For a trade association that's been running for just over five years, the Rural Shops Alliance (RSA) has achieved a lot. From being a significant force in the campaign for the OFT to refer the Big Four to the Competition Commission, to throwing its weight behind the recent Sunday Trading campaign, the RSA's profile has gone from strength to strength.
Sean Carter, chief executive of the RSA, is proud of what the Alliance has achieved in such a short time. "MPs suddenly realised that we had quite a strong voice when the All Party Parliamentary Small Shops Group 2015 report came out," he says. "We are recognised now in Westminster as a fairly significant force among trade associations."
Carter claims the reason government has taken to the Alliance is because it's "a trade association with a difference". He says: "We go through the shop doors and talk to the retailers. We know retailing and know that we need to offer answers. That's key to our philosophy - we don't just moan and groan to government; we put forward solutions.
"The other reason is that we're factual," he adds. "We have a sounding board of retailers who are all on the internet and spread throughout the counties, so if government wants a quick answer to something, we can email a question to our retailers and get a fast response that is not only scientific, but hugely indicative.
"It's a huge achievement just how the awareness of the RSA has grown. There's a group of MPs that talk to us for questions in the House of Commons because they're interested in a particular subject. And civil servants regularly ask us for advice. The only problem is when Tony Blair reshuffles the cabinet and we have to make friends with new ministers."
The RSA now has 7,400 rural shops in England in membership. It recruits its retail members through an associate membership structure, recruiting counties into membership which then identify shops in their region. In the past year it has appointed a number of retail advisors as regional county co-ordinators.
"Their role is to work with the regional development agencies, or county organisations - possibly even on a district level - to improve understanding of independent retailers' problems," says Carter. "If there's a retail advisor in those areas, they'd work with them, and talk up our projects, get out and do surveys and try to co-ordinate it all in the region.
"One big problem is that there's no structure in the rural scene," adds Carter. "We could be dealing with a county council, rural community council, Business Link or some well-to-do organisation on the edge of the voluntary sector. We had big problems finding out who our contacts should be at the start - we spent a lot of time talking to the wrong people. Some counties have retail advisors, whether they be full- or part-time, and some have nothing. That's been our biggest headache."
But true to its philosophy, the Alliance has presented DEFRA with a solution to the lack of rural support. In February this year the RSA secured government backing for a pilot project that could transform the levels of support available to rural retailers. Rural affairs minister Jim Knight agreed to adopt the proposed support structure in a test project in six counties in South West England.
Under the new structure, regional development agencies would act as 'funders', the various Business Links would act as 'brokers', while the RSA would implement support at retail level through its network of regional or county co-ordinators to ensure that stores on the edge of viability had access to specialist training and business and retail advice.
Carter is confident the pilot will get under way in the autumn. "We had meetings in May at which the pilot was agreed by regional development agencies. We've just got to kick people into moving. The government doesn't move as fast as we do in the commercial sector.
"If we can get that project accepted - because regions do their own thing and don't have to follow it - it needs to be done sooner rather than later. If we can get a structure off the ground we can sustain rural services that are the life blood of a community."
The RSA hasn't achieved all it has without backing, and sponsors clearly play a huge role in the operation. It gets little revenue from any other source. "It's very much a partnership," says Carter. "Sponsors can be very helpful, knowledgable and offer structured support so we provide them with the choice of whether to get actively involved. We need to offer our sponsors some sort of value. We try not to see them as just cash cows."
As such, the Alliance runs several projects in tandem with its sponsors. In East Anglia, for example, the RSA invited five sponsors from key categories to go into six stores to re-organise their displays. "We picked stores that had epos so we could get the correct data," explains Carter. "We also had six other stores that weren't part of the pilot as a control. We got sponsors to work together, which isn't always easy, to re-organise alcohol, confectionery, video rental and tobacco fixtures, creating promotions such as Big Night In.
"At the end of the project sales in every category and every store went up. Some were very good, some were just okay, but they all went up and the non-pilot stores were static. We were then able to say to other stores 'This is what happened. Why don't you do it in your own store?'."
While the RSA is limited to supporting rural retailers in England, it is under pressure to extend its support to Wales. "A number of civil servants and ministers in government have been pressurising us to go into Wales, but we haven't got the resources at the moment."
So, for now, Sean Carter and his colleagues will continue to fight the good fight in England's rural communities. "We've got to make sure our members' views are listened to," he says. "It's an ongoing war, but we're winning some of the battles."

How sponsors get involved

Imperial Tobacco was one of the first sponsors to come forward in support of the Rural Shops Alliance back in 2001. Iain Watkins, trade communications manager for Imperial Tobacco, says: "We approached the RSA because it's vitally important to see a thriving independent sector. We were surprised at how many are isolated and not getting the support needed. Independents account for 55% of all cigarette sales and they've got that without too much help."
Sponsors are on hand at training groups to advise retailers on how to manage their categories more effectively, and many have the opportunity to get involved with various projects. But for a company like Imperial Tobacco, the contact with rural retailers through RSA meetings and projects is mutually invaluable. "It's a great opportunity for feedback - it generates a lot of work for us but that's good. Tobacco legislation is a constant problem so we work closely on political issues because tobacco is a major element of rural retailers' sales."