Village shops benefitted from the ‘stay local’ message during the pandemic, says Rupert Hardy, chair of North Dorset CPRE – but tougher times lay ahead
For many years, Dorset CPRE sponsored the Best Dorset Village Shop class in the county’s Best Kept Village competition. I was one of the two judges. Sadly the competition is in abeyance currently as it needs a new major sponsor, but we can – and should – still write about the sector and applaud some of the better shops. We awarded prizes to many throughout Dorset, but I would especially mention Iwerne Minster Village Stores and Motcombe Community Shop in North Dorset.
Oddly, Covid was kind to village shops, which had been under pressure for decades from the relentless onslaught of supermarkets. Government advice to stay at home combined with fear of infection drove shoppers to avoid supermarkets, except for using their online delivery services if available. Village and farm shops, however, offered a friendly face to consumers who otherwise felt isolated, while they benefited from the trend to ‘shop local’ at a difficult time for all. Consumers increasingly wanted to buy higher quality sustainable food with lower food miles, and showed greater awareness of food provenance. Price was less of an issue.
Things have changed
Roll forward to 2022 and life is dramatically changing, with shoppers facing a cruel cost-of-living crisis. Village shops may still benefit from a long-term trend towards sustainability, but they also face much tighter purses. Price wars will intensify and we all know which supermarkets are winning: the discounters, Aldi and Lidl. The latter have been helped too by greater availability of new sites, thanks in part to the misfortunes of the hospitality industry under COVID, particularly pubs.
There may have been less online shopping as the virus diminished, but it is still a clear long-term trend that the supermarkets can take advantage of and village shops find very hard to exploit. Another factor has been the rapid decline in physical newspaper sales, previously these were major drivers of customer flow for the shops.
What can they do?
The bigger shops are in a much stronger position as they can offer a broader range of stock and also diversify if space allows by opening cafes, which bring extra footfall and generate higher margins. Village shops can sell more high quality, local, sustainable produce, which we applaud as we support local food and drink producers, of which Dorset has many.
More shops are joining symbol groups, such as Spar, to help their buying power and provide marketing support. We ask readers to support village shops as much as they can, as they are vital community hubs.
We hope to use our column to report back on some of the best local shops, supplementing the coverage already provided by the BV magazine in its ‘Meet your Local’ column.
We start with Robin Hill Stores in historic Marnhull, the largest village in Dorset. Located in the heart of the Blackmore Vale, it features in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles as “Marlot”. Atul Odedra has run the successful shop and Post Office since 2014. He sells cards and other non-food items as well. The premises and the neighbouring shops were once the large Michael Harding’s Stores. The building was originally four separate cottages, thought to date from the late 1600s, which have been combined and added to over the years.
Atul has made various changes after taking over the shop. He has brought in more local food and drink, including Mounters Gin, which is made in the village. He bought a bigger chiller so he can sell more fresh food, and he has now installed a fresh milk station, supplying milk from the Dorset Dairy Company. Best sellers are cakes and biscuits. He employs local part-time staff, and his brother Dilip is temporarily helping out. Atul supports the Marnhull community in many ways, providing window displays for local businesses, advertising space for community events and ticket sales for community groups.
Various village groups can take over the window displays and as I write there is a Marnhull Fest display.
Locals report how Atul goes out of his way to order in special items for them. Legend has it that Atul walked from Bourton to Marnhull when the village was cut off by snow, bringing back fresh milk. That is dedication to the community!
He admits that the shop benefited indirectly from Covid, but life this year has got much tougher with the cost-of-living crisis. He is finding more severe price competition from the supermarkets, but is trying to sell more local food which the supermarkets don’t stock. Looking to the future, Atul is thinking about converting an empty room into a café to improve footfall into the shop too. Reviews mention good stock, amazing service, friendly owners and a fine little Post Office.