What future for the village shop? Together with the church, school and pub, the local shop and post office has always been a key focal point to village life. Over the past 20 years, many villages have lost their local shop and discovered, too late, how important the shop had been for the wellbeing of their community. Up to 43% of England's parishes are without a shop or post office, and a further 3,000 stand to lose one or the other over the next few years. However, a village shop can be the hub of a community and at times can be a saviour. There are a number of reasons for the continued closure of village shops. Wider car ownership is often cited, as is the increasing power of the supermarkets. However, these are not the sole reasons ­ in fact it can often be lack of business acumen that drives customers away. The lure of the supermarkets and car ownership just make this defection easier. Factors such as the spiralling values of freehold property can also contribute to a shop's failure. If a shop is well run and managed, these costs should easily be absorbed. But issues such as the extension of trading hours, increasing levels of competition, and changing village demographics may be harder to manage. Some powerful supermarkets, however, are attempting to support village shops. Recently, Sainsbury started a mutually beneficial scheme. The scheme, called SAVE (Sainsbury's Assisting Village Enterprises), enables shopkeepers to buy Sainsbury's own label ambient products from their nearest supermarket for resale in their own shops. Its Economy lines are excluded. SAVE has been favourably received by shopkeepers as it means they can stock an own label brand that customers know and trust, and they can stock products not normally available in small quantities, such as flavoured olive oils. Customers gain access to a wider range of products, and this is especially helpful for some customers who find it difficult to get to a supermarket. This, in turn, increases footfall. Although fresh foods are not available through the scheme, many shops source these locally. To be part of SAVE, stores have to serve a village of fewer than 1,000 residents, and be checked for standards, such as good merchandising and not selling out of date products. The biggest selling lines to date have been wine, tea, pasta, baked beans, biscuits, oils and vinegar. One store saw its turnover rise 50% in the 10 weeks after joining, says Sainsbury. The shops buy the products at retail price so often the profit to be made is small. But special offers do not necessarily need to be passed on to the customers, and triple Reward points are available on all the shops' purchases. Although shopkeepers can charge their own prices, few increase the price by more than a few pence, if at all. Sainsbury and the Post Office are endeavouring to address the issue of lack of business acumen among shopkeepers and have recently launched an initiative providing shopkeepers with advice on retail and development of their business outlets such as merchandising and product ranging. Rural shops can also access help and advice from ViRSA (Village Retail Services Association), an organisation working in England and Wales with the objective of helping village communities to keep their shop and post office. ViRSA helps local action groups to create community backed investment rescue packages for the shop. They also provide advice on starting a new shop from scratch, marketing, and merchandising. The Rural Development Commission is another source of help providing grants through the Village Shop Development Scheme (VSDS). It is available to the sole shop in an area, selling an adequate range of products serving a community of under 3,000 people. Any local shop must offer a range of goods and services meeting the needs of the local market. Many village shops offer a wide range of services such as dry-cleaning, shoe repair and film processing, as well as top up lines. Formal home delivery is starting to take off, although it has been on an ad hoc basis. There is often the perception village shops charge more than the supermarkets, and this is not always the case; local produce is often cheaper and fresher. The services offered by village shops and post offices are often focal points and are vital to the social and economic stability of rural communities. However, it is only by good management in today's competitive environment that these businesses will flourish. n {{LEADING EDGE }}