Rescue plan for struggling village shops

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The Independent Online

Three thousand British villages with a combined population of 4.5 million have no shop and no post office, according to new research by the Countryside Agency.

Three thousand British villages with a combined population of 4.5 million have no shop and no post office, according to new research by the Countryside Agency.

One-third of British villages are now dependent on neighbouring towns for even basic goods, prompting the government-backed agency to send specialist consultants to rescue struggling rural stores.

Last night the agency issued blunt advice to the owners of specialist shops: diversify or go out of business.

With village post offices closing at the rate of 400 a year, the neighbouring shops have been plunged into crisis. A closure takes away an estimated 15 per cent of their business.

The agency believes it is now extremely difficult for more than one specialist shop, such as a butcher or baker, to survive in the same rural area, and warns that shops must sell a wide range of goods if they are to compete with supermarkets and larger chains of stores in neighbouring towns.

"There were 4,000 village shop closures between 1991 and 1997," said Brian Wilson, head of social needs for the agency. "The ones that have closed tend to be those in villages with more than one shop, where you had three or four specialist food shops such as butchers or bakers."

Some shops have managed to keep open thanks to grants from both the Countryside Agency and regional development agencies to refurbish their properties and expand their stock. They are also getting free advice from retail consultants on how to improve the promotion of their wares.

"It makes good business sense to diversify," Mr Wilson said. "I'd have thought it is the only way forward. We have been encouraging shopkeepers in rural areas to reinvent themselves as multi-stop shops."

In the Suffolk village of Blythburgh, there are signs of a fightback. The village store closed last November, forcing residents to drive to Southwold, five miles away, for their food.

Mike and Julie Davis, who run the White Hart public house in the village, decided, after being approached by the parish council, to refurbish an old coal barn on the other side of the pub courtyard and run it as a general store and post office. It opened in May, after a £20,000 make-over.

"We're realistic," said Mr Davis whose first move was to open for longer hours than the previous shop and offer a wider range of goods. "We don't do fresh fruit and veg but we sell just about everything else.

"You have to make sure that if someone comes into the shop for something you have it in stock. We're not expecting to make a great fortune. It works because we cater for a bit of everything."

Part of the store's success is that Mr Davis recognises that supermarkets are here to stay. "I use supermarkets and quite enjoy walking round them. It's just something you have to accept but you mustn't let it put you off.

"We're just a village shop and don't expect everyone to do all their weekly shopping here. All that matters is that they come in and spend a little here and a little there."

The difference the shop has made to the community is considerable. For elderly people unable to use their car, or without one, the closure of the previous shop meant giving up their independence and relying on others to shop for them. That has now changed.

"We get people coming into the shop who we don't see in the pub because they don't drink," Mr Davis said.

"People do talk in the shop and meet one another. For some it will be the only time they ever get out and talk to other people."

Mr Wilson recognises that shops have to operate in the real world. "The customers aren't going to get as specialist a service as they have in the past and it has implications for larger villages which are left with fairly run-down high streets full of empty shops. It all looks quite shabby but that's the way shopping is going, although we're sure the best small stores will survive."

The closure of rural shops brings with it a substantial financial burden. A recent report showed that the demise of the last store in a village costs the local population around £50,000 a year in lost trade and higher travel costs, even in a settlement of 1,000 people or fewer.

The plight of village post offices has added to the problem. When a rural post office shuts, nearby shops face closure too and the shop attached to the post office itself loses a quarter of its turnover.