In its recently-published Rural Report 2017, the Association of Convenience Stores called on the UK government to help secure the future of the UK’s rural shops with four policy recommendations:
• Rural post offices: Review costs, income and viability of rural post offices and produce a specific plan on how to sustain them.
• Rural rate relief for forecourts: Increase the rateable value threshold for rural petrol stations to benefit from rural business rate relief scheme.
• Broadband: Deliver the Universal Service Obligation at a minimum speed of 10Mbps and address the lack of fast mobile data coverage in rural communities
• Rural proofing: Ensure that all policy developments are ‘rural proofed’ at a national and local level to make sure that the specific needs and interests of rural communities are considered.
Those are the recommendations of ACS, but what do retailers in some of Scotland’s most isolated regions – specifically, its islands – consider the challenges and opportunities of rural retail?
At Uig Community Shop on the Isle of Lewis, there’s no question about the single biggest issue: delivery charges.
As well as offering a wide variety of food and drink, from daily essentials to speciality fare, Uig Community Shop boasts a range of crafts, a laundrette, cash machine, post office and fuel forecourt. The shop also provides a regular home delivery service and makes its meeting room available to local community groups.“We do need assistance with that,” said Alison Maxwell, committee treasurer of the co-operative that owns the shop. “If you live here and you order something on the internet, some carriers will charge £25 to deliver something that another company will send through Royal Mail for £2.75. We don’t understand that, but it’s the same way ordering goods for the shop.
“We find that when you order anything, as soon as they find out you’re in Uig, they immediately whack on a big delivery charge. We really have to shop around.”
We never see suppliers up here. Where we miss out, in that respect, is we don’t get the same opportunities as retailers down south.
The store, which serves the isolated 400-strong community of Uig, doesn’t have the buying power of Tesco or Co-op, it has to compete against both (specifically their delivery services) to survive.
“We’ve got to be perceived by the community to be competitive,” said committee chairman Tony Ingle-Finch. “Everything we do has to be about reducing our cost base. And carriage is something we’ve really got to get over because it’s seriously impacting on the business.”
High-speed broadband – or the lack of it – is also an issue, especially when it comes to placing orders online. And staffing, in an area that has struggled with the problem of depopulation, is not easy.
“We have an ageing population and we don’t have the younger people looking for jobs,” said Alison. “There’s not a big pool to recruit from.”
Tony added: “Heather, our store manager, does a fantastic job keeping the show on the road. Now we need to hire someone to help with the more strategic side of the business. Retail never stands still. It’s always changing and we’ve got to change with it or we wither and die.”
And that can’t be allowed to happen, said Alison. “It’s so important for the community that we have the shop here. Vitally important.”
An hour’s drive and short flight from Uig is Nisa-supplied MacLennans supermarket on the Isle of Benbecula.
Run to exacting standards by owner Ronald MacLennan, the store is meticulously maintained and very well stocked – though cancelled or unreliable deliveries cause more than their fair share of issues.
“When we place orders we can be let down,” said Ronald. “The ferries sometimes won’t come across, because of the wind. There must be new legislation or something because the past six months have been the worst we’ve experienced.
“And the word gets out, so customers hold back. It’s a totally different way that things operate from on the mainland. People are obsessed with freshness up here and they’ll wait and come out after the next delivery to get it.”
Another issue for the store, on top of the unreliability of the ferries, is their infrequency, he said. “If that was resolved it would make life a lot better for everybody, not just for the retail sector, but for anybody getting to and from the islands.
“It would also be good to get our newspaper deliveries by plane again. They used to, but we wouldn’t get the weekend inserts. They blamed it on low capacity on the plane, but it’s not any different on the ferry. We still don’t get the inserts, people complain and we complain to Menzies.
“Do you know the response one person gave me from Menzies? ‘What do you expect for living in the middle of the Atlantic ocean?’ I blew a gasket!”
Ronald admitted he has been disappointed with the attitude of some suppliers and wholesalers.
“I used to go down a lot to trade shows. And because you’re from the islands, they always think the grass is growing behind your ears. That can also work to your advantage, if they think you’re a bit thick.
“But we never see suppliers up here. Where we miss out, in that respect, is we don’t get the same opportunities as retailers down south. Competitions, prizes, tastings, we get none of that. It’s a shame, because I’d love to be doing it,” he said.
So what are the advantages of retailing in such remote locations?
For Alison, of Uig Community Shop, it’s simple: “We’re totally unique. Visitors to the area can’t believe the shop, when they see it, but everyone in the community has helped to make it what it is.”
Ronald said: “There are advantages. We don’t face the same level of competition from the supermarkets, for one. But that could change. You just never know.”