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“Bonkers is the word of the day,” says store manager Sevie Ashby. As well as managing a bustling community store, the same organisations that help run the shop are also putting on a gig with 80s pop singer Hazel O’Connor in a nearby 13th century church.
“There’s a strong social side to running this store and it’s the side I love. It’s what keeps me going. If anyone needs help with anything we are here,” she says.
After 150 years of trading, the store closed down in 2011 but was re-opened a year later as a community-owned store, thanks to support from locals and the National Lottery. “The community didn’t want to see it end and the only way we could do that was to come together as a community,” says Sevie.
The shop may be run by the community, but it faces the same challenges as it did under the previous owner. She explains: “We are forever chasing cost and any time we make a profit, something seems to break down. We’ve also got supermarkets nearby, but we’re trying new things, we’re fighting for the community and we’re hanging on in there.”
“We branched out and are continuing to do so. We added a basic range across all the key areas, we added parcel services and a wide range of crafts goods,” she says.
However, the most important assets are the volunteers. “Without them, there’s no way we could do what we do. The time they contribute is the life of this shop,” she says.
The goods and crafts section of the store attracts passing tourists in the summer and provides support to other local businesses. “It’s all sale or return and it shows off the brilliant skills in the community,” she says.
Under the previous owner, the store focused on expensive specialist foods and, with an increasingly price-sensitive customer base, the store’s previous reputation can still affect customers’ assumptions about the shop.
“We’re combatting it with plenty of price-marked lines and by trying to bring quality and low prices together. For instance, our meat comes from a local farm. It’s better, fresher and cheaper than you’ll find in any supermarket,” Sevie says.
Being seen as competitive on price is also important online. “Social media means messages can spread like wildfire and feedback on pricing online can have a big effect, so being active is really important.”
The Plunkett Foundation helps communities to run businesses such as pubs and local shops, and when Sevie asked for help in improving profitability, the organisation sent the manager of another community shop to offer advice. “It’s fantastic to have that network there to share tips and advice, to find out what’s working in other stores and try it out in our own,” she says.
“They suggested expanding our alcohol section and we’re definitely giving it a go. If you don’t try you don’t know.”
The summer represents a huge opportunity for the store and Sevie already has strong plans in place. “We’ll be taking the shop on the road to different local events. We’ll take our baked goods and other local produce to show what we do to a wider community.”
Make the most from food fairs
Sevie explains: “It’s a great opportunity to meet other local suppliers because there’s always something you don’t know about, something you can bring into your store.”
Be active on Facebook
The store regularly posts volunteer selfies and live broadcasts on Facebook. “We have to get on with the times and this is how you reach more people,” says Sevie.
Make your shop social
“It’s important that the store is a social hub as well. When elderly customers from the assisted living centre come in, sometimes we’re the only person they will visit or see that day,” she explains.
Visit Cobham Community Stores
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