Two life-long scientists might not be top of the list of contenders for ‘successful rural shop keeper’. But in just three years, Andrew and Kate Mills have not only quadrupled the turnover at Heath Stores in Horsmonden in rural Kent but also won Kent Community Retailer of the Year 2014.
It was a gamble, Andrew admits. “I knew the shop and the village from my childhood – and a complete change in lifestyle was appealing”. It was a tired shop in a Grade 2 listed building in a conservation area. Its décor was stuck in the 70s, there had been no investment in more than 20 years, it had odd opening hours, a handful of loyal customers and some passing trade for ‘emergency’ shopping. Turnover was around £6,000 a week.
The couple wanted to create both a successful business but also one at the heart of the village community. They knew there was potential – the village has more than 2,000 people, with households ranging from farm tied cottages and social housing to modern executive developments and large country houses. Horsmonden is not a dormitory village; many of its residents are out and about locally during the day.
The Mills’ background as scientists, plus an acknowledgement of their lack of experience, led them to put in hours researching and learning from others to develop their business plan. This encompassed:
Gaining experience from other successful retailers
Optimising the product range to appeal to more customers
Re-fitting the store to create a more welcoming and profitable space – but with room for locals to sit and chat over coffee
Marketing using a range of tools
Events to attract more people, more often and to become a real part of the village
Invest in people and time by offering part-time work to local youngsters, and training and supporting staff
The Mills had strong feelings on how to realise their vision. “For example, we were encouraged to re-fit the shop as soon as we took over, but we felt that we really needed to live and breathe and work in the shop for a while,” says Andrew. “This delay helped us understand the logistics, ergonomics and efficiency of the place, and what specialist equipment might be needed. After 13 months, we were far more confident on the brief for the re-fit designer.” One result from this experience was a key decision, to move the stockroom into the cellar and to give delivered caged stock its own, separate, holding area, improving the efficiency of the whole operation.
While they got to know the shop – and their customers – they were visiting a range of successful local food enterprises, prestige London stores and speciality/fine food shows. “We were told by the experts that if you are going to do a deli, you need to do it well or not at all. We decided it was all about the customer service, the welcoming atmosphere, high quality presentation and choice of food – especially the deli format – that we felt needed replicating. We decided to focus on a fusion of typical convenience store/village store with a farm shop. We felt too many village shops only stock the basics for “emergency shoppers”, and too many farm shops only stock luxury or artisan products and no daily basics. Londis Musgrave really helped us with merchandising, EPOS, etc. ., invaluable with our lack of experience”, says Andrew. “Part of the process of optimising the range of products was listening to advice from Londis, but at the same time realising that most of their experience is in an urban setting.”
The old shop looked very tired
Their vehicle acts as a promotional tool
Clean modern fittings and flooring give a classy ambiance
The couple chose to spend money on branding, working with a marketing company to help design a logo and even a Heath Stores colour. “Professional branding and marketing is particularly important if you want to reach out beyond your immediate local community. I’d recommend it – we use a local firm and it has made a real difference,” comments Andrew.
However, the big challenge was refreshing the look and feel of the store, with generous aisles, good lighting and a flexible space for tasting events and special promotions. They had great support from Sharon Davis, Kent County Council Rural Retail Adviser who suggested layout ideas, local products, and retailers to visit. She also put them in touch with shop fitters who understood the Mills’ vision of not ‘just another mini-supermarket’.
The re-fit was financed through a bank loan draw down facility, a five-year leasing agreement for all the refrigeration which represented half of the total cost, and a small grant from Government/EU funding through DEFRA. “During the refit, we kept the shop open through the two weeks with a ‘pop up’ shop in the front garden – this was really appreciated by the villagers who even helped us take it all down at the end of the fortnight, and joined in the opening celebrations!”
They decided to open up the shop’s lovely windows which were previously covered up, and install expensive track lighting. “It’s astonishing the difference opening up the front windows has made – many new customers commented they had passed the building for years and not realised it was a shop! Track lighting has created the right atmosphere in the new store and its versatility in focussing light on certain products or product ranges has been very effective,” says Andrew.
“Where we can compete on price with the supermarkets, we do – with alcohol, dairy and sliced bread for example. Where we can’t, we stock local fruit and veg, or speciality flour, local chutney and preserves, ice cream and Kent’s famous apple juice and luxury local ready meals,” says Andrew. He also rates the Londis offers and uses them regularly. Country Choice products satisfy local workmen wanting pastries and pies and the shop bakes off its own baguettes and takeaway pizzas.
Alongside the local stock is a good range of fine foods, using speciality suppliers. To build and maintain interest in the higher-end products, the couple have worked with suppliers and producers to put on a range of successful tasting events, repeated throughout the year. The highly popular deli is housed in a large and expensive serve over, the focal point of the store, offering a wide range of fresh meats, local cheeses, olives and cutting meats including home-cooked hams alongside high quality food to go, tartlets, hand raised pork pies and filled rolls. “The deli represents up to 10 per cent of all sales, with a high profit on return, so the expense of the serve over unit was well worth it.”
Andrew and Kate have also introduced a significant fair-trade range, including a Traidcraft range. So alongside Londis Supervalu rice sits fair-trade rice, for example, while Traidcraft greeting and Christmas cards and crafts add a point of difference. “The fair-trade range was very firmly driven by us, whereas our gluten-free products have been driven by our customers,” adds Andrew. “This illustrates that while it is essential to have a vision, you need to be flexible and respond to customers’ needs. After all it’s their shop – you are just the current custodians! It’s not just our business, but it’s our community too and we want to be part of what makes the village tick. We offer lots of local youngsters part-time jobs – starting them off with leaflet and newsletter delivery, moving on to re-stocking and so on.”
A non-profit making community space has been created for people to meet and chat over coffee, and also houses the Outreach Post Office three times a week. “This area is used every day by older residents for tea, coffee and gossip, local producers showcase their goods, local councillors use it for surgeries and residents for charity events such as selling raffle tickets. Although it is difficult to quantify whether the space encourages extra spend but it really helps create a pleasant atmosphere in the shop and generates a huge amount of good will.”
There’s a monthly newsletter delivered to over 600 homes highlighting local suppliers, offers, events and tasting opportunities, while social media keeps customers informed in bad weather, or the latest food or charity event in the store. “We always see uplift immediately after the newsletter has gone out; people are asking for the next month’s edition before we have written it! They say they really look forward to receiving it; it makes them feel more involved and helps them get to know us and our staff.”
Community events organised by Heath Stores are becoming increasingly popular and include tasting events such Burns Night, charity fund-raising activities, occasions such as the Queen’s Jubilee and the World Cup, and seasonal events including International Talk like a Pirate Day (sic) and an Apple and Cider Festival. These activities impact directly on sales – Andrew and Kate firmly believe the events have played a significant role in the store’s success story. “It is these events, more than anything else we have done, that differentiates us from our competitors.
New chillers with doors were installed with 75% energy efficiency savings and an added bonus that taking the alcohol chiller doors off in the summer keeps the shop cooler.
A branded vehicle, “Wherever you go, people will notice, even if it’s subliminally”
The shop now opens from 7am – 7pm on Monday to Friday, 8am – 5pm on Saturday and 8am – 12 noon on Sunday.
“We have never worked so hard and we are still facing challenges – for example, new neighbours, moved down from London, are trying to stop our early morning deliveries of milk, bread and papers!” says Andrew. “They have complained to us and the borough council, trying to get an enforcement order to stop the deliveries. But we have had a lot of support from the Parish Council and local residents, and we are hopeful, although we have been told that support from the local community would have no influence on the borough council’s decision!”