Exmoor learns craft of survival

Marketing: hard-pressed village shops are being urged to improve their margins by selling local products to tourists
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A LOCAL network of village shops and crafts producers in Exmoor could boost the area's income and save vulnerable busi- nesses, says the Rural Development Commission. If successful, it will be copied in other areas that depend on tourism.

The Exmoor Producers' Association is hosting seminars, conferences and exhibitions promoting the work of West Somerset craftsmen and women, many of whom have national and international customers but few local outlets. Village shops have been reluctant to stock items they feared would not sell, and have been unable to stock some products, such as furniture, because they are too large to display.

Now shop owners are being persuaded that their livelihood depends on diversification and the promotion of the goods of local producers, and are being encouraged to display catalogues for larger products, taking orders for home delivery. They are being asked to give preference to the products of local businesses to boost the area's economy.

The idea arose from a consultant's report that advised a village shop to move to higher-margin products without losing core grocery business. The consultant said the key was to sell high-margin items to tourists, whose demand for souvenirs was not being met.

Margins on local craft products are about 50 per cent, whereas some groceries offer as little as 15 per cent. Boosting the craft market could therefore be important to the village shop, which survives on average sales of between pounds 1,000 and pounds 1,500 a week.

This gives a family income of pounds 250-pounds 375 to meet not only wages, but also interest and indirect business expenses.

The Rural Development Commission has long campaigned for the survival of village shops, promoting schemes for villagers to invest in them, and for the shops to be recognised as the heart of the community.

These shops have been undermined by the takeover of villages by commuters and the growth of out-of-town shopping centres. The RDC points out that 30 per cent of village residents still do not have a family car and face difficulties if the local shop closes.

However, a recent Northumberland RDC report admitted that it was untrue that the closure of village shops alone caused hardship or loss to a community. The study concluded that village shops closed because of preceding changes that had already drained the life out of the community.

The RDC's business adviser for Exmoor, Bryan Higgins-Wood, says that the potential for tourism income has still not been fully understood by village shops. "There are 2 million visitors to Exmoor each year who are enthusiastic to take something back with them made locally. We need to build up the local infrastructure, using it as a way of to source locally, and to try to link shops together.

"We have a triangle, with conservation on one side, and visitors and the local economy on the other sides. We want to increase sales, hope to get some people who are working a few hours into working full-time and then employing others," Mr Higgins-Wood says.

Hugh Croft, who produces traditional Exmoor furniture, believes the association will bring him great benefits. "Marketing is my big bugbear." He hopes that it will later employ a marketing officer to promote the area's products across the country.

Graham Banks, who runs Withypool post office and village shop, is enthusiastic but realistic about the scheme's limitations. "All village shops are struggling. If we can get a good margin on things that visitors will buy, it's bound to have a beneficial effect. "There are drawbacks if the same items are stocked in all the village shops, and if we have to spend more on stocks, but we could sell on sale-or-return - or buy replacements when things are sold."

Mr Banks fully recognises the new reality facing village shops. "We are dependent on visitors - we do a good summer trade, and the things that visitors buy have higher margins." A good summer season is vital - winter on Exmoor can be very bleak.