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Trading in senior management roles with large salaries to run a village store was a bold move for Andrea and Matthew Walwyn.
But 10 years on, The Dale Stores in Birstwith, north Yorkshire, is thriving and they couldn’t be happier.
“We’d had enough,” says Matthew. “Our lives were busy and we were working long hours. We decided there was more to life. We lost the big salaries and company cars when we bought our shop, but we’ve never looked back.”
Staff: Three full-time, plus a team that assists on an ad hoc basis
Style: A standalone store in a rural village, with a kitchen and Post Office Local on site
Much of the store’s success over the past decade has been derived from a mutually beneficial relationship with local businesses.
“We pay suppliers a fair rate, which encourages local producers to bring their products to us,” he explains.
These partnerships have helped to forge an identity for the business so shoppers can easily differentiate the store from its competition. Among their bestsellers are prepacked dishes made by a local restaurateur; pies and meats from a local butcher; and fish delivered every Friday by a local fishmonger.
The couple have also developed an own label, AJ’s, which boasts an array of locally-made products.
Matthew says they have had to adapt to extend their reach.
“Birstwith is small – if we relied on its residents alone we wouldn’t have been here long,” he says. “We’ve built a strong reputation with our food to go, so if people are somewhere in the area they’ll make an effort to come here.” Food to go accounts for 40% of sales.
Many of those sales are driven through a series of communication campaigns. Matthew stays active on Facebook and Twitter, and perhaps most vitally, he runs an email group with regular customers, where he informs them about the weekly specials.
Matthew and Andrea also keep their store in the public eye by involving themselves in the community. Every July, they assist with the organisation of the Birstwith Show, an annual agricultural show that includes attractions and market stalls – and it’s the sociable feel of the community that works in their favour.
“Birstwith doesn’t really have a village centre, so our shop tends to fill that void,” says Matthew. “We try to create a social atmosphere, making it an occasion to come here. Visiting us is a big part of many people’s day because they’re coming in for a chat as well as their shopping.”
The social focus of the business has also led Matthew and Andrea to another community project.
“Since we’ve been here we’ve developed a passion that all villages should have a shop that survives,” he says. “We’ve seen first-hand what a difference that makes to a community, as several shops in nearby villages have closed.”
Matthew and Andrea are now involved with the Plunkett Foundation, using their knowledge to train shop managers and advise others on setting up rural businesses.
“What I didn’t realise when we were setting up is that running a convenience store is very hard work,” Matthew says. “But the harder you work the better you’ll be. I would never go into this thinking it would be an easy life. You have to earn the right to have people spend their money with you.”
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