The rural retailers whose need to adapt put them back at the heart of their communities.
Two and a half hours west of Melbourne, where the Forest meets the sea, lies the village of Wye River. Despite its location along the famous Great Ocean Road there are just 340 homes in the area and four businesses: two caravan parks, a good old-fashioned pub and the delightful Wye River General Store.
“Everybody in the town stops off for a chat over coffee or just in the street; it’s really tight-knit,” says Stephanie Luxton, who has worked here for the past five years. In its previous life before current owners Dave Sharry, Richie Ludbrook and Greg Lloyd took over in 2009, the Wye River General Store more closely resembled the sort of shop you’d find in most Australian seaside towns: it sold tent pegs and white bread.
When the business changed hands Sharry and Ludbrook, the owners of Melbourne F&B icons Wall Two 80 café and the Riverland bar, worked with architecture firm Six Degrees to refurbish the site. They added an impressive restaurant and café, as well as a pergola; they also got an alcohol licence and transformed the shop’s offering. “The store meets many people’s needs and then some,” says Luxton. “It is literally and figuratively central to the township.”
If your postcode is 3234, the Wye River General Store is also where your post gets sorted (a service maintained during the five-month refurbishment). When bushfires blazed through the town on Christmas Day in 2015, it was the pub and the Wye River General Store that kept emergency-service teams fuelled. The shop was also a collection point for community donations.
While the café-cum-restaurant is more than equipped for dining in (it has been reviewed by some of Melbourne’s most esteemed food critics), the shop’s owners acknowledge that perhaps the most exciting part of Wye River is being outside. Takeaway food and coffee is served to parents watching their children hit the swings in the shop’s bleached-wood playground.
Key trades: Tourism, hospitality.
Price of a house: AU$525,000 (€355,000).
Key facilities (village): General store, pub, Foreshore and BIG4 Caravan Parks, Country Fire Brigade, Surf Life Saving Club and Great Otway National Park.
Key facilities (in General Store): Postal service, café and restaurant, shop, playground, community noticeboard and a bus pick-up point. Challenges: A fluctuating population that swells in the summer and dwindles during the rest of the year; extensive rebuilding needed following 2015 bushfires.
It may have a catchment of just 800 households but the village shop in Brockweir boasts an impressive annual turnover of £300,000 (€385,000). In fact, it has increased its trade every year since it opened in 2004. Business manager Alison Macklin puts its success down to the careful tailoring of stock to a range of wallets, the popular café and the organisation’s 40 voluntary staff. “We can’t do without our volunteers; they’re our USP,” says Macklin, the only full-time paid employee.
The Brockweir and Hewelsfield Village Shop is deep in Gloucestershire walking country. On the day Monocle visits, volunteers are getting to grips with a new till system in the contemporary, light and spacious structure built from green oak.
The community here was spurred into action after two nearby village shops closed. They had been run along traditional rural lines, which typically depend on a couple “working astronomical hours”, says Philip Bradney, chair of the shop’s management committee.
Stepping through the doors of Brockweir’s shop, you get a sense of a future for rural retail. Of the 300 or so community village shops operating in the UK, this one has among the highest sales volumes. Alongside basics, nearly half of its produce comes from within a 16 km radius, including wine from Fingal Rock in Monmouth and cheese from nearby producers. Much of its meat is from rare-breeds farm Cowshill, just a few miles from the shop’s doorstep.
Brockweir sits between the wealthy Wye Valley and the economically straitened Forest of Dean, so the shop needs to appeal to people of all incomes. The café is a key ingredient. “The food is fresh, homemade and reasonably priced,” says Ken Johnson, who regularly drives 30 km with his wife to have a spot of lunch here and stock up on meat, fish, butter and cheese.
This pricing strategy is deliberate. “The café keeps us in the black because of its higher profit margins,” says Macklin. “It means locals can afford to come here week in, week out.”
But the shop makes its contribution in other ways too. There’s a book-swap scheme, an informal delivery system for villagers and artists from the area can exhibit in the café. “This model has the best chance of survival in a small place like this,” says Macklin. “Who better to provide for the community than the community itself?”
A community shop depends on unpaid staff and when the Brockweir and Hewelsfield store was first mooted, there were concerns about whether anyone would sign up. “A big worry was whether we would get the volunteers for the times that we needed,” says founding committee member Michael Lenthall. “Fortunately that concern proved unfounded.”
The shop has dozens of volunteers and the pool is refreshed by newcomers who want to meet their neighbours, locals of retirement age and people living alone, such as Sally Secrett; she volunteers every Tuesday afternoon. “It’s a way of keeping in touch because the shop is the heart of the community,” she says.
Population: About 500.
Founded: 13th century.
Key trades: Formerly shipbuilding and fishing.
Price of a house: £389,000 (€494,000).
Key facilities: Village shop, village hall, church, pub.
Challenges: Poor public-transport links and mobile-phone coverage.
In the remote mountains of Japan’s southern Nara prefecture, retirees keen on their fresh meat and seafood can face a two-hour taxi ride to the supermarket in town. “They are too frail to walk to the bus stop or carry their own groceries and there’s nobody around to help,” says Kohei Yasukawa. “Their only option is a taxi.”
Yasukawa has first-hand knowledge: he has in mind customers of Yoshino Store, the small chain of grocery shops from Oyodo that three generations of his family have run since 1951. But he has come up with a solution: four years ago the company bought a lorry with an expandable cabin, equipped it with refrigerators, freezers and shelves and hit the road.
The truck carries 800 items – from toilet paper to Kagoshima pork belly and kelp-flavoured sweets – and runs six days a week to more than 40 small groups of homes scattered throughout the forest and mountains, known collectively as the village of Kawakami. Last year Yasukawa worked with officials from nearby Gojo to expand his coverage with a small refrigerated truck, the better to navigate the steep mountain switchbacks.
It’s not yet a profitable venture: Yoshino Store loses roughly ¥4.5m (€36,000) a year between its two lorries but for now subsidies from public coffers make up the difference. For 33-year-old Yasukawa, a former microchip engineer who returned home to take over the family business, helping residents is the priority. “Our goal is eventually for this to pay for itself so we can keep it going,” he says.
Japan’s government reckons that seven million people have no nearby grocer for daily necessities and no transport to reach shops farther away. The media call these have-nots kaimono nanmin (from the words for “shopping” and “refugees”); many are elderly and live in villages with declining populations where prospects for shops are bleak. The government spent ¥2.2bn (€17m) in the last financial year on projects such as Yoshino Store.
Tag along with the company’s drivers and you realise how vital the service is. When Monocle hitches a ride, Yoshinori Kishimoto is blaring out the 1968 hit song “365 Step March” as he pulls the lorry into Nakaoku, a huddle of 14 homes. Two women in aprons and house slippers climb aboard and chat with Kishimoto and his sidekick Shizuka Yanagihara while picking out milk, tofu, soybeans and sweet potatoes. At the next stop Kishimoto takes a call – an order from a resident – and Yanagihara delivers it to the customer’s house.
“We could just leave groceries by the door but we make sure everyone is doing all right,” says Yanagihara. “A lot of our customers live alone so it’s nice for them to have someone to talk to.” If regulars don’t show up, she knocks on doors; if someone isn’t feeling well she passes on the message to village officials. “We’ve become quite close to our customers.”
Village founded: 1889
Trades: Forestry, tourism.
Key facilities: Pre-school to middle school, medical clinic; no train station.
Distance to nearest hospital: 15km
Challenges: Providing services for the elderly in the region’s remote mountain settlements.