Winsham Shop has been in the same spot for at least 160 years, maybe much longer.
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The first record we have of this durable enterprise is for 1851, when the Census of that date tells us that Daniel Hitchcock was the proprietor and carried out a business in selling groceries and drapery. He was also the Postmaster, a new task which would have been in response to the massive increase in letters that had arisen from the reforms to the postal service in 1840. These were pioneered by Rowland Hill. and led the way to the universal pre-payment system and the introduction of the postage stamp, the most popular being the Penny Black and the Two pence Blue.
So popular was this innovation, the letter traffic increased in Britain from 76 million in 1839 to 350 million by 1850, an increase 360%. This would have been a response to improving standards of literacy among the general population, more rapid delivery due to the introduction of railways to carry mail and the rapid expansion of the British economy due to the fruits of the Industrial Revolution.
In 1861 the Post Office Savings Bank opened, and this service would have provided a secure place for ordinary Winsham people to deposit any spare money.
In 1871, records tell us that David Andress had taken over the business, but is listed as the Sub Postmaster. This may have meant that the Post Office business had grown to the extent that one person could not manage it. We know that by 1889 Robert Fowler Sylvester had taken over the business, and while continuing to sell groceries and draperies, he is listed as Post Master, a position he held into the 1920s. Sometime in the last quartile of the 1800s a serious fire ravaged the thatch roof of the shop and adjoining premises, including the Old Kings Arms. It was after this event that it is believed that the distinctive dormer windows and a slate roof were added to Post Office House, as it is now known.
By the turn of the century the Post Office was very busy. In 1900, following deliberations and a financial commitment from Winsham Parish Council, the Electric Telegraph service reached Winsham (read the summary of the Parish Council meeting minutes, particularly for the year 1898, for more details). As a result the Post Office moved from the shop premises to a building across Church Street, next to the Jubilee Hall and adjacent to The Bell.
By 1910 H.R. Holcombe had taken over the grocery business. It is unclear if he had continued with the drapery business, although it seems likely that they would have carried some lines. Dress making was an important part of a woman’s work in those days, and sewing materials were essential to the maintenance of clothes. A hundred years later, socks, for example, are rarely darned; they are mostly thrown away when in need of repair!
Then came the Great War (1914-1918). Many men enlisted, and perhaps the Post Office delivery service was run by the ladies of the village, to supplement the miserable allowances that they would have received from their soldier husbands. We just don’t know. We do know that twenty four of the Winsham men did not come back from the war-a significant number for a small community.
The Grocery trade carried out by the shop until the 1950s would have been very different from the way it trades today and indeed most of the last half of the 20th Century. There would have been competition from the other shops selling groceries in Winsham, but prices would have been higher than in the working class areas of a large city.
Vegetables would have been seasonal, and many Winsham families would have grown their own, so sales were probably limited. Many people kept a few chickens so had their own eggs, or could buy a neighbour's surplus. Barter deals probably took place. Quantities of commodities purchased would generally be small, purchased by the ounce or by value-a penny’s worth or something like that.
Packaging for small quantities was virtually non-existent. Biscuits came in big tin boxes that needed to be unpacked, and sold by weight, requiring them to be placed in a paper bag. Broken biscuits were cheaper! The task of packaging applied to tea and sugar and a host of other things. Soap was not wrapped. Many of the things that we now regard as essentials such as bottled water, washing up liquid and frozen food for example did not exist at a retail level.
No doubt quite a few purchases were put 'on the slate', awaiting the end of the working week and payday! No credit or debit cards.
A nice thing would have been the host of smells and aromas that assaulted you when you entered!
Supplying the farms and the 'big houses' some distance from the village would have been an important part of the business, involving some means of transport.
In 1925, Mr Charles Appleby bought the Shop, and it became known as Appleby and Sons, but Mr Sylvester remained as Post Master at the Post Office, which continued until 1928 or thereabouts. Mr Appleby had two sons, Basil & Ted and four daughters, Eileen, Mavis, Peggy & Jean. Don Pattimore, in 1936, on leaving School, went to work at the Shop, where he did all sorts of work. It seems that the Post Office had by then moved back into the Shop, as he delivered Telegrams (using the same bicycle that he used for delivering grocery orders). There was also a lot of work bagging up tea, coffee beans and other commodities. By 1935 the shop had also acquired a delivery van. Electricity had arrived in the village by the mid 1930s, but it is not known if it extended to the shop for lighting and refrigeration. Very few homes in the village had the utility installed.
Then came World War II, with food rationing, with the men disappearing again off to fight. Fortunately the death toll was much lower this time. Once again the women stepped into the breach, some joining the Land Army. The village also had many evacuees, children sent into the countryside to avoid the bombing in the cities. Keeping track of their ration books must have been an additional problem.
The Appleby family ran the Shop until sometime in the 1950s, when it was taken over by Mr & Mrs White, with Miss Creech running the Post Office . The next four decades saw a succession of owners. But the nature of the business was changing. Supermarkets began to open in the towns all over the country. With highly competitive prices, a wide range of merchandise, attractively presented, they became a real threat to the existence of small shops everywhere, town and country alike. However, it was not until the nineteen seventies that this closed all but one shop in Winsham.
By the 1970s,People were also becoming more prosperous and more mobile. Car ownership grew rapidly, and in those days of cheap fuel, people started to shop further afield. As the years went by, owners of small shops saw themselves facing reduced turnover and smaller trading surpluses. Margins did not allow many, if any, staff to be employed, and the hours were long if any hope of making a living was to be sustained. Many found that they just couldn’t or didn’t want to carry on. This situation or something like it, was reached by Winsham Shop & Post Office in 2002.
After 150 years Winsham Shop was to close. The current owners had decided to move away from the Winsham. The prospect of anyone who purchased their property wanting to continue with the business was considered to be very remote.
