Peter Couchman is the Chief Executive of the Plunkett Foundation.

The Plunkett Foundation is the organisation which promotes and supports co-operative and social enterprises in rural communities both in the UK and internationally. It provides support, networks and knowledge which offers practical solutions for rural communities that helps to create thriving places where people live and work now and in the future.

Monday, 27 July 2009

A better form of retailing

We've had quite a few discussions lately about how community-owned retailing will evolve. Thanks to a few new projects, there are some excellent opportunities coming up to help develop retail skills in the sector. What I find interesting is the question of whether they should simply follow the practices of the main retailers or is there a different way to develop.

Visiting shops shows what the challenge is. Most shops are clear that they have to capture the emergency purchase market in their village, but that this alone is not enough to sustain them. Few customers will do their full weekly shop there (although many thanks to those that do). What interests me is what the next step along the path is from emergency to full shop.

PS The next Plunkett Perspective will be on 17th August.

For mainstream retailers is is widening the convenience offer and expanding existing ranges. I think that community-owned shops are developing a different model. For many of them, the next stage is to add something different that you can't get elsewhere, often from local suppliers. They are building a retailing model  designed to give reasons not to go elsewhere. It's early days, but I think that a retailing offer which is based on the values of the store is one that will grow to challenge the mainstream.


  1. If indeed there is a spectrum of retailing from emergency to full shop then we should be able to find examples at every level. Clearly emergency only requires another service/product base to be sustainable let alone successful. That other stalwart of the emergency shop, the garage, has another side-line.

    It strikes me that a number of paths exist, one is rather like the petrol station, find other staple items that have a constant demand and universal appeal. The second is niche products and the third is local service, from local knowledge to local supplies.

    The key to inform the choice must be local communication with the customer base and that is an area that I think support and training can help owners. In addition I still think that customer awareness training can be missing, I recall some work done on modifying the tourism sector training package for customer service being spoken of, but unsure if it happened.

    The relative success of the community based shop versus the traditional shop is the extra dimension of community knowledge and loyalty, given this edge the development of the next step seems more likely and possible.

  2. If community-owned shops are to develop their own values, and build on them to define their offer, then SB's point about customer awareness training is important. I have no figures, but experience suggests that some "conventional" village shops - and pubs - fail because the owners don't know how to deal with customers. If a community-owned shop is to realise the potential it has to be a focal point for local services (whether supplies, knowledge, personal services) then staff have a pivotal and perhaps challenging role. Support packages need to recognise this.

  3. If community owned shops are to survive and thrive then they need to be truly customer focussed - a cliche, I know, but true nevetheless. They need to do what mainstream retailers do... and more! They need to sell great products with full availability, excellent quality, great service and at reasonable prices. Clearly they are not going to be able to offer the extensive range that the bigger stores do and will not be able to compete on price, but they do have one big advantage - they are local and should be flexible to tailor their offering to their customers. Sourcing local food should enable them trade up customers from "emergency" purchases to "impulse" purchases (local biscuits, cakes, pies, honey) and then on to become a "destination" shop for produce that is not sold through the big supermarkets such as local meat, dairy, fruit and veg. Add on services such as taking orders and doing deliveries (eg organic box schemes) and the community owned-shop really does start to develop a unique model.