Where Mary Portas failed to restore the fortunes of Corfe Castle village’s local store, Terry and Carole Birnie have succeeded. They told Joe Cooper how knowing their customers, meeting their needs and becoming a destination for tourists has transformed the business.
Some visitors to the picturesque Dorset village of Corfe Castle still ask if the local shop is “the one off the TV”.
They are referring to a 2010 episode of Mary Queen of Shops, where retail guru Mary Portas gave advice to struggling high street shops.
Back then, the store was haemorrhaging £6,000 a week, but Mary’s advice, which proved to be unsuited to the business’s demographic, failed to revive it and the store eventually went bankrupt.
But its fortunes were reversed when husband and wife team Carole and Terry Birnie bought the 1,000sq ft store in 2014.
The couple had had their eye on the building, which dates back to the 1500s, for several years. They had built up two stores in a village an hour’s drive away, but wanted to move to a smaller store with a more relaxed pace.
They turned their attention to transforming their new venture, and their changes mean it is on course to achieve a £700,000 turnover this year.
The key to turning the store around, Carole says, was winning back local customers. The previous owners had abandoned basic convenience in favour of a farm shop feel and lost village custom along the way.
Teamwork is vital. We employ local staff and they help keep us up-to-date on what customers want
“Those people are your bread and butter and if you don’t have what they want, they won’t use you,” she says.
To win them back, Carole and Terry have made several changes, with modernisation and the introduction of convenience store basics at competitive prices top of the list.
“We spent £110,000 on a refit,” says Carole. “I didn’t want it to look too ‘olde-worlde’, because there are plenty of places like that in the village already. Instead, we put in a chiller and freezer. When people buy food they want clean, fresh and well-lit store. And when tourists come in they want something that feels familiar to the Tesco or Sainsbury’s they are used to.”
Costcutter’s Independent range satisfies locals on a budget, while shoppers can also find the grocery and household brands they need. And to improve the store’s service, Carole and Terry now only employ staff from the area, who know what villagers want.
The couple have also worked to attract tourists visiting the village. Seasonal trade makes up a large part of their profits, with basket spend varying between £4 and £8.50 depending on the time of year.
Terry and Carole stock a range of Dorset-made ice cream, cereal, fresh and chilled produce and souvenirs to appeal to campers and people in holiday cottages. They have also expanded their gluten-free and vegan ranges to meet demand from tourists.
This tourist trade has to be competed for, however – Tesco and Sainsbury’s are frequently seen delivering to the many cottages.
“This is just another challenge we’ve had to adapt to,” says Carole. “I’ve started providing some of the cottages with welcome packs and am working on getting others on board. I also do a home delivery service if people email in their orders.”
Other in-store services are increasing the store’s appeal too.
Carole and Terry have extended their opening hours, added the Lottery and, after the closure of the local post office, have also taken on this service. With no ATM in the village, the store’s cashback service is another footfall driver.
Terry is pleased with how the business is shaping up.
“We got locals back by getting the products they wanted back on the shelves. At first, we didn’t know what tourists wanted but we’re getting on top of that too,” he says.
Carole, meanwhile, is working on a media strategy. With tourists returning every other year, raising awareness is crucial, and it now has its own Instagram account.
The couple are in their element, says Carole. “But we’ve not had chance to slow down,” she adds. “I have trouble letting go – I want to make sure we get every sale.”
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