Faced with the imminent closure-probably within six months- a question that was being asked by the village was what could be done about it. Many residents reluctantly accepted it as inevitable, but Richard Rose and Stella Abbey talked the problem over with Robert Shearer and they decided that an attempt should be made keep the shop open. A 'steering group' was formed, led by Robert Shearer who was to become the first Chairman of the company that would be formed. Few of this group had much, if any experience of running a small retail business. Robert was Medical Director of a large London Hospital! Others were scientists, farmers, etc. Roger Tett was the only one with retail experience, which was very valuable, especially when trading started.
A few villages around the country had been successful in rescuing their shops from similar situations. Advice was sought from the Village Retail Services Association and the Countryside Alliance and other advice groups. Visits were also made by members of the steering group to village owned shops in the South West, to gain from their experience.
Money would be needed to purchase any existing stock and negotiate a new lease. A village owned shop would also need working capital. It would also need to recruit a sizeable number of volunteers to spread the load of many tasks within the shop that had been done by the previous proprietors. Of course, a small core of employed staff would still be needed.
Very importantly, a business model was needed that would enable it to become a viable and on-going project.
With the help of a grant, a company was formed. Further capital was raised by selling shares to some two hundred people around the parish, and borrowing money from the community using 'no interest' loan notes. Shareholders were told not expect a dividend from their investment.
Helpers were recruited-from shelf-stacking, organising newspapers-a task that started every morning at 6.30am, book-keeper, counter staff and so the list went on. A team of over twenty people signed up to help, and in 2012 that number remains much the same. Then as now, this team is led on a day to day basis by Roger Tett, an experienced retail manager, and Denise Nicholls. Importantly, the Post Office service would continue, and negotiations with Post Office Counters Ltd, the managing body, were started.
Robert Shearer was to become the first Chairman of Winsham Shop Ltd. He was followed in 2005 by Jeremy Leighton, and then the present Chairman, Denis MacCullum. The new enterprise opened, seamlessly transferred from the previous owners, in September of 2002.
The venture has been a success. Ten years on it is a lively business. Its auditors stated at the recent AGM that it was difficult to see how the business could operate more efficiently in financial terms. From a village customer view point it stocks a good range of merchandise, minimising the need to visit the local towns for basic items. Of course , it is a small business in both the physical sense-the shop is small-and financial resources. Few people do their main weekly shop in Winsham, but for daily , casual and 'emergency' needs it meets the requirements of many, and prospers accordingly.
Just as important, it can be said that it is the beating heart of village life. In addition to providing merchandise, it acts as a major communications centre by providing a place for people to meet while doing their shopping. It provides a Notice Board facility, free to many; a shop window space for promoting village events and a distribution point for items such as the Joint Parish Magazine and village leaflets. It provides an invaluable service in selling advance tickets for village events and providing a facility for sponsored events, petitions and village related surveys. More details of what the shop does can be found on the Winsham Parish Web Site: www.winsham.org.uk.
This is the story of how the people of Winsham organised and supported efforts to keep their village shop and post office open when it faced closure in 2002. It tells how an idea took root, grew, not without growing pains, but ended successfully, to the ongoing benefit of the Winsham community.
It all started early in 2002 with the news that the existing proprietors, Mr & Mrs Winter had decided to sell Post Office House, part of which was the shop. It was no secret that Winsham Shop was not covering its costs, and it would be the residential part of Post Office House that would be the main attraction for a potential purchaser. The Winter’s efforts to dispose of the house and business as a single entity was not meeting with much success, and for personal reasons, they wished to sell as quickly as possible.
The general view in the village was that any purchaser would be unlikely to continue with the shop. The initial reaction from the village was dismay, tempered with a sense of inevitability. Small shops and post offices were closing everywhere, not just in lightly populated rural areas.
Although the possibility of closure was being talked about in the village, it took a conversation between three residents, Stella Abbey, Richard Rose and Robert Shearer to trigger a thought that, if acted upon, might avert closure.
Around the United Kingdom, some three hundred small communities, faced with the same dilemma, had sought a solution by taking the running of a shop and post office into their own hands. Would this be possible in Winsham? Could the village organise itself to raise the money that would be needed? Could village management of the business create a situation whereby the level of trade increased, and the overhead be reduced sufficient to achieve a sustainable and positive result?
The loss of the post office would be a great inconvenience. Many pensioners and people on social security benefits collected their payments from the post office. It greatly facilitated the sending of mail and parcels. It also provided certain banking services, as well as other useful facilities.
When it came to the shop itself, it was generally agreed that most would continue to carry out their weekly shop out at the Supermarkets. They carried a greater range of merchandise than was possible by a village shop, generally at good prices. But what about the perishable and convenience items? Milk, Bread, fresh vegetables and the items that were forgotten during the weekly shop-the birthday cards, a tube of glue, a pack of drawing pins. What about newspapers-how would you get one? Did we really want to go into Chard whenever you needed anything?
Important as the inconvenience of closure would cause, it also became recognised that the shop was at the heart of village life. If the shop was to close it would deal a severe blow to the community. The shop was where people met one and other, often on a daily basis. It was the communications hub of the village; it was how news was spread. What could replace that? An understanding of the real impact of the closure of the business began to spread.
At this point a meeting was called to discuss the possibility of community ownership. It took place at Glebe Cottage, the home of Mr & Mrs Richard Rose on Monday, 11th March 2002, with a dozen or so people in attendance, all having expressed an interest in the idea. This group became known as the ’Steering Group’ about which more will be said later. Mr Graham Winter also attended, expressing his real concern about the possible loss of the shop, but explained the circumstances leading up to his family’s decision to sell, and the trading situation of the shop.
The problem was clear. He could not run the business-he was a professional accountant and had other business interests. His wife had developed a knee condition that prevented her spending long periods in the shop. Covering this with paid staff did not work as the cost of the staff reduced the trading margins necessary to cover stock and other overheads. Shortening the openings hours simply reduced trade. Turnover was steadily falling. Closure of the shop did not necessarily mean the closure of the post office, but it would have to be located elsewhere.
