An outdoor photoshoot seems the perfect way to illustrate Tagon Stores’ enviable location looking out on to a picturesque lake surrounded by fields on the beautiful Shetland Islands. But the unforgiving wind has other ideas, practically dragging poor Scott Preston and wife Phoebe off the ground, and customer Brenda can barely see as it tosses her hair across her eyes. After a few minutes’ worth of the fierce cold, most people would have given up and headed inside, but the howling wind only fuels the trio’s laughter, as they explain it is just one of the quirks of island life.
But while the wind does little to dampen our retailers’ spirits, it can have a huge effect on their business. “For most people a bit of wind won’t make a difference because they’ve got planes, trains and cars whereas here we’ve just got the ferry transporting food, so when the weather is rough the ferries can get cancelled for a few days and some customers panic buy,” says Scott.
Not ones to miss a trick, Scott and Phoebe have turned the situation to their advantage by raising awareness of their close links with local producers. “At Christmas, boats were cancelled so we put a note on Facebook to say we’d be getting orders from our local suppliers and we were inundated with orders!” says Scott.
Not only does sourcing locally mean better availability, it also results in super fresh produce. “The Voe Bakery bakes through the night and then delivers to us in the morning, so when the order comes in the buns are still warm,” says Phoebe.
They also receive six deliveries a week from Shetland Farm Dairies, as well as eggs, neeps and tatties from L&S Gifford in Bressay, fish from Blydoit Fish and meat from J&K Anderson in Whiteness. “When the ferries get cancelled it can cause havoc!” agrees Scott. “We’re very lucky that our key producers are all local, whereas Tesco and the Co-op are imported.”
Even when the weather is behaving itself, the fact that the Shetland Islands are almost 200 miles from Aberdeen means that ordering products from the mainland is expensive. “We have a £1,500 minimum order for Shetland, whereas on the mainland the minimum order is £600,” says Scott. However, he has found a neat way around this, by splitting orders with the nearby community store. “That’s how Island businesses survive,” he says. The store contacts Hillswick Shop twice a week to discuss what’s selling and, if they run out of any products, they know they can always rely on each other to make ends meet.
The remoteness of the Islands also means that national suppliers are reluctant to visit. “Manufacturers don’t give us support up here, so we don’t have things like shelf talkers and barkers. Other than tobacco, we’ve never had a visit from a rep,” says Scott.
But the store has cultivated a strong relationship with Shetland-based Today’s wholesaler Hughson Bros and also embraces the internet in order to keep up to speed with all the latest developments. “Hughson Bros director Carl Cross has been a great help, but the only manufacturer support we get is through websites and trade magazines,” says Scott, “I’ll use five or six websites giving advice on a particular category and draw up planograms, though you have to consider that the market here is very different to the mainland.”
“There are a lot of twists here,” adds Phoebe. “Things like Heineken and Carling don’t sell!”
Knowing what sells and what doesn’t is a particularly big challenge when you consider that neither of them are originally from Shetland. In fact, they only entered the convenience sector a mere 18 months ago, after spotting the shop and forecourt for sale online. “We’re both fairly outspoken and tend to annoy hierarchy, so the logical thing was to be our own bosses,” explains Phoebe.
And they wasted no time making a name for themselves. Appalled by the high cost of fuel on the Island, they ran a one-day promotion offering fuel at 20p less than usual in protest against the Island’s expensive fuel costs. Customers came from far and wide and the store sold a whopping 10,000ltrs of fuel and made the front page of the local paper.
The store also endeared itself to customers by getting involved in a raft of community events, including charity raffles, supporting the local litter pickers with free water, and even organising a Christmas extravaganza in the local hall where people could try and buy new products.
Beyond the store, the couple are very much integrated into the community. Phoebe is on the parent council at Olnafirth Primary School, while Scott is on Delting Community Council. “These days you’ve got to get involved in your community if you want your shop to work,” he says.
They also use their staff to reach out to the community. “Most people on the island, including our staff, have second jobs,” explains Phoebe. “Amanda works at the pub, while Richard is a painter and decorator and an artist, and even the photographer for the shoot used to be our milkman!”
By regularly offering their employees product samples and encouraging them to engage with customers both inside and outside of the shop, the couple ensure the store remains front of mind for locals. “Our staff are our customers too, their families shop here and we treat them the best way we can - if they aren’t out there shouting about us, we won’t succeed as a business,” says Scott.
As well as spreading the word about the store, staff are also a vital tool in keeping up with trends. “Their second jobs mean they are able to give us lots of advice and hints about new trends they hear about, such as the demand for Bannocks, which are round large flat breads,” says Phoebe.
The couple maintain constant direct contact with customers. “People are very good at giving feedback on Facebook and in-store on new products, sampling, and card surcharges,” says Phoebe. They recently ran a poll to find out how customers wanted them to deal with card surcharges. As a result customers spending over £10 are no longer charged and those who are charged understand the reason why.
Listening to customers has also provided the store with an opportunity to increase sales. “Initially, people were quite reticent about asking for products, they thought you got what you got, whereas we’ve encouraged them to ask,” she says. “We always stocked farl loaves and someone asked for it sliced so we ordered it for them. Once people found out they could get them sliced, it became more and more popular. Now we sell more sliced than unsliced.”
A book exchange is another service that the shop introduced as a result of listening to customers’ needs. “I started it up with a few of my own books and people use it regularly,” says Phoebe. “It’s useful as it saves people the 20-mile drive into Lerwick, the nearest town.”
The couple have also adapted the store’s opening hours in response to customer demand. “When it’s lighter in the evenings, people tend to come out later and they want to get up early if it’s sunny in the mornings.”
Their next plan is to remove the need for customers to brave the weather altogether by setting up an online ordering system. “People can walk in and collect and pay or have it delivered to their door,” says Scott. “Even the Tesco on the Island only covers deliveries to Lerwick, so we are expecting the online service to work well.”
He is convinced that the couple’s dedication to their customers will continue to be rewarded. “There are huge challenges with running a shop in a rural location,” he concedes. “But there are also huge positives - the loyalty is fierce.” ■
Tagon Stores, Voe, Shetland
Size: 600sq ft
Annual turnover: £750,000
Staff: Two full-time, nine part-time
Opening hours: Mon-Thurs: 7am-7pm, Fri: 6:45am - 9pm Sun: 12pm-5:30pm
” In rough weather the ferries can get cancelled and people panic buy “