It’s 6.15am on a Friday morning when I greet Steve Ansell somewhat bleary eyed at his Henlow Village Store in Bedfordshire. I’m here as part of my induction to my new role as features writer on the RN team, with the aim of getting inside the heads of the retailers I write for. By shadowing Steve I got to witness his management of all four Ansell Village Stores – each located in neighbouring villages – where I gained valuable insight on the distinct characteristics of a rural store.

Managing four stores is no mean feat, and it was clear that the smooth network of operations I was seeing was the result of 12 years’ development. Steve has to coordinate 107 shifts a week, which is broken down to three to four shifts a day for each shop. “I have an army of part-time ladies – 32, not including the paper boys,” he says. Despite being slightly chaotic, he finds that this gives the rota plenty of flexibility as employees are more willing to cover shorter shifts.

losers lotteryWith its countryside feel and friendly employees, Steve utilises his location to establish his chain as a trusted local go-to store. Customers are mainly village residents, which allows Steve to cultivate loyalty in creative ways such as his Losers Lottery. In all four stores, customers can hand in their losing lottery tickets, and every week a winner is picked for a free bottle of wine.  On the same principal, each store runs around four magazines produced within the village, for the village. “When the magazine is newly released it tends to do quite well, and even when sales dip, people like the fact that I keep such magazines available,” says Steve.

Local produce is a popular choice for his customers, and he collaborates with several regional suppliers to provide a range of eggs, honey, cakes, rapeseed oil and even pet food. “We have a Tesco nearby one of our shops, so we use our local produce as a point of difference. We also sell turkeys at Christmas time, which is extremely popular,” says Steve.

The four stores are within a 10- mile radius of one another, which Steve plays to his advantage by bulk buying stock at a discount price to have delivered to his central Meppershall store. The stock is then separately distributed by local service, with all excess stock kept in Meppershall. “This makes it very easy for me to replace products in my other stores,” says Steve.