The village shop is a cornerstone of rural communities – but they are closing at the rate of 400 a year. Thankfully, the co-op movement is filling the gap, in the form of the village-owned store. There are now more than 300 in operation, compared to 27 just 20 years ago – but how do these small community co-ops engage such a small membership?
Communities across Britain are empowering themselves through the formation of small co-operatives – as shown by the growth of the village-owned store. There are now more than 300 in operation, compared to 27 just 20 years ago.
With traditional village stores, a cornerstone of rural communities, struggling to survive, the co-op movement’s contribution is crucial.
In 2009, the Plunkett Foundation ran a survey on how communities respond to certain issues. Three quarters of respondents said their shops were the heart and soul of their community – and when they are lost, it can be a trigger for action.
This loyalty is the key to the success of the co-operative village store, which gains further strength by adding a sense of participation. Members keep it alive by shopping there and by volunteering. There is usually a mix of paid and voluntary staff but more than 60 per cent use volunteers to help run the shops.
Plunkett’s survey found the village-owned store has gained trust because people see it working and feel comfortable with the idea.
“What we have found is that communities have to fight so hard to save them they fight like hell to keep them going,” said Mike Perry, Plunkett’s head of development and policy. “The reason is not profit maximisation – it is providing a service.
“As member-led businesses they have the ability to raise money and support from the community. Increasingly, they work together at a national level and are recognising their purchasing power.”
And what starts out as a shop can become something more important, Mike points out – it represents a social hub for the community.
“They are particularly important in tackling social isolation – lonely older people, stay-at-home parents, or people working from home,” he says. “Time after time we have seen communities come up with fantastic ways of helping villages through a difficult period and providing a real outlet for people to get involved.”
Some shops are set up in purpose-built premises, while others annexe space in local churches or village halls. All provide real solutions to the problems of economic change through positive co-op principles.
One of the most successful is in Feckenham, near Redditch in rural Worcestershire. The first community enterprise of its kind in the county, it opened in 2009, 20 years after the closure of the old village store.
Run entirely by around 80 volunteers, Feckenham Village Shop is open seven days a week. One of the stalwarts is Jenny Mason, who is also a member of the seven-strong board.
“Some years ago, I was approached by a group of local people who decided they would try and open a shop,” she says. “They asked me to get involved in fundraising.”
“We knew a shop was something people wanted. We’d had Lottery funding for a parish plan where it became evident it was one of the big things we needed. About six months before we opened we held an open day in the village hall. That’s how we started recruiting, with 40 to 50 volunteers, then it grew gradually.”
There was also financial support from the community, with more than 300 people signing up for shares priced at £10 each, giving them the right to contribute ideas and take part in elections.
Next, the team had to prepare the premises. “It was a mess,” says Jenny, “but we knew about the Plunkett Foundation and applied to them for a £20,000 grant with a matching loan to pay back over three years. There was also other funding from various sources. We issued a share offer with shares at £10 each and signed up over 300 people. All of them have the chance to contribute ideas, attend our AGM and elect board members.”
Day-to-day operations at the shop are carefully delegated an equal share of duties for volunteers.
“One of the main reasons people don’t let us down is because we don’t expect them to do too much,” adds Jenny. “Most work around three hours a week. We have a team leader who organises the rota every day.”
This team spirit helped when it came to learning the retail trade – which meant training 80 people to use computerised tills. “Nobody had done anything like it,” laughs Jenny, “but we learned by getting some things wrong and knowing our customers would realise we were learning as we went along.”
Another factor behind the store’s success was Feckenham’s community spirit. “This is the kind of place where people do things together,” says Jenny. “We have an entertainments committee, an over-60s group and a cinema in the village hall, so lots of people were used to getting involved.”
The team also takes care over what the store sells. “We have widened our selection of goods and have around 900 lines,” says Jenny. “We get a delivery once a fortnight from the cash and carry and we also have Fairtrade items sourced by three girls who do the buying, including gifts and crafts as well as the usual items like chocolate and coffee.
“We sell beer from local breweries and stock as much local produce as we can on our deli counter.
“We break even, but we’re not about making a big profit. We wanted to give something back, so we have built up a small reserve to help other local groups.”
The small community of Bretforton, Worcestershire, opens its new village shop in September, after more than 250 of the community’s 1,000 residents are signed up to the co-operative venture.
The project was born a year ago when the village store closed. Business consultant and co-op chair Chris Buckham says: “We knew this could work because four years ago we formed a successful campaign to save our local post office – we had a group of people already in place. But the beauty of a co-op is that it is owned by everyone.”
A quarter of the village’s residents signed up, putting in at least £10 each – raising £37,000 for the venture. Other funds, such as the Lottery, took the group’s funds to £85,000, enabling them build a shop in the heart of the village.
The shop, which will have a small café, will be run by a paid manager and a team of volunteers.
“For us the biggest challenge has not been raising the money, it was getting the building, equipment and initial stocking levels right,” says Chris. “Although our new manager has experience running a farm shop, no one else has done it before so we will learn over time.
“You try to do two things – give access to essentials and support the wider community by stocking local produce. Our objective is to strike a balance between the two, so we have already drafted in the local bakery and butcher and will be supporting other enterprises.”
Communication with members is also important. To ensure members are in the loop on the co-op’s activities can take part in decisions, the team uses the parish magazine, leaflet drops,social media and regular public meetings.
The co-op also caters for a diverse population. “This village goes from deprivation at one end to wealth at the other so we will be looking to do as much as we can for all the community,” says Chris. “We need to transfer that sense of ownership to everyone who has invested. We’re looking forward to giving new people support and helping them find their own route to success. That’s what this is all about.”