During the discussion that followed, the meeting heard about a similar situation in West Sussex in the early 1990s. It illustrated a very different set of circumstances to those in Winsham, but it demonstrated that with sufficient determination village shops could survive and prosper. Many aspects of forming a community owned business were then discussed. From this came two questions to which answers were needed. When would Graham Winter have to announce closure? How much time did the village have to come up with a solution?
Meanwhile, there was much to be considered. What was the relationship of turnover to opening hours? To what extent did the post office services build traffic and trade for Winsham Shop? Could the shop premises be split from the residential area of Post Office House? Would a village owned shop be able to generate £3,000 p.w of turnover, which was the level considered necessary to be viable? What level of business was being done with older or handicapped people in the village, who had difficulty in getting out of the village to do their shopping? Is the Post Office more important than the shop? How could the long opening hours of a shop be manned? Did the shop need a different trading strategy? Did it stock too wide a range of products? Should it become a ‘convenience’ store? From where would the necessary capital come?
Clearly, the time had come to seek help. It was at this stage that contact was made with ViRSA (Village Retail Services Association) who existed to help and give advice to small communities considering social ownership of their village shops and post offices. They visited the village and talked to the steering group about how such a task could approached. There came from this meeting a new determination. It might be possible to create a successful business, despite the many obstacles that would undoubtedly be met. Visits were made to community shops in the South West to hear and to learn from their experiences.
During a two week period towards the end of May 2002, there was much activity and two important meetings attended by the Steering Group, who though ‘self appointed’ became an identifiable entity with some formality and organisation. This was an essential step, as a great deal of work needed to be done, and they needed to be able to speak with a single voice.
Contact was made with Post Office Counters to discuss options. Should the shop close, the possibility of it moving to the Bell was considered. The possibility of the whole premises being purchased from Mr & Mrs Winter and developed into a lock-up shop with self-contained flats above, for sale or let, was also considered. This was rejected after receiving professional advice on the matter.
Mr & Mrs Winter were of course at the centre of many of the discussions. They were concerned about the impact on the village of the closure of the shop, and put forward constructive proposals for consideration. At the same time it became clear that the end of August was the deadline for the shop and post office remaining open on the Post Office House premises. Among these proposals was their willingness for the shop and post office to be operated by a third party, with the shop being converted into a lockup premises.
This was a major step forward, although there were concerns as to lack of storage space, and access only being available via the front door of the shop. These were important practical considerations, but the main point was that a potentially viable solution was on the table!
Mr & Mrs Winter were prepared let the shop to a newly formed company-Winsham Shop Ltd. In turn the management of the shop would either lease the premises to a tenant on condition that it was run as a village shop, or appoint a manager to do this on behalf of the village. The former was at that time the preferred option, and a condition of the tenancy would be that minimum opening hours would be specified, and that some form of profit sharing scheme would be entered into.
Although the village was aware that the shop looked like closing, and some attempt was being made to save it, most of the activity had been limited to the Steering Group. Now, with a possible solution in mind, it was time to consult Winsham residents.
To progress to the next stage, evidence of the support of the village must be obtained. This would be a requirement of grant funding agencies such as the Countryside Agency and others, whose support would be essential in raising the necessary operating capital. Assurance was also needed by the Steering Group, who had taken matters this far, that the village would support the initiative.
Meanwhile, some cause for hope; in June, Mr & Mrs Winter told the Steering Group that they had accepted an offer from someone near to the village to buy both house and shop. Hopes were raised that the problem was solved. In July it was learned that the sale would not proceed. This delay caused problems, but as the possibility of the failure of the deal is always part of any property negotiation, work by the Steering Group had not ended, although it had limited its scope.
A complication for the Steering Group was that the Shop and the Post Office were separate entities that shared common premises, to the benefit of both. Notice to close the post office had been given to Post Office Counters by Mr Winter at the end of May to become effective at the end of August, effectively defining the time-table.
But there was no guarantee that a new post office contract would be granted to the new shop. At that time, as at present, Post Office Counters (the Post Office service provider) was constantly questioning the balance between economic viability and public service, causing many very small village post offices to close.
At the beginning of June a questionnaire had been delivered to every household in Winsham. It explained that it was hoped to set up a company with the purpose of renting the existing shop premises from the owners of Post Office House, with the option to sub-let it to a tenant or employ a manager to run the business. Before this could be done the purpose of the questionnaire was an attempt to evaluate the level of use and support that might be expected from the village.
The response to the questionnaire was good-130 households responded-about 40% of all households.
It was clear that the shop and post office was wanted-92% and 93% respectively claimed to use to use them more than once a week. 89% of responders thought that the shop facility was very important, followed by 85% for the post office. The questionnaire also asked about many aspects of the shops services, the answers to which would prove invaluable if village ownership was eventually achieved.
It was now early July. Just a few weeks remained before the post office would close. In all probability the shop would close at the same time..
The key to success was now the ability to attract substantial grant funding. It would only be part funding. The people of the village would be asked to provide financial support for the project to demonstrate their confidence. It would also be essential for the Steering Group to demonstrate their ability to manage a substantial project to completion, and then trade successfully.
Before a tenancy agreement could be entered into with Mr & Mrs Winter, Winsham Shop Ltd would have to have its own financial position confirmed. This was also a necessary condition to re-letting the shop to a tenant or employing a manager.
There followed a torrent of activity. Builders were called in to estimate the cost of alterations and some refurbishment. New equipment was priced. Numerous cash flow forecasts were produced-two types-showing the alternatives-a tenanted solution or ‘own management’. Solicitors and accountants were consulted. All was directed towards a Public Meeting to be held on Tuesday, 23rd of July, when the village would be faced with a financial proposal. If they accepted the proposition the project might succeed. If not, the project was dead.
The venue for the public meeting was the Jubilee Hall, which was filled to maximum capacity (about 100). Robert Shearer addressed the meeting. He reviewed the current position, and explained that in order to meet grant funding requirements; the village would need to raise some £12,000 from a combination of issued Shares and Loans. For the most part, the people sitting in the hall would have to provide the money from their own resources.
