Selling a wide variety of products, staying open long hours and keeping up with the times are all key to surviving as a rural shop, finds Brian Wilson.
This latter document – full of charts, graphics and statistics – is largely based upon survey responses last summer from 802 UK convenience stores who described themselves as trading from a rural location.
Readers can probably all cite villages concerned about the future of their (only) shop and others where it has already closed. Aside from their inherent community value, many convenience stores bring added value by virtue of doubling up as the local post office or petrol station.
Of course, they may be just as likely to disappear from high streets or shopping parades in rural towns, but here at least there are probably nearby alternatives for customers. Convenience stores, in short, are part of the wider picture of a hollowing out of service provision which has occurred in many rural places.
According to the ACS survey some 38% of the nation's convenience stores are rurally based, which means there are more than 19,100 of them spread across the UK.
The report shows that they serve a wide variety of purposes for their customers. Most common – predictably – are those who come in for top-up grocery shopping, but sizeable numbers visit for the newsagent, for take-away food, for a ready meal for that evening and to purchase treats or gifts. Moreover, a quarter of customers pop in on a daily basis.
One stop shop may be an over-worked phrase, but it clearly describes many rural stores. Around half have an ATM or cash-machine, whilst a fair proportion offer services such as home delivery, recycling points, a click-and-collect point for parcels and a dry cleaning service.
As might be expected, a majority of them sell Lottery tickets and top-ups for pay-as-you-go mobile phones. Underlining the point made above, a quarter of these stores host a post office and almost a fifth are co-located with a petrol station.
Neither should we under-estimate the non-commercial role that many play within their community. This is evident from the figures for stores that collect money for charities (79%), have a community noticeboard (22%) and give support to local community events (25%).
The ownership of these rural stores is varied and, perhaps surprisingly, three-quarters can be classified as 'independents'. They in turn can be split between the non-affiliated shops and those which are independently owned yet trading under a symbol brand, such as Spar, Costcutter, Premier or Simply Fresh. The multiple chains and cooperative chains then constitute the remaining quarter of rural stores.
Another point which strikes from the survey results is the length of opening hours, with more than nine in ten shops opening in excess of 60 hours per week. Pity the fifth of shop owners who said they had not taken any holiday during the previous year. Anyone under the impression that rural shops offer limited opening hours should clearly think again.
As the cashless economy becomes ever more of a reality, it is notable that three quarters of these stores accept credit or debit cards, whilst close to half have a facility for contactless card payment and more than a quarter can handle payments from a mobile phone. Perhaps we should rather wonder how long others will hold out for cash.
The ACS report contains a few policy recommendations, where it believes Government could do more to help sustain rural shops. It wants to see a clearer plan for keeping post office outlets financially viable and it expresses concern about the level of remuneration for shop owners providing post office services. This could be a particular issue in 2018 when the contracts held by some sub-postmasters and -postmistresses are due to change.
The ACS report also argues that more rural petrol stations should be brought within the rural business rate relief scheme. The relatively high turnover of petrol stations, which is used to calculate their rateable value, puts many over the £12,500 threshold for scheme eligibility. It is concerned that many could be among the losers from the latest business rates review and may be pushed over this threshold.
One message is surely that rural convenience stores typically survive by having a diverse offer that can appeal to a range of customers. Co-location – whether with post offices, petrol stations or another service – is often a part of this and can be a real strength, but it also poses risks if the co-located business faces tricky times.