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Cornering a broader market

Corner shops are often the lynchpin and focal point of communities. As a local resource, however, they are under-valued and many are closing their doors as competition bites. Can they be revived through their civic role? Clare Goff investigates

A sign in the window of Key News in Sheffield calls on customers to help shape the store’s stock.

Key News on Sheffield’s Derbyshire Lane is your average ‘humble’ corner shop. Situated on a residential road, it sells newspapers, tobacco, sweets and a selection of groceries. Like your average corner shop, it has, in recent times, been struggling. The rise of smaller local versions of the ‘big four’ supermarkets, the decline in newspaper readership and the economic downturn have hit the local general store hard.

However, the owner of Key News, Paul Keys, hasn’t closed his doors and in the last two years has trebled his takings. He achieved this not by spending thousands on advertising but by inviting his local community in to help decide the future of the shop.

As part of a physical restructure, Keys painted a message on the window asking local people what they would like to see sold inside. Around 60 people came in to his tiny shop and expressed their views, and some of their requests were unexpected.

‘The most requested items were alcohol and hamsters,’ he says. Key News now stocks alcohol, has added a range of local food and an improved selection of greetings cards. It also stocks hamster food – though not hamsters – at the request of local children. Paul Keys runs special offers and is planning a wine tasting evening later in the year.

He thinks that smaller shops have the advantage of being closer to their communities than the big supermarkets and thus more able to respond to changes. ‘You have to keep in touch and be prepared to change,’ he says. Key News has thrived not only through improving its range but by focusing on and expanding its civic role.

‘Humble’ is the adjective most often used to describe the corner shop. Often it alludes to its irrelevant and old-fashioned approach to retail, its lack of pretension that is part of its charm. But there is also a sense in which the corner shop underplays its role.

For while we will all recognise the corner shop piled high with a disordered and random stock of over-priced and unhealthy goods and manned by a grumpy shopkeeper, we will also know of local corner shops which are the lynchpin of the community. When they close their doors for the final time what disappears is often much more than a place to buy a pint of milk. But corner shops – these ‘humble’ community resources – are often under-valued and under-used.

With corner shops now closing down at a rapid rate due to economic pressures, could they be revived by focusing on and highlighting their civic role? Indy Johar, the co-founder of Architecture 00:/, has spoken of the reinvention of the corner shop as a symbol of a new type of civic regeneration. As the big regeneration model based on real estate and consumption wanes, the focus is shifting to the expansion of human and social capital through the reinvention of the local shops and services we use every day.

‘I would like to see the corner shop reinvented for the 21st century, that’s the most beautiful thing that can happen,’ he said in an interview with New Start in May. ‘It can be a platform for so many things – sharing goods made in different houses, bringing together the problem of food wastage with local skills around baking and cooking.

‘It’s about reinventing and supporting these small everyday fractals of real lived society and making them so much better, so much more competitive and value added that they challenge the big boys. That’s the imagination challenge and its absolutely possible.’

In the digital age many corner shops are offering new services based around the delivery of online shopping, with John Lewis among the retailers planning to use corner shops as drop-off points for parcels. In San Francisco, one local corner shop has become the pick up point for a vegetable box from a Community Supported Agriculture scheme, and the provision of local healthy food is the backdrop to many corner shop reinventions.

In Los Angeles, the Corner Store Project has seen university researchers from the UCLA-USC Centre for Population Health and Health Disparities team up with local high school students to turn a neighbourhood snack shop into a source of healthy food. The outside of the Yash shop has been painted a vivid green and the amount of fresh food available has been increased. A vegetable garden has been created in the back yard and cooking demonstrations, healthy eating talks and gardening now take place, run by the young people themselves.

In the UK, the People’s Supermarket (pictured above) has created a new type of local grocery shop that mixes civic and economic aims and is as much about building community as selling food. It’s owned and run by locals, who pay an annual membership fee and commit to giving four hours each month to help run the organisation. Two years on from the launch of the first shop in central London, it’s learned to balance ethical choices with economic reality, loosening its decision not to stock cigarettes and alcohol, for example.

One of its three co-founders David Barrie warns of the difficulties of making a shop financially viable, particularly in an urban setting with strong competition and high levels of expectation from consumers.

‘I can’t tell you how difficult it is to set up a retail grocery that turns a profit,’ he says. But he recognises a demand for a different type of corner shop – one that offers community and authenticity – and believes consumers are prepared to pay a premium for it.

‘In the absence of other local friendly services the People’s Supermarket has become one of the few places in the area where everyone knows each other. Authenticity is not just the currency of cosmopolitan folk. Most people like things that are genuine and that speak to their sense of self. We could have gone down the artisan route and have been more successful commercially but we wanted to create something that was open to everyone.’

A new partnership between the People’s Supermarket and Spar shows that the competition has taken note.

And in the Anfield area of Liverpool, an area now blighted by the remains of big regeneration projects, a community bakery has become the centre of an initiative to renew the neighbourhood a different way (pictured left).

What began as an art project as part of the Liverpool Biennial has turned into a shop-cum-sustainable-housing initiative called 2Up2Down/Homebaked. When the family that had managed the local bakery decided to retire, the importance of keeping open the only remaining shop in the area selling fresh food took precedence over an art installation.

The project now rents the shop and plans for it to become a functioning bakery again, run and managed by local young people, who will also be trained to convert the empty properties attached to the bakery into flats fit for a changing community. In the meantime the bakery provides a base to engage with the local community around the idea of ‘living well’. Philosophy sessions have taken place and a reading group and vertical vegetable garden are planned. ‘It’s about exploring what it means to live well – through food, social life and wellbeing,’ says Maria Brewster, project producer of 2Up2Down.

But the making and selling of bread is just the backdrop to its main aim – to unite and reconnect a community that has been dislocated and depleted through ‘big’ regeneration and external economic forces.

‘It was important to do something so small and intimate and people-centred as a kind of counterpoint to top-down strategies which have created turmoil in this area,’ she says. ‘The aim is a slow steady growth from within.’

Bakeries running philosophy sessions and grocery stores growing vegetables. Local people involved in the running of their local shops and shopkeepers expanding their role as community anchors. Corner shops linking with other civic projects and with local services and needs. The possibilities for the reinvention of corner shops are endless and, as many face extinction, now is the time to explore their potential.

This article is the start of a conversation around what a civic corner shop could become and just a small snapshot of what’s already taking place. We welcome your ideas and examples.

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Paul Smith
Paul Smith
11 years ago

I hope not too many drunk hamsters were the result of this strategy

Paul Keys
Paul Keys
11 years ago

I am unaware of ANY of our customers having drunk hamsters, although a fair few seem to like to quaff Badgers.;0)

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