He explained his confidence in the project. Negotiations were proceeding on the basis of a ten year lease from the present owner, based on an annual rent of £2,500. In addition £58,288 would be needed to establish the shop and see it through the first of year of trading. He then detailed the expenditures under various headings-Alterations (£12,000)-Salaries (£24,000)-Fixtures and Fittings (£5,000) –Running Costs (£5,500) and so on. The Business Forecast was based on an 18% gross margin, with a turnover based around a sales performance of £3,000per week.
As a result of the meeting nearly £20,000 was raised within about ten days. This, plus some other short term arrangements, and a grant of £25,000 from the Countryside Agency (payable, in instalments, over twelve months) meant that the community owned Winsham Shop Ltd would become a reality, and would start trading in September!
At this point important decisions had to be made. The Steering Group needed to be translated into a Board of Directors, but that would have to wait for a meeting of shareholders. It was decided to drop that the idea of seeking a tenant to run the shop on a profit sharing basis. Winsham Shop Ltd would opt for direct management, employing its own staff and managing its own affairs. The obvious benefit would be that the management would be in direct control of policy and strategy. The downside was the obvious one that the management group would assume some onerous responsibilities which would involve considerable time and effort.
This decision was greatly helped by the knowledge and expertise of Denise Nicholls who had worked in the shop for 10 years and who willingly agreed to remain an employee, as well as the appearance on the scene of Roger Tett, a recently retired resident who had spent most of his working life in retail business. He brought to the Steering Group a professional approach to retailing which would be of immense value from the start of the enterprise and for many years to come.
It was also decided that the Shop would open seven days a week between 8.00am to 6.00pm, Monday to Friday, with a half day on Saturday and Sunday. It would need one full time staff member, supported eventually by two part–time assistants.
The question of the Post Office had to be settled, and it was becoming a matter of urgency. The existing contract would end on the 31st August. From 1st September, Winsham Shop Ltd would take on the new ten-year lease from Mr & Mrs Winter. Negotiations with Post Office Counters were not easy, but eventually it was agreed that the post office would continue as before, but with the difference that it would operate on a ‘shop within a shop ‘ basis, with Post Office Counters renting the space at a ‘peppercorn’ rent, and would take on the responsibility themselves of employing a Post Master. Once again fortune smiled on the Winsham Shop enterprise. Bob Elkin who was appointed temporary Post Master (initially on a six month contract) proved to be a very effective and popular member of the team. An immediate benefit was that the post office was to be back to being open all day, which increased the volume of post office business, and indirectly benefited shop business by increasing the numbers of people drawn into the premises.
A cornerstone of the new shop business would be its success in the recruiting a team of volunteers that would be needed to carry out the many tasks essential to the running of the shop. Success or failure in this matter would be the deciding factor if the shop was to be able to function as a genuine ‘village shop’ offering a wide range of merchandise and services.
Recruitment of volunteers was started immediately it was known that the new shop would open. They would be needed to serve behind the counter. Volunteers would be needed to clean the premises. Shelf stackers were required. Volunteers would also be needed to organise newspapers seven days a week, most days of the year-a task that starts at 6.30 am every morning except Sundays, when it starts at 8.00am.
Such was the enthusiasm of the village for the new Winsham Shop, the team of about twenty five volunteers were quickly assembled.
The shop opened for business on 8th September 2002, having closed after the previous full day's trading under Graham Winter's ownership. There was no grand opening ceremony, although the local press had been informed. The following day a village resident, a keen fisherman, brought a record-breaking sea bass to be weighed on the shop scales, bringing more welcome publicity. A week or so later, following a major rainstorm, a flood of muddy water flowed from the fields, down Fore Street and into the shop, covering it to a depth of 3 or 4 inches. Within half an hour, the shop was filled with enthusiastic villagers cleaning up, an indication of the importance and sense of ownership of the local community (and incidentally bringing more publicity). Right from the outset, the shop was well supported, turnover almost doubling in the first three months.
In this account of the transition of Winsham Shop from private to community ownership there has been frequent mention of a ‘Steering Group’, without explaining what this really meant, although it might seem self-evident.
A substantial body of people played a part in helping the idea develop into reality. Some were specialists whose most relevant contributions came at particular times. Rod Wells, a Chartered Surveyor and property developer is one example of this. Others brought relevant experience on an on-going basis. Stella Abbey in addition to being a full time member of the group was also Winsham’s District Councillor. Her contribution was her knowledge of the voluntary support organisations and a wealth of contacts that was to prove to be invaluable. James Crowden's extensive local contacts were also very valuable. Importantly, others represented, in one way or another, the ordinary people of the village who would eventually be asked to support the shop with their savings and their custom.
One person brought to this group the vital ingredient of leadership-Robert Shearer. His drive and focus upon the task in hand, and experience in the management of large hospital based projects, inspired the confidence of the Steering Group and investors alike.
At the time of opening the Steering Group comprised of Robert Shearer* (Chairman Designate), Mary Pye* (Treasurer Designate), Frank Vaughan* (Secretary Designate), Stella Abbey*, Anne Rose*, Roger Tett*, James Crowden*, Tony Laws Spindler, Margaret Long, Peter Pye, Shaune Shearer, Janet Smart.
Those with asterisks(*) against their names went on to be elected as Directors at the first meeting of Shareholder held at the Jubilee Hall on Tuesday 17th September 2002. Some did not wish to stand for election. At the Shareholder’s meeting it was agreed that Directors should offer themselves for re-election every two years.
Published March 2013
Following on from its opening under community ownership, on September 8th, 2002, its first few weeks of business were a period of intense activity. Organisation was key. Deciding who was to be responsible for what, out of the myriad of different things to be done, was the first task.
Roger Tett and Denise Nicholls were very much in the front line. They were to be responsible for the day-to-day running of the shop, which included stock control, ordering of stock, pricing and training of staff (mainly volunteers). James Crowden, helped by Anne Rose, was in charge of looking for new products and suppliers, and liaising with Roger and Denise on action to be taken. Tony Laws–Spindler was in charge of the maintenance of the shop premises. Stella Abbey had the job of organising the volunteers into rotas, and arranging any statutory training. The Chairman and Treasurer (Robert Shearer and Mary Pye) became ex-officio members of all teams. This helped to ensure that tight financial control was central to everything that the shop did. During this period KDJ Slade & Sons were commissioned to take on some essential building works.
