Six years after C-Store last visited Blockley Village Shop, the community-owned store has undergone an £800,000 makeover, is trading in a purpose-built new home, and is in its best shape ever.
While no community-owned shop could ever be described as average - each of the UK’s 320 boasts its own unique and inspiring tale of local heroics and dedication to the cause - C-Store thinks it’s fair to say that Blockley Village Shop in Gloucestershire is something of a cut above.
The store’s winning blend of community and commercial nous has created a truly sustainable business that other locally-managed stores and the wider convenience store industry alike could learn from.
Managed by former hotelier Chris Grimes, Blockley Village Shop first featured on C-Store’s pages back in 2009 when, after 18 months of hard-core fundraising, it had commenced trading in what was once the village fire station.
It has gone from strength to strength in the six years since and this winter it crested another peak - re-opening in a new purpose-built unit with adjoining café, just a hop, skip and jump from the old site. Carved from the same golden-hued Cotswold stone as the old store, the new Blockley Village Shop is about twice as large, allowing it to devote substantially more space to chilled goods in line with shopper demand.
Blockley Village Shop
Size: 900sq ft
Opening Hours: 7am-9pm Monday to Thursday, 7am -10pm Friday and Saturday, 8am-4pm Sunday.
Services: Post Office outreach service, hot and cold food to go, customer toilets, free cash machine
Energy efficiency: LED lighting on shop floor, doors on drinks chillers, heat reclaim, solar panels
Having recently switched to Nisa it also features a solid range of key fresh lines and branded items, which are bolstered by goods from local and small producers.
Becoming a Nisa member has also enabled Blockley Village Shop to play a stronger promotional hand, a fact which shoppers clearly value. In fact, Chris says they were almost queuing outside the door following a recent Nisa offer on 1kg bags of sugar for 50p. Meanwhile, an epos system is helping Chris and the team keep on top of best-sellers, trends, margins and availability.
Hardly surprising, then, that turnover is expected to top £1m this year - not bad for a 900sq ft rural village store.
Profits at the new store are also “nice and healthy”, despite the fact Chris works with higher overheads than many other community-owned shops as all 28 members of Chris’ team are fully paid.
Chris is adamant that investing in staff wages has been a key to its success. “Apart from the committee who are volunteers, all store staff are paid and I genuinely believe that it helps to maintain really high standards,” he adds.
But the store’s commercial credentials aren’t the only drivers of its success: its almost overwhelming commitment to the local community plays a big part in its fortunes.
“The word ‘hub’ is bandied about in the community-owned sector quite a bit, but we are a genuine hub - and in fact our Twitter handle is @blockleyhub,” Chris explains.
“The store makes a profit and a considerable chunk of that is continually reinvested in the ‘hub’. We organise theatre trips, we run police and computer drop-in sessions, plus all manner of clubs from lunch and dinner clubs to pottery painting. We also organise a wide range of talks, including those on mental health, and we can even offer help with will writing; the list is endless.”
The store also has a key safe in which it stores keys to the homes of many of its elderly residents, meaning that staff or emergency services can gain access to their homes should one of them be taken ill.
“We also take elderly people to their doctor’s appointments if they are unable to travel themselves, and when it snows we co-ordinate the 4x4s so that we can get their groceries delivered to them.
“When it comes to the community we don’t just talk about it, we actually do it. I think that’s another reason why we are so successful. As a community shop you have to strive to be the centre of people’s universe - it’s about so much more than donating raffle prizes and sticking some library books in the corner. As we are proving that the more mass you have, the greater your gravity,” he adds.
Events and workshops tend to take place in the store’s state-of-the-art café, which features smart dark wood floors, colour-changing downlights, flat-screen TVs and free wi-fi.
The café is served by a new £30,000 kitchen where a local chef whips up a vast array of lunch options to either eat in or take away, as well as a dinner offer at weekends. Says Chris: “On Friday and Saturday nights the café stays open till 10pm and we offer a proper meal. Customers can choose from two freshly-made main courses plus a pudding or cheese and bread.”
To wash it all down customers can also take their pick from the store’s impressive wine range, which includes its own-brand Blockley Village Shop wine. “I charge corkage on the wine, but it still works out much cheaper for customers than paying for a £20-plus bottle in a restaurant,” Chris says.
Seasonality drives the menu, and each weekend the fare is promoted on a large in-store blackboard and via the store’s active Twitter feed. The night C-Store visited, pork and apple casserole and pecan pie were on the menu - and needless to say it was a sellout.
“Local people just love the concept. They can come in and relax with a delicious freshly-cooked meal and bottle of wine and then walk, or stumble, home afterwards. In a small rural village such as Blockley people really value that,” Chris adds.
Each year the store also holds a Christmas party for the community, complete with mulled wine, mince pies, a brass band, fireworks and all manner of other entertainment.
However, despite its catalogue of creditable works, securing permission to build the new store and café didn’t come easily. “We had traded successfully out of the old site for five years, but the old fire station wasn’t really fit for purpose. It was quite small and as it was listed and rented we couldn’t make many alterations. Building a new purpose-built store and café for the community would offer endless opportunities to expand our range and services. We knew that, the community knew that; we just had to convince the planners!” Chris says.
In addition to being adjacent to an old mill pond, the land earmarked for the development was also close to other listed buildings within the perimeter of the picturesque village, making it more than a little contentious, and in the end Chris and the committee resorted to busing 70 villagers armed with placards to the planning meeting to stress the vital role that the new store would play.
Fortunately, the authorities were convinced and fundraising could begin. Donations from villagers alone amounted to £125,000, further evidence of just how valued the store is by local people. A further £500,000 came from the National Lottery - ironic, Chris thinks, as earlier in the year Camelot had removed the store’s terminal for being just shy of hitting its £1,000 a week target. The rest of the money was secured via a loan from the Social Investment Business Group.
But the story doesn’t end there. Some £60,000-worth of site surveys were needed and even before the first turf could be dug all of the millpond’s fishy occupants had to be caught and packed off for a six-month holiday in a nearby pond, lest their water be polluted during the works.
There was also another hurdle to be overcome. The National Lottery funding was granted on the proviso that a lift for any disabled employees the store might employ in the future was installed as part of the plan. “Working the lift into the design was an unforeseen challenge, but we managed it - in a roundabout way,” Chris laughs.
The only place for the lift to be positioned was between the shop floor and staff hallway which leads to the stockroom and office, meaning that staff must pass through the lift to access these areas. If it’s ever in use, or parked on a different floor, access to and from the stockroom or office and shop floor is denied.
It’s certainly a “design quirk” but the store can never be accused of shirking equal opportunities expectations.
The rest of the build flowed relatively smoothly, however, and within a few months Blockley Village Shop as you see it today was born. The opening last month was marked with a grand celebration, complete with fireworks, live music and a hog roast. Unsurprisingly, hundreds of local people came out to toast the team and each other in a true show of community cohesion, which we are sure will be followed by a great many more in the years to come.
Blockley Village Shop included an array of energy-efficient technologies in its build to help keep a lid on bills.
Glass doors have been added to the store’s drinks chillers, while heat-reclaim technology uses wasted heat from the chillers to keep the café cosy in the cold winter months.
Large glass windows and skylights above the shop floor make the most of the natural light, while LED lamps have been fitted in the ceiling panels.
Solar panels have also been fitted to the roof.