Sainsbury's offers aid to village shops

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The Independent Online
BRENDA ERSCOTT's small shop in the peaceful Dorset village of Halstock is jammed full of supplies: jars, packets and tins that could form the basis of the weekly shopping, or provide salvation in an emergency.

From this week, Mrs Erscott's already crowded shelves will be bolstered with items from the Sainsbury's range. In a unique experiment, the supermarket giant will act as a wholesaler and allow village shopowners to sell on its items to their customers. Shopkeepers will be able to set their own prices.

The experiment, which is being piloted in six parts of Britain, is the latest twist in the ongoing battle to try and save the nation's village stores.

A study published earlier this year by the Rural Development Commission, a statutory body which provides advice and grants to help save rural services, showed that in England alone, since 1991, 4,000 village shops had been lost. The survey studied parishes with up to 10,000 residents, and showed that 82 per cent no longer had a food-only shop (a butcher or green-grocer, for example), while 70 per cent had no general store.

Halstock, which in 841 was placed under the control of the Bishop of Sherborne by King Aethelred, fought to keep a shop when its longstanding store closed in 1991. Villagers raised pounds 15,000 to rent a cottage and Mrs Erscott and her retired husband, Charles, became its managers.

It is ironic that Sainsbury's should be involved in a project to save village shops, as supermarkets and out-of-town complexes have been blamed for the demise of the local store.

But Richard Fry, a trustee of the Village Retail Services Association (Virsa) which set up this project, said that that did not have to be the case. "We have never criticised supermarkets as marking the death-knell of village shops," he said.

"We realise that, at the end of the day, the customer is king. Supermarkets and out-of-town stores are there, but people do not have to use them. It is vital to realise that people's lifestyles have changed as well.

"People who live in villages do not spend all their time there. Most have cars and will go to places where there are supermarkets."

In addition to the steady growth of supermarkets and out-of-town stores, other retail outlets such as garages now sell items once provided to villagers by the local shop.

The Rural Development Commission also identified the change in lifestyle as a factor in the demise of the village shop. "People no longer necessarily work in the villages where they live," said Isobel Coy, a spokeswoman for the commission. "Very often people will shop where they work and then drive home with their shopping.

"We think the village store is a vital part of village life - particularly for people who have no car, or who have some mobility problem," she added.

"When you bear in mind that 75 per cent of villages do not have a daily bus service, this can be a real problem."

Virsa believes that the Sainsbury's scheme will help shopkeepers by allowing them to buy one or two items from a supermarket rather than a dozen or two dozen from a wholesaler. This will allow stores to improve their range without the risk of getting left with scores of unsold, out-of-date items.

It will also enable them to provide unusual or luxury items in which one or two of their regular customers have expressed an interest.

"All we want is to try and give smaller shopkeepers the chance to play on a level playing field," said Mr Fry. "A shop is vital to a community. A community without a shop has no soul. It is a focal point, something central."

Sainsbury's sees no conflict of interest in what it is doing. The company will provide point-of-sale advertising for the village shops and a spokesman for the supermarket chain admitted that extending the places where its products were sold could only be a good thing.

"[We] believe that the strength and quality of the Sainsbury's brand will provide local shopkeepers with a real opportunity of improving their overall offer to rural communities," said David Clapham, director of the company's special business units.

Mrs Erscott is optimistic about the scheme: "I have many regular customers. They are very loyal but we could always do with some more," she said. "The shop has its ups and downs and there have been times when I have thought about giving it all up. I have got thousands of different lines in here. It's a small place and there is not a lot of room, but I have as much as possible."

Mrs Erscott hopes that the scheme will allow her to offer an even wider range to her regulars.

But it will not help another village institution: Halstock's only pub shut last year.

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