This period was expected to be difficult, but no one could have predicted the flash flood that engulfed the shop following a heavy rain storm, a couple of weeks after the opening. In a matter of minutes the floor of the shop was covered with several inches of water and mud. All the electrical systems failed, including the one powering the Post Office computer.
Within twenty minutes the shop was full of volunteers cleaning up the mess. The electrics took a little longer to fix, but this event, which could have been a complete disaster, was dealt with quickly, and the shop was soon back operating as normal. It did mean however, that flood defence had to be added to the already long list of things to do. The speed of the response was yet another indication of the level of support from the community.
Many issues had to be addressed in a very short period of time. Roger Tett was anxious to discuss aspects of food handling with the Environmental Food Officer. This had a direct bearing on whether fresh cooked meats could be sold at that time. One problem was that the shop was without a hot water supply, and the staff toilet needed serious attention.
Statutory training had to be addressed. Food Hygiene Certificates were required by all the staff and behind-the-counter volunteers who might handle non-prepacked foods. Winsham Shop Ltd, under its new management was a new business, and without a track record. This brought with it a particular set of problems. Major suppliers insisted on pre-payment or financial guarantees from the Directors. The Directors agreed to this, but it underlines the commitment by ordinary Winsham people to the business, and the community, with no prospect of personal reward. All this was in addition to the shares and loans they had made to the business.
Board meetings were held each month. During the first few months, while the shop was restocking and building work being carried out, the revenue from shop sales was not covering outgoings, but this had been anticipated and planned for. Two important trading issues had to be settled. It was agreed that the shop should open at 7.00am and the closing time of 5.30pm should be put into effect as soon as possible. This would depend on availability of volunteers for the afternoon rotas.
As a matter of pricing policy it was agreed that low margins would be applied to major consumables such as milk. At this time, local milk rounds were being discontinued, which provided a marketing opportunity. Bob Elkin, the Post Master, who was appointed by Post Office Counters on a temporary basis, negotiated his permanent situation with the shop, and the Directors were happy for this to happen. The deal involved some income for the shop, but just as important it made a temporary situation permanent.
Six months into the venture, the trading situation was clearly improving, and the target of £2,800 a week in turnover was being achieved on a regular basis, although the level of profit being achieved was not known. The first Christmas had passed successfully, and more was becoming known about the buying habits of Winsham’s diverse population.
Recognising early some of the factors that affected demand reduced the financial risk of over-stocking, especially with regard to perishable products. For example, it was noticed that demand for bread reduced during school holidays. Slow moving lines of stock were removed. Inefficient suppliers were dropped. A wider range of wholesalers were being used to meet specific needs. New merchandising ideas such as an official opening day and a ‘Fair Trade’ event were organised. Internal systems were tightened up. Many ideas were tried; some worked, some did not!
Looking back over the last ten years or so, by any standards of a community venture, Winsham Shop is an outstanding success.
Turnover has grown steadily. The original target of £2,800 pw has risen to over £5,000pw. The gross margin is now 22%, compared to the target of 18% established in 2002 when the shop opened. Central to this has been the marketing strategy. It has been described as ‘dual market’ whereby basic grocery lines are supplemented by premium products which attract a small additional margin. Linked to this has been careful attention to what customers want. Winsham residents are huge tea drinkers and the shop stocks nineteen brands and types of tea. The promotion of local produce is also an important aspect of their business.
The majority of Winsham residents continue to use local supermarkets for their main shop of the week, due to the enormous range of brands that they carry. In response, Winsham Shop carries over 3,000 brands, and due to skilful pricing, it holds its own. Non-grocery convenience items also play their role is supporting the margin, as do the newspapers and magazines.
Other factors also play their part in cementing the relationship of shop and village. The economics and convenience of travel to the local towns are deteriorating, to the benefit of the shop. Bus services have been reduced, and the rapidly increasing cost of petrol and diesel fuel, and parking charges and limitations also encourages car owners to stay in Winsham and use the shop and post office.
Most of the Supermarkets are now delivering orders to the villages, but there is usually a minimum purchase level, so it does not have much effect on the use of Winsham Shop. Among some of its customers, using the shop and post office is seen as the ‘loyal’ thing to-do, and they are often rewarded by finding that prices can be lower than in a supermarket.
The Post Office located in the shop is a very valuable facility during a period of tremendous change brought about by the Internet and broadband. Volumes of letter mail are falling dramatically, and the communication habits of the population are changing, due to the explosion in the use of e-mail and texting.
The sale of postage stamps may have fallen, but parcel post has increased (largely thanks to eBay). Furthermore, thanks to the Internet and broadband during the first decade of the new Millennium, the range of services now offered has grown quickly. It now acts as a mini–bank, offering some banking services including cash withdrawals, currency exchange services and bill payment services.
Winsham Shop has also made use of the Internet to expand its services. It occupies a major area within the Parish Web Site, where it promotes its merchandise and services, and its monthly ’Special Offers’. These are also promoted in Winsham’s weekly e-letter.
It also operates a PAY POINT facility whereby customers can pay utility bills and top up their mobile phones. It is also using a modern electronic system for stock control, and research into supermarket prices, a vital part of maintaining competitive prices. A photo-copying service is also available. The shop also offers charge accounts which are settled monthly, and payment by credit card, all made much easier with the growth in low cost information technology.
Winsham Shop also maintains its important role as the communications centre of the village. It maintains large notice boards for use by the village and local businesses and acts as an unpaid facilitator for distribution and payment of tickets for local events. It sells Parish Magazines, taking no margin and is a reception point for editorial contributions to the Parish Magazine. It also lends its windows for displays associated with parish events.
