What started out as a hobby became an all-consuming passion, and in 2009 Peter established a local produce shop in what was then “nothing more than a breeze-block shell”.

Over the years the aptly-named Lambs Larder has evolved to boast a full convenience offer, complete with a jaw-dropping range of innovative additional services.

“I had no retail experience whatsoever when I started out. However, I believe that the same basic business principles apply whatever industry you are in,” says Peter. “The key to success is to give people a reason to choose your products and services over someone else’s. Our main competitor was Sainsbury’s. There’s a big supermarket not three miles away from us, and we knew that in order to get our business off the ground we’d have to offer something different, which is where local produce came in.

Store profile

Lambs Larder, Bells Yew Green, Sussex

Size: 850sq ft

Opening hours: Monday-Friday 6:30am-7:30/8pm

Saturday 8am-8pm

Sunday 9am-6pm

Staff: Four

Additional Services: Mobile shop, Click and Collect, parcel collection, free cash machine, Tchibo Vista coffee to go

“It’s not a new idea, but when done well it can be very successful,” explains Peter. “Of course, we sell all the convenience staples, but we’ve differentiated ourselves by specialising in products that come from within a 30-mile radius of the shop, and also more unusual products that the supermarkets would struggle to get their hands on, such as unusual fish varieties like Mahi Mahi and Baramundi.”

But Peter’s quest for differentiation hasn’t stopped there. Using Lambs Larder as a base, Peter now visits the neighbouring rural villages of Cowden, Hadlow Down and Five Ashes in a mobile shop, four days a week.

The striking refrigerated van stocks a wide range of daily essentials, and customers can order specific items such as Cook ready meals, or particular cuts of meat or seafood, over the phone.

The service has become a lifeline for many elderly residents of the small rural villages, particularly in the recent snowy weather.

“People know the day and time that the van will be at their village so they come to it knowing exactly what they need. It compresses people’s buying behaviour and we regularly take more than £200 in just 20 minutes,” Peter says.

“Having the van allows us to expand the store’s reach without any overheads. It’s a formula that we know works, and the goal now is to replicate it several times,” he says.

Peter hopes to have a second van running by this June, enabling the Lambs Larder team to visit 10 villages a day. His goal is to have a fleet of vans visiting 15 villages within a 30-mile radius of the store.

“If things progress as I plan, I’m pretty confident that the mobile side could become a £1m business in its own right,” Peter adds.

And if that’s not impressive enough, Peter also recently added a full store Click and Collect function to the Lambs Larder website, which is also linked to his popular Facebook page and active Twitter feed. “The store and stockroom aren’t huge so Click and Collect originally started out as a way for me to offer shoppers budget lines that I wouldn’t have to keep on shelf or in the back room. However, demand has also led me to grow this service over time and customers can now do pretty much a whole shop online before coming to collect goods from us the next day. It’s another way of extending our reach,” adds Peter. And, of course, Peter is only too happy to personally deliver groceries to many of the village’s elderly residents.

“We’ve got a few 90-year-olds in the village and we don’t mind doing that at all. We also cash cheques for them, and we might think about doing a prescription collection service,” he adds. Peter already offers a dry-cleaning and ‘drop shop’ service, which allows people to have personal deliveries left at the shop while they work. He makes a point of not charging for any of the above.

“We also have a free cash machine and community noticeboard. I’m not about to charge people to take out their own money, or place an advert - that’s petty,” he adds. “Service and goodwill is what makes this industry tick. In my experience, a bit of goodwill comes back ten-fold, particularly in these austere times.”

However, Peter’s attitude towards free services doesn’t mean he hasn’t got a keen eye on his profits. If anything, Peter has become something of a master of cash flow preservation - and boasts a neat way of keeping the cost of tobacco down.

“I stock cigarettes, but I wish I didn’t have to as they tie up so much of your money,” he says. However, a unique agreement with Sinclair Collis has seen two former pub vending machines fitted behind Peter’s counter. The machines, which are stocked up weekly by Sinclair Collis, allow Peter to buy his cigarettes in from the company on a ‘pay as you go’ basis. The concept, which helps ensure good availability of less popular brands, while not having hundreds of pounds-worth of his own money tied up on the gantry, has “totally liberated” Peter’s cash flow. “It’s also much more secure. Criminals aren’t going to bother ram-raiding me as there’s not a huge amount on the gantry and the vending machines are bolted into the ground,” he says.

Baking-off his own bread is also helping to protect Peter’s profits. “We bake as we go in small batches throughout the day. It keeps wastage low and means that products are as fresh as they can be. It also means that there is a constant delicious aroma in the store - no one can resist the smell of freshly-baked bread,” he asserts.

When it comes to margins, Peter aims to make at least 30% on most things, if not 40%. “Tobacco is the one exception - it’s another reason I’m not a fan as I’m lucky if I make 8% on cigarettes, which is more than most, I know,” he adds.

However, one of the biggest reasons for his success is the fact that so much of his stock is bought “little and often” from local suppliers.

“Using local suppliers allows us to keep our stock holding low and a tighter rein on cash flow,” Peter explains. “We have a saying that ‘stock is the shop’ as we don’t tend to keep much in the stock room. Buying little and often also means that the products you sell are as fresh as they can be and, crucially, helps to maintain near perfect availability.”

He adds: “If you shout about your wonderful range of great quality products that’s what customers expect to see.”

And, boy, does Peter shout about his. Marketing plays a big role in the Lambs Larder business plan. “Getting our name out there and growing awareness of the Lambs Larder brand is really important, and the mobile shop, website and Facebook page are great for that,” he says. “While our website is an advert, Facebook is all about interaction. Customers who ‘like’ you on Facebook want to know what you are up to, and it works. When I tell people we have hot pies for sale, they come flooding in.”

And shifting stock is certainly not Peter’s only aim for social media. “Making people smile or telling them something interesting is also important,” he says. “One of my most successful ever Facebook posts was when I put a picture of one of our new lambs up - we had hundreds of comments. It really made people smile.”

Going forward, Peter plans to spice up his evening trade by delivering dinners to busy commuters. The new ‘Lambs Larder Mobile’ service allows shoppers to order their dinner ingredients online or over the phone and have them ready and waiting for collection from the station car park when the train pulls in.

Customers pre-pay using the PayPal checkout, and click the ‘note to seller’ button to let Peter and his team know the approximate arrival time of their train.

“Because customers have pre-paid, they simply need to come and collect from our van in the car park and go,” says Peter.

Eridge Station is currently being used as a test case and, if successful, he plans to roll it out to other stations once the second van is on the road.

With all these exciting goings-on it’s unlikely that Peter will rush into replacing his prized chickens. But, by the sound of it, he’s got more than enough plans to hatch.•