Cotswolds retailer Paul Mather and his wife Gail have been aware of Waitrose’s plans to open in a neighbouring village for some time. That doesn’t make their arrival any easier – but it will make them fight harder. Steven Lambert reports

Faced with the threat of a new Waitrose opening nearby, Paul Mather and his wife Gail are taking their upcoming competitor head-on at their village store.

The couple has invested heavily in new chillers and freezers at their Sherston Post Office Stores in the south Cotswolds and even offer price comparisons with Waitrose and Tesco.

 <figcaption>By operating a reward scheme, Paul and Gail Mather can secure their customers’ loyalty</figcaption>” width=”174″ height=”300″> By operating a reward scheme, Paul and Gail Mather can secure their customers’ loyalty</figure><p class=Links with the local community have also been strengthened, ranging from sponsoring assorted local events to stocking a wider range of locally-produced goods – all things their rivals can’t offer.

“We’ve known for six or seven months that Waitrose was opening in the next market town,” says Paul. “We need to fend it off. We’re in quite an affluent area, so Waitrose will be welcomed and we need to convince customers to keep shopping with us.”

In addition to their price comparison and a focus on pricemarked packs in sections such as spirits, the couple have also looked to the increasingly important food to go category, revamping and adding in key areas.

“In the past couple of months we’ve put in new freezers and fridges. We’ve expanded our chilled, frozen and fresh sections and we’ve seen increased demand for that. It’s been tremendous,” says Paul.

The Mathers have been in their current location for three years. The 1,350sq ft store is more than three times the size of their previous premises, which was essentially “the front room of a house”. When they developed the new store, the first step was again to ensure that it felt nothing like one of its bigger rivals: “When we moved to the new premises, we said we wanted to be as unlike a Tesco Express as possible.”

This larger store has enabled them to do what they had always wanted to and create a truly local shop. “We can now serve the needs of the local community. We were always striving to do this before, but we could never quite manage it.”

Local produce is another key area. Paul says: “This is one way that we can differentiate ourselves. We can source from local suppliers and it makes a real difference. It makes us a destination.

“We have apple juice from our village, cider from the next village and local bread produced for us. We’ve also got mainstream beers, a specialist area for local brewers and a sparkling wine made six miles away. That’s a real talking point and point of difference. We also sell fresh cakes made by local people.”

The store also sells jigsaws produced by a local company as well as other craft items. “It’s not a huge return, but it adds extra flavour,” says Paul. “Customers really respond to it. It’s about looking after your own community.”

This goes beyond simply selling local products. “It’s a village of about 1,500 people,” explains Paul, “and we like to sponsor as many events as we can, from the scouts to the village pantomime.”

We’re on Facebook, which attracts younger customers, and we have a newsletter for our more traditional customers. We put offers through both of those channels

The store has also ventured into the digital realm. “We’re very active online. We’re on Facebook, which attracts younger customers, and we have a newsletter for our more traditional customers. We put offers through both of those channels.”

All this activity, coupled with further initiatives such as recently becoming a community Post Office and opening on Sundays, has seen turnover increase year on year by about 10%, to around £16,000.

The Mathers still have a real fervour for the business. “We still enjoy it,” says Paul. “If you have a passion for it and enjoy it, then it works better. You have to provide customers with what they want, when they want it, with a level of service and at the right price. If you get all those, you’ve cracked it.”

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