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The rise in home deliveries have rocked the local economy, but Jamie and Denise Howse make sure Spar Bellabeg is worth visiting. Toby Hill reports
Before becoming a retailer at the age of 43, Jamie Howse was a corporate director living in southern England. Then, in 2013, he and his wife, Denise, decided to move to Scotland to take over a store owned by Denise’s uncle. Located in the hamlet of Bellabeg in Cairngorms National Park, it’s surrounded by some of the UK’s wildest countryside.
“Apart from a tiny village petrol station, we’re the only shop for 20 miles,” Jamie says. “It’s been a massive change; I’ve always loved the countryside, but at first I missed the buzz of being in the heart of things.”
Denise’s uncle had been with Spar for two decades, and there was never any question of whether they’d stick with the symbol group. “It’s been here for so many years that people would be shocked if we changed it,” Jamie explains. “And we get excellent deals and promotions.”
But the biggest challenge the retailers found themselves facing was technological competition that neither had anticipated.
“Home deliveries are killing the rural economy,” Jamie says. “Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury’s have vans coming out here all day long, travelling from 35 miles away. It’s heartbreaking when you put so much effort into keeping a rural business alive, and see people doing everything online instead.”
This challenge spurred Jamie and Denise to make their store somewhere people can have an experience they could never add to their basket on tesco.com.
“We make customers feel really welcome, greeting them when they arrive,” Jamie says. During a recent refit – and despite the shop’s small size – they prioritised making space in the layout for a table and chair. “When the older generation come in, we suggest they take a seat and we’ll do their shopping for them. I joke that I’m their personal shopping assistant.”
Another point of difference comes from selling local products. Jamie and Denise have built close relationships with a number of local businesses: two bakeries, JG Ross and Sinclair’s; a local butcher, Graeme Barber; and, most recently, an ice cream parlour called Shorty’s, set up by a local woman in a nearby town.
“The ice cream is handmade and top quality – Prince Charles and Camilla recently visited her,” Jamie adds. “People definitely appreciate that we sell local products.”
As well as pleasing the locals, Jamie and Denise have also tried to attract visitors drawn to the wild beauty of the Cairngorms.
They remodelled a derelict outhouse next to the shop into a tourist information centre, which offers leaflets, posters, and information on walks, fishing, skiing and wildlife. In the store they sell Ordnance Survey maps and tour guides to whisky distilleries, castles and the surrounding national park.
“We’re on the River Don, which is the less affluent side; all the tourists go to the River Dee, where Balmoral sits on the riverbank,” says Jamie.
“So, we’re really promoting Donside tourism. We’ve got one of the most beautiful walks and fantastic fishing around here.”
Even with these creative efforts, however, the ubiquity of supermarket delivery services was making times hard. Then Jamie had an idea which transformed the shop’s fortunes. The surrounding countryside contains a lot of people who keep animals: estates with horses, small farms, a cattery, even a wildlife centre with birds. So, Jamie decided to diversify into selling bulk pet food, establishing a specialist area in the store.
It was a huge success, generating more than £30,000 in annual revenue – a figure Jamie is determined to continue growing.
“It’s keeping the business alive, offsetting any losses on grocery sales,” Jamie says. Part of this success has come from offering good value by keeping margins low on bulk purchases, which benefits customers such as gamekeepers who might buy 10 large bags
of dog food at a time. “I’d rather have 10% of something than 30% of nothing,” Jamie observes.
Turning a profit has not been easy. But despite the many challenges, and isolated location, Jamie is relishing his transition from corporate management to independent retail.
“Being your own boss is fantastic, and running a small retail business means your work becomes very personal,” he says. “We try to make the experience in the shop as good as possible, so people keep coming back.”