Central to its success is the friendly, helpful service experienced by everyone who visits the shop. The person behind the counter may well be a friend and neighbour, or the well known face of one of the regular staff. In turn, the customers are remarkably tolerant when there is a long queue, or a new volunteer, although trained, gets into a muddle with the electronic till!
A regular part of the village celebrations is the arrival of Father Christmas, and his hour or so stay in his specially prepared grotto (part of the storage area-but don't tell the kids!). Meanwhile the adults area entertained with mulled wine and mince pies as a small thank you for their custom and support during the year that is soon to pass.
Robert Shearer resigned as Chairman of the Board of Directors in 2005. He was followed by Jeremy Leighton, who unfortunately served for only two years, due to an unanticipated move out of the area. The present Chairman, Denis McCallum has held the post since 2007.
Each has brought a different style to the management appropriate to the business during their time at the helm.. Other Officers have also changed. There have been three Company Secretaries, and several Financial Directors. Board members have also changed. Officers and Board Members receive no payment for their services, but the duties, especially those devolving to the Officers are onerous and demand a lot of time and effort.
Remarkably, two key appointments (Roger Tett and Denise Nicholls) have not changed during the first ten years; a partnership of incredible value to the business. Roger Tett and Margaret Long are the only two Directors who have remained on the Board since the start of Winsham Shop Ltd in 2002.
A list of the current Board of Directors is shown below-
Denis McCallum (Chairman), Roger Tett (Managing Director), Paula Bramley Ball (Finance Director), Richard Rose, Eric West, Margaret Long, Jean Spurdle, Sarah Gleadell (Secretary).
Published March 2013
The Jubilee Hall was filled to capacity for the party held to celebrate the 10th Birthday of Winsham Shop. A very jolly event it was too! All the shareholders were invited as part of the party, and this meant that some familiar faces turned up that we had not seen for some time. A barrel of beer was donated by the Bell, as a primer for the celebrations that were to move that worthy establishment later in the evening.
In 2016, another threat appeared on the horizon, every bit as serious as that which led to the crisis in 2002, but which would prove to take much longer to resolve.
The Shop and Post Office had performed well in the first decade that followed being taken into ‘village’ ownership. Based on its network of volunteers, and a small number of paid staff, it generally met its targets for turnover and profitability and served the community well. It was a good example of how a community-owned shop should operate, but, by 2016, dark clouds were appearing on the trading horizon.
Turnover and profitability were not growing; the market was changing with the growth of discounters such as Aldi and Lidl. The development of home delivery appealed to working families, and enabled older and disabled people, to do their weekly supermarket shop without the need to rely on the help of friends or sparse public transport. Other organisations such as Amazon were also viewing groceries and basic household products as an opportunity for expansion. Winsham Shop faced increasing competition from many directions.
If this was not difficult enough, operating costs were threatening to increase significantly. Although the business was supported by an army of volunteers, it still needed a small core of part-time employed staff, working for the most part on the legal minimum wage. This was due to be increased, and this would have a major impact on operating costs.
A further serious concern was renewal of the lease on the shop, due in 2019, with the inevitable rent increase, however reasonable. Linked to this was the growing realisation by the shop’s management that the shop premises in their present state were not ‘fit for purpose’.
Modern food and drink retailing is dependent on refrigeration with freezers and chillers capable of displaying products and providing easy direct access to them. In turn these units need the right type of spaces in which to operate – with good ventilation, because refrigeration in cabinets heats the surrounding area. Vibration can also cause transition of noise, especially in old buildings with wooden floors. Up to date electric wiring is also needed to meet ever stricter fire safety regulations.
Winsham Shop was found wanting in all of these requirements, causing problems for the landlords , who lived in the same building; for the shop staff who were having to work in hot, unventilated conditions; and for the customers. The truth is that the premises had changed very little since the mid-nineteenth century, and the day of reckoning was approaching.
At the same time as the Shop Management Committee was facing this situation the only pub in the village ‘The Bell’ was up for sale. The popular owners, Tony and Terri Laws-Spindler wanted to retire after eighteen successful years of running The Bell, and were looking to stay in the village.
Coincidentally, due to the number of pubs facing closure, a nationwide initiative had been launched, involving the Plunkett Foundation, a charity which helps community-run organisations to find solutions to their many and varied problems. This initiative offered potential grants to help communities buy and run their local pubs.
Here was an opportunity that could benefit two key village assets. As part of this the Tony & Terri agreed to register The Bell as an ‘Asset of Community Value’ to help procure grants that might be sought to help it to continue as a pub.
A discussion was started with the owners of The Bell, in October, 2016, who were pleased at the prospect of a solution that could benefit themselves and Winsham Shop and Post Office, offering to help in any way they could. A public meeting was held at the Jubilee Hall in February 2017 to discuss the possibility of buying The Bell. If the pub could be purchased at the right price, the shop management committee saw many potential benefits.
Changes could incorporate the shop and Post Office premises into the existing building. The licensed pub and food business could be run by a tenant or an employed manager. There was space for car parking and delivery vehicles; it was also well located in the village centre.
The project was looking positive with pledges of support from Winsham residents of approximately £180,000 with a good possibility of further financial support, such as grants and loans.
Unfortunately it was not to be. Some months elapsed, during which the shop’s management committee did a lot of work, but it was proving difficult for Winsham Shop to continue with the negotiation. A no blame situation–basically, the arithmetic did not suggest a viable outcome. Understandably, the work leading up to this had taken a good deal of time.
The owners of The Bell, in the context of this delay felt obliged to accept an offer from a private purchaser-the present owner. Although, at the time, this was a disappointment for the village, concerns were eased as the new buyer intended to continue with The Bell, as the village pub.
The options available for the shop were considered to be running out, and the end of Winsham Shop and Post Office began to seem a possibility, for the reasons already stated. A serious dilemma faced the Shop Management Committee. What to do next?
A few weeks later, in June 2017, ‘The George’ was identified as a possible solution. Located on the corner of Back Street, just across the road from the existing shop promises, it had for many years been one of the three pubs in the village, until it closed in the 1970s and was converted into a house. It had been rented out for many years and the existing tenants were about to leave. The owner of The George was approached and was prepared to work with the Shop Committee towards a potential sale.
