It took them six years, but the residents of Almondsbury have finally got their act together. Their Community Shop has brought in sales of £100,000 in just eight months, despite operating out of a private house with an entirely (mad) voluntary workforce
Visiting the Almondsbury Community Shop feels a bit like spending a jolly afternoon on the set of The Vicar of Dibley. To the outside world, Almondsbury is the busiest junction between the M4 and M5, but in fact it is a tranquil village occupied by respectable middle England folks.
Its community shop opened its doors on 20 March last year and has pulled in £100,000 in just eight months. The management claim a gross margin of between 25% to 27% and are predicting turnover will be £130,000 at the end of the shop's first year.
But the fact it opened at all is a tale of triumph over adversity. When their old village shop closed in 2002, the residents formed a community shop committee. As is so often the way with committees, it failed to come to a conclusion and the village remained shopless for six years. But finally a leader emerged in the form of retired management consultant Alun Evans, who united the village's disparate factions.
Evans hatched a plan to start a community shop as a monthly trial and build it into a full-time shop. He assembled a team of locals with experience in finance, marketing, stock purchase and planning and in 2008 the trial began. Evans and his team procured checkouts, uniforms and even shopping trolleys, and opened a shop in the village hall on the first Saturday of every month. After eight months, takings were in the thousands and the team decided it was time to open a full-time 'test' shop.
Finding suitable premises was tough, until Evans suggested using a picturesque cottage owned by the church. The committee won planning consent to use it as a shop for two years, but it came with some pretty draconian caveats on signage and hours, so the shop closes at 6pm on weekdays and 2.30pm on Saturdays, and only one tall sign is visible to passing traffic.
Then there was the issue of rent, which at about £1,000 a month was something the church could not afford to waive. So the committee got to work. "The Plunkett Foundation and Cooperative & Community Finance gave us a grant of £7,000 each, South Gloucester District Council provided £1,200 as a small community grant and £16,500 came from Rural Renaissance, an organisation funded by the South West of England Regional Development Agency," says Evans. "All in all we raised £35,000."
Then they approached Tesco's local community support team for some practical help. "Tesco donated shelving, chillers, freezers, and units worth a few thousand pounds, and installed them too."
Now the place is up and running, most stock is delivered by a wholesaler and a local man who sources fresh produce, so trips to the cash & carry are rare. The shop keeps costs on branded goods down by finding bargains, loss leaders, and two-for-one offers using internet comparison sites. It also sells locally made jams and cookies under its own-brand name.
The committee has a keen business acumen, but that hasn't suppressed a few eccentricities. Firstly the 300 sq ft layout is extraordinary. Because it is a domestic residence and cannot undergo structural changes, the main shop is in the living room, the book stall and newspaper stand fill the lobby, and frozen and ambient foods are in the dining room. The kitchen hosts domestic items, seasonal goods and a coffee machine (offering a very fair latte).
The shop's 55-strong volunteer workforce were, from what I could see, mostly bonkers and thoroughly enjoying themselves. As well as manpower, such a large workforce gives the shop a ready-made customer base. If all the staff spent 50 quid a week, that would easily pull in the projected £130,000, even before external customers. However, it has led to a somewhat eclectic choice of stock. I commented on the huge quantity of Shredded Wheat apparently the vicar will breakfast on nothing else. Mrs Perkins buys the olive bread mix, Terry likes the pesto, and Sue values the authentic poppadoms. This is fine up to a point, but stock geared entirely towards locals could stifle passing trade.
If I were to be critical about community stores, I would argue they are not really a model for real world business, as profitability is not the highest item on their agenda. How many commercial retailers can draw on the resources of 55 staff who work for nothing and a customer base that practically pre-orders the stock? But the ones that make money do so by following solid retail principles such as keeping costs low and selling what the customer base wants.
Almondsbury Community Shop is pulling in a weekly turnover of £8 per sq ft from a barely signed shop crammed into an unconverted house, so goodness knows what it could make in proper site. I suspect that once the two-year lease is up, there will be little stopping Evans & Co moving to a permanent purpose-built shop. Then we'll see what they can really do.