From rat race to Rushlake Green – a year in the life of a first-time village shop owner

6th August

For first-time shop owner Tony, his inaugural year in retail is one that he will never forget and a time that presented more challenges than he could have ever imagined.

The team (left to right): Sandy Jones, Julia Benning and Oscar Tarbox. Other team members who aren’t pictured include Denise Bailey, Joel Lushington and Alex Murray.

Tony purchased Rushlake Green Villages Stores last July in order to fulfil his dream of returning to the country and escaping the London rat race.

The former IT project manager was scouring the South East looking for the perfect opportunity when, after a year-long search, he came across the sales particulars for the shop and flat which overlook one of the most stunning village greens in Sussex.

“I wanted a complete change of lifestyle. I was an IT project manager for 25 years with clients like the Ministry of Justice and the BBC and I worked in IT for United Airlines before that. I was born in Sussex, but moved to London when I was 18.

“I came and had a look at the shop and the flat and fell in love with the village and the area. I saw that the shop had potential and it was ideal having the flat above the shop with the early starts and late finishes. My family thought I was mad and still do,” Tony smiled.

His IT and project management skills came in very handy as one of the first things he had to do was introduce a new till system after discovering the one in the shop was ancient.

A little over halfway through his first year in business, COVID 19 struck which presented a huge challenge as the popularity of the shop grew with people wanting to avoid supermarkets and large crowds. Turnover doubled during the worst part of the pandemic and the shop was especially busy during lockdown.

“The problem was that I couldn’t get stock from my normal suppliers and the wholesaler wouldn’t deliver, so I ended up having to drive to them two or three times a day to stock up. I also had to buy some different brands from normal,” Tony said.

To help people who were shielding or self-isolating or just wanted to avoid the crowds, Tony launched a delivery service which he said was much harder work than he expected.

“We had to second guess what to give people if we didn’t have the item they wanted in stock. It was also really hard putting the orders together while customers were in the shop and socially distancing. At the same time, the phone was ringing off the hook and we were getting constant Facebook messages and emails,” he explained.

Tony said that his project management experience really helped during this busy time. The first thing he did was to set up a second till. He was also able to step back and analyse what needed doing and when.

With at least 15 deliveries a day to manage, Tony decreased his opening hours and increased staffing during the peak. One of the things that kept the team going was the feedback from customers saying how the store was a lifeline. Then, overnight, a sign appeared on the green with a rainbow and a thank you message which was a huge boost to the team.

The sign which appeared on the village green

One of the benefits of the crisis Tony says is that he has had to experiment with new products and brands as the regular ones weren’t available. Some of them proved very popular and have been kept. This has resulted in the range of goods available being expanded.

“I was determined to never run out of the essentials people need like fresh veg, bread and milk. Like other retailers we struggled to get things like flour and, strangely, marmite. Fortunately, I often over order and before the pandemic started I over ordered toilet rolls by mistake. So we had plenty,” added Tony.

There are very few things you can’t buy at Rushlake Green Village Stores. Over the last year Tony has added a range of high-quality oils and vinegars and quality pastas. There are now 30 types of cheeses on offer. He prefers to use local suppliers where possible such as Alsop & Walker for cheese, Curd and Cure for deli products and a greengrocer in Bexhill for fruit and vegetables alongside other local suppliers like a farm in Herstmonceux for cherries. Just recently, Tony has installed a Lottery ticket machine after many requests from customers.

The Post Office service has proved a very valuable asset to the community. It was recently recognised as a finalist in the regional ‘We’re Stronger Together’ Post Office awards for service during the Covid-19 pandemic. Rushlake Green Post Office was a finalist in the Community Engagement category.

Postmaster in front of counter

“The Post Office has been going well and during the height of Covid parcels doubled which made things challenging as we have limited space. We were even busier than Christmas.

“With local banks closing people are getting used to paying in cheques and withdrawing money at the Post Office. Unfortunately this generates very little income but it does mean people are coming into the shop and might be tempted by what we have to offer on the shelves,” said Tony.

In spite of the huge challenges he has faced during his first year and rarely a day off, Tony has not been put off retailing and thinks he may look out for shop number two in the near future.