The George was large enough to accommodate an expanded Shop and Post Office business, which would enable it to enlarge the range of products and services provided. There was also the potential to increase turnover by providing a cafe. Upstairs space might be let commercially. The Shop Management Committee drew up a business plan and held open sessions in ‘The George’ in order to assess potential support. The key challenges were to gain support, acquire funding and acquire ‘change of use status from South Somerset District Council’
Agreement was forthcoming from Winsham Parish Council and the two public meetings held in July 2017 and 2018 (a revised scaled-down plan removed commercial use for the upper floor).
By autumn 2017 a business plan and share issue resulted in over £300,000 being pledged by local residents. In addition to Social Investment Tax Relief status was awarded to this investment from HMRC - a considerable achievement. A planning application to SSDC for change of use followed.
During 2018, of all letters received by SSDC regarding this project, over 90% were in favour. However, The George proposal was not supported by everyone.
Some village based groups objected for a variety of reasons. The shop committee was given pre-application advice by SSDC that the location of the George presented road safety concerns but the Shop Management Committee felt confident that steps could be taken to overcome these concerns in their Planning Application. Some objectors supported the SSDC pre-planning opinion. There were genuine concerns relating to safe pedestrian, and vehicle access to the proposed new location. Others argued about the viability of the business plans. Some felt that the existing location in Church Street could be structurally updated.
Alternatives were suggested, including the possibility of building a new shop on the Upper Recreation ground; another proposal integrating it into St Stephen’s Church in some way. However, in the absence of any supporting business plans, having addressed these ideas, the Winsham Shop Management Committee felt unable to progress with them in the light of their experience of the many factors involved in running a viable community shop & post office. Furthermore, time was getting short and they felt that they had found the only viable solution.
The problems facing the Shop Management Committee should not be underrated. The basic viability of the business was of serious concern. A new business plan seemed unavoidable, yet the existing location in Church Street had many problems. At the same time the support by many village residents for the shop and post office to move to 'The George' location was evidenced by the size of the pledged financial support, encouraged them to pursue The George Project. It seemed to the committee that ' The George' was the only option.
In February 2019, the application for change of use of 'The George' went before the Area West Planning meeting held at Chard Guildhall .The planning officer’s report proposed rejecting the proposal based on highways concerns, despite knowing that the vast majority of residents, and significantly, the County Highways department had no issue with this.
Many Winsham residents attended the meeting to demonstrate their support for the proposals. One count showed that some 140 were present.
Those not in agreement were also represented, although not in such large numbers. The planning committee heard seven statements each from both sides. One in favour was from Winsham Parish Council. One of the statements against made a suggestion for the Upper Recreation Ground as a potential future location.
The Planning Officer, his Highways Consultant and objectors convinced the Planning Committee that the road safety risk was too high and that there were other possible locations for the shop – despite the Shop Committee having clearly stated in their planning application that all other viable options had been explored.
Change of use was refused by a vote of 8 to 5 councillors. The Shop Committee felt there were strong grounds for appeal, and links to the relevant communications relating can be found below. However, the Planning Inspectorate did not agree and upheld the decision at end of August 2019.
The account of the struggle to save Winsham Shop and Post Office given above, cannot reflect the enormous amount of energy expended by a dedicated group of people to save what many regard as the heart of the Winsham community. The expectation of many, when the news of the failure to obtain planning approval became known, was that this village-owned business now faced inevitable closure, for all the reasons given, possibly within a few months.
The Shop Management Committee showed extraordinary resilience in the face their failure to win the appeal against the earlier unsuccessful planning decision. The decision wrecked their hopes and plans for the future, and forced them to the conclusion that the only hope of keeping the shop and post office trading was to make the existing premises work. It was September, and the initial task was to establish a new lease, as the existing lease was due for renewal in October 2019, the following month. The Committee had to act fast:
Following a review by the Shop Management Committee to see what could be done to make the shop ‘fit for purpose’ including reducing noise and improving ventilation, the following facts came to light. Due to the age and fabric of the building there was inadequate separation between the commercial rental area leased by the tenant and the private accommodation of the landlord. This presented a serious fire risk. The structure of the property did not meet necessary health and safety guidelines and an official inspection could have resulted in the shop being forced to close immediately and not reopen until necessary works had been completed to bring the premises up to standard.
Once these facts were known to Winsham Shop Ltd, it was vital to ensure the necessary changes were made if the shop was to continue trading. The following works were agreed with the cooperation of the landlord:
The Shop Management Committee hired local firm Loaring Developments Ltd and work started on 9 November. The premises needed to be completely cleared and a much smaller version of the shop was relocated to the Parish Office in the Jubilee Hall. The Post Office had to be closed temporarily due to lack of appropriate space and security.
It was not known what other structural issues might be uncovered when work started and during the course of the works three more serious issues came to light: (i) non-standard electrical wiring requiring complete replacement of electrical system, extra to electrical work already identified, (ii). Rotting wooden joists supporting existing floor, (iii) Cracked ceiling joists - potential serious risk of ceiling collapse.
As well as the additional wiring, these factors necessitated significant extra structural work consisting of replacing the floor to building control specifications with cement and installing three new structural poles to support cracked beams.
The final cost of over £60,000 to improve the property was funded by a community share issue funded by 75 households from the village.
The new lease was signed in January 2020 for a further 7 years. The Shop Management Committee had requested a three year lease initially and the Landlord happily extended the term by a further 4 years to give the Management Committee and those villagers who had kindly contributed to the refurbishment costs, a longer term of security. The continuity of this valuable village service was therefore made safe for the foreseeable future. What the longer term will bring no one can know, but the new business model will hopefully deliver greater growth for the enterprise and the benefit of the people of Winsham.
