For Sonya Cary’s store in the 6,000-residents-strong village of Pontrilas, Herefordshire, caring for the community and running a successful store are one and the same.
Founded four years ago, the social enterprise serves the elderly population in 17 villages in Herefordshire. All the money made in the store is invested back into supporting the community.
“We have used our position as local residents ourselves to understand what the community needs. Many of our customers are old, isolated and lonely, so we’ve created a model that tackles that social need,” Sonya explains.
The team is not made up of retailers by trade, so Sonya is constantly looking at other shops for inspiration. “We read the trade press, we have a board and we are a registered social enterprise, so passion is driven from talking with each other and our local residents,” she says.
Despite not coming from a retail background, the store still managed to rank highly in the Independent Achievers Academy last year – becoming a finalist in the Service to the Community category.
“The community is at the heart of what we do, but we recognise that we need to become better retailers and benchmarking has been a great focus for us,” she says.
“I found it an enormous benefit. I probably wasn’t ready for the process in 2017, but I feel we are now. It’s been invaluable.”
This responsibility of caring for the community is challenging enough, but due to its small size, the shop also has to operate without a stock room. “We’ve had to really look at our product range and ask if we are serving the community. We have no stock room, so we have to get deliveries twice a week and there’s a lot to pack in. We’ve upped our range of vegan and gluten-free food and it’s been a very steep learning curve for us,” she says.
The business is also looking to expand out of the shop to care for the community. “We’ve just secured the lease on two adjoining units with money made by the shop and the post office,” she says. The team have turned one unit into a fitness studio with an occupational therapist that helps those in the community with hip and knee replacements. In the other, an arts and crafts café helps keep elderly residents’ minds active.
“The fitness studio will be pay-as-you-go and was a direct ask from the community. It will be a massive achievement for our business. We’ve come so far in four years from just taking over a shop and post office that would have closed. We want to keep that going,” she says.
The company has also stepped up in partnering with local events. “At Christmas we brought in 14 people who didn’t have family for Christmas lunch and the community donated presents. That gave us such a sense of pride,” she says.
It’s an inspirational story, which is starting to get attention, scooping an award from Hereford Council last year and presenting their model to the House of Lords. “We’ve forced the local council and the wider political world to take note. We’re not just a shop and a post office, we’re driving social change,” Sonya says.