Looking for innovation?  Head out of the cities

Two things I was involved with last week revealed a surprising connection.  One was the launch of the ACS Rural Shop Report, and the other was a chat with Henry Armour, my counterpart at NACS in the USA, who was over here looking at some stores.  Bear with me while I explain how these things are linked.

Our Rural Shop Report gives us the anatomy of the convenience sector trading in rural parts of the UK, and it’s great to see MPs like Ruth George, Scott Mann and Damian Hinds out in stores celebrating what these businesses do for the places where they trade.  I was particularly struck by Dan Cock’s Premier in Whitstone, one of the stores in Scott Mann’s North Cornwall constituency.  Dan has developed his store into a pub, café, food-to-go outlet, community meeting place, post office and convenience store all in one.  It’s packed out for Sunday lunch in front of a log fire, as well as hosting community groups, serving locals and people passing through the village, and of course being a great local shop in its own right. 

This is modern convenience store innovation at its best: starting from what the community needs, and building a facility that is right for that location.  It’s probably not a scalable offer (though there’s plenty any retailer could learn from it) because a few miles away a different place will need different things from their local shop, but Dan’s thought process about developing his business is a blueprint for our sector.  And by the way, Dan will say himself there’s plenty more to do, and it’s taken a lot of investment of money, stress and hassle to get to this point.

So where does Henry Armour come in?  He was looking at London stores, and came to the conclusion that businesses in the capital were all tending to the same offer.  Specifically, look at all the chains of cafes designed in precisely the same way at Pret a Manger.  He saw some great innovation too – like two of my own favourite innovators Raw Store and The Grocery in Shoreditch – but by and large he saw London’s convenience offers becoming increasingly alike.

Contrast that with Dan, and many rural retailers like him, who are introducing new services based on the specific needs of their community, and making a virtue of the fact that every convenience store has its own discreet market.  I celebrate every investment and risk that a retailer takes to improve their business, wherever they’re based, but I’m seeing many of the best innovations starting out far away from the trendy big cities where the game is attracting a proportion of the tens of thousands of people passing near the store, rather than building trade from a small, defined and fairly captive market.

Dan’s experience also reminds us how important it is that regulations help and not hinder this development.  Knotty regulations like use class orders, which define the primary use of a business premises, must be flexible enough to allow businesses to change without having to go through undue planning processes.  The business rates system needs to give discounts and support to businesses introducing new services, rather than  separately taxing those services as we’ve seen happen with ATMs.  If you need convincing about why these businesses are valuable and should get this help, go back to look at the Rural Shop Report and see the contribution we already make in rural areas.

This entry was posted by Chris on Mon, 29/01/2018 - 11:56