The village was delighted with the total transformation of the shop, now a lovely airy space, filled with light. The shop had become open plan from end-to-end, thus increasing the selling area and providing space for a wider range of products. Ventilation was greatly improved. The Post Office remained largely as it was, due to contractual security requirements with Post Office Counters Ltd. A new suite of high-efficiency refrigerated display units was installed; also a new shop counter area and shelving system. Inevitably much remained to be done, and in the months to come all the shelving systems would be updated, and other exciting innovations were to be introduced, but more of that later. On day one it looked like this...
Unfortunately the re-opening of Winsham Shop and Post Office came too too late to benefit from the substantial pre-Christmas trade that was enjoyed most years, despite the valiant effort to keep the shop functioning during the renovation period, by taking over the Parish Office located in the Jubilee Hall. In the first two months of 2020 business was good, during what is traditionally a quite period , while customers seek to recover from the gastronomic and financial excesses of Christmas and New Year Celebrations.
But what was to follow was completely unprecedented in the long history of the village shop, indeed the whole parish.
Early in 2020, news of a new Corona type virus located in China, was reaching the media with increasing frequency. At first it attracted little attention. New viruses were always coming and going. Nothing to worry about!However, by February it was into Europe, with high death rates among the elderly and people with pre-existing health conditions. By early March it had reached the United Kingdom. In response, the UK government instituted a major lockdown on social interaction to minimise spread. This included the closure of most retail businesses, except for food outlets and other vital services. Winsham Shop did not have to close, unlike 'The Bell'.There followed a remarkable demonstration of the importance of village shops and their value to small communities. Following the strict instructions laid down by government, relating to social distancing and customer and staff hygiene procedures, Winsham Shop, with its dedicated staff and team of volunteers. was able to provide a vital retail service, including an ordering and delivery service, especially important to the more vulnerable categories of residents - those over the age of 70, the disabled, and/or with underlying health conditions. This service minimised the need for residents to travel into nearby towns such as Chard and Crewkerne, thereby reducing the risk of catching and spreading the virus.
On March 17th, the Shop Management Committee issued a statement, along with other village organisations, via the Winsham E-Letter, the Parish Web site and the community Facebook page, and with posters around the village. It expressed its intention to stay open during the restrictions, reassuring residents about continuity of supplies of fresh foods. It also called for volunteers to help with deliveries to 'at risk' residents, and to help with maintaining the enhance bio-security needed. Needless to say , the response was unprecedented.
There followed a difficult three months or so, but during this period Winsham Shop and Post Office was a beacon of stability in daily life that gave confidence to many who lived or worked in the parish, that one day things would return to normal.
Despite all this, work on up-dating the shop and its methods continued. New shelving systems arrived and were installed.
Trade flourished, despite the growing on-line presence of the major supermarkets and others.
As Spring eased into Summer the contagion rate -the 'R' number eased nationally to below 1, and there was a gradual easing of restrictions, although the shop continued to meet its government required bio-security measures. Nevertheless, life did begin to become more 'normal'. The South West enjoyed lower rates of infection throughout this period, compared with many parts of the UK, despite the tradition of it being a holiday area, visited by many people to enjoy its coast line and its beautiful countryside.
Sadly this was not to continue.
At the time of writing-late Autumn 2020, the spread of Covid-19 is accelerating rapidly, especially in the north of England , Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland, with severe lockdowns being applied in many parts.
Fortunately they are not yet applying to the South West, although the danger of increased contagion is ever present.
To minimise risk, the wearing of Facemasks by customers has become necessary, also by staff when not working behind the protective screens. Numbers of customers within the shop at any one time are also limited. Nobody knows what the next few months will bring. A promised vaccine, may become available early 2021 year-lets hope so!
BUT LIFE GOES ON....
And the management of Winsham Shop continues to innovate! The fortunes of Winsham Shop and Post Office over the five years spanning 2016 to 2020, competition has intensified and people's shopping habits are changing. During the pandemic, a general nationwide reaction has resulted in a massive increase in home-delivery by most of the major supermarket groups and others, including Amazon, as a result of on-line shopping. At the same time Winsham Shop has seen a significant increase in turnover during the early part of the pandemic, although in recent months the level of business returning to more conventional levels. It raises the question; what does this mean?
The Management Committee of the shop and post-office are reacting positively to both the challenge and the potential opportunities presented by the situation. They recently introduced a simple-to-use, online shopping system, using a very sophisticated web site, that compares well to those being used by the major supermarkets. Clearly such a system would be beyond the resources of Winsham Shop to develop, but the management committee's far-sighted on going involvement with the Plunkett Foundation, the charity set up to help community resources such as village shops and pubs, has enabled them to be an early participant in a system that will become increasingly available to village shops throughout the UK. Payment is made on line via Debit Credit Card, and collection is by arrangement.
In preparing parts of this record of the history of Winsham Shop and Post Office during the period 2016-2020, I have spoken with many people involved with various aspects of the struggle to keep the business going. Although I met with differing views, nobody that I spoke to wanted the shop and post-office to close. Some were vehemently opposed to 'The George ' project, and feelings sometime ran high on this.
In the end, most-if not all, accept that the present situation, in terms of location, has worked out well. For my part, given the limited scope of the web site, I have tried to give a fair and balanced account of a testing few years.
Before closing, a few weeks ago I was approached by the Chairman of Winsham Shop Management Committee enquiring if I could include a small tribute to one of their Directors. When I saw what they wanted to say, I had no difficulty in agreeing:
At the request of the Directors of Winsham Shop Post Office, special mention is made of Paula Bramley Ball, Commercial Director. Paula is praised as being a driving force, leading the efforts described above in ensuring the continuity of the village owned business.
Winsham Shop and Post Office were very fortunate to have such a person with great experience and expertise among their team. Before moving away from Corporate life to live in Winsham with her husband, she had worked, since leaving University, for the UK’s leading supermarket, rising to a senior executive post at their head office.
The Directors of Winsham Shop and Post Office during the period 2016-2020:
Sarah Gleadell (Hon. Sec.), Jean Spurdle, Margaret Long, Paula Bramley Ball (Commercial), Eric West, Denis McCallum (Chairman), Gill Spence, Sally Cunliffe, Stephen Miller, Rita Miller
Published November 2020