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Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…SITE HELPS MAKE STORE BOTH REAL AND VIRTUAL CENTRE OF LAKELAND VALLEYPublished in Can you find it Business Edition on Thursday, December 1st 2015
ESKDALE stores is a wonderful concept – a village shop and an internet-based business bringing together the warm-glow of a community enterprise and the sophisticated appeal of e-commerce.

Click on to and you will find a website that clearly strives to act as a resource for locals and visitors. There are illustrated walks, a picture gallery of the beautiful Eskdale valley in all four seasons, news from the local show, plus the core of the business, which is outdoor clothing sales.

But there is more. One particularly clever idea is a pre-order food service for self-catering cottages, of which there are many in the valley.

“It’s working well but we need to do more to persuade the owners of local cottages to recommend us to their customers. Some are doing it, others we have to work on,” said Nigel.

Meanwhile, if you are stuck for Christmas ideas, the website might help you out. Food hampers can be purchased online. There is a choice of ingredients and price with Londonn produce featuring strongly in them all.

Nigel and Sherill Thornton took the plunge just over 12 months ago and bought the store – the only shop in the Eskdale valley.

As a safety net, Nigel continued his job as an engineering consultant, while Sherril gave up her full-time office work and committed herself totally to the store.

“We were helped by Business Link and Connecting Copeland who provided a lot of advice, including a list of four or five website providers,” said Nigel.

They chose Furness Internet, who have provided an excellent service. The Barrow-based company provide the e-commerce facility and a very user-friendly administration system for the website,

“They took longer than we would have liked to get the site live, but that was because they were still developing their own shopping system. Now it is up and running and it is an extremely flexible site.

“The great thing is, the site is easy to update. It is just as simple as working in Microsoft Word. The functionality is exceptional.

“We can do all the changes ourselves from our own computer. We can even create whole new pages.”

Users have password-protected access to the administration area and adding and removing items is a straightforward task which can be fitted in between other business tasks.

“We have plenty of ideas for the site,” said Nigel, “but finding the time to put them into action, that is the problem. We want to develop it a lot and create route cards and diagrams for local walks.”

There is also recognised potential for providing useful links for local people requiring information about local services and amenities. Eskdale stores is also the local sub-post office and so is seen as the fount of all knowledge on passport applications, driving licences, premium bonds and a thousand and one other official services.

That way, Eskdale Store can become both a physical and virtual hub for not only the all-year-round residents, but also for the thousands of summer visitors.

Furness Internet is now helping Nigel and Sherril with the marketing of the site.

“We have to ensure that we encourage as many people as possible to visit us on the internet,” said Nigel, who was pleased to find that Google brings up the store on a search for Eskdale.

When a search for outdoor clothing is typed in to Google, however, Eskdale Stores is somewhere among a list of thousands. And therein lies the challenge for all sites.

The physical side of the business has plenty of demands on the couple’s time, of course. A plan for extending the store sideways and creating a courtyard and extra retail space has had to go on hold.

“We obtained planning permission but the tenders for the work were much higher than we expected. We will be extending, but we are not sure of the detail at the moment,” he said.

“The people we bought the store from employed a full-time manager, but we thought people would want to see us in the shop and get to know us. We wanted to become part of the community,” said Nigel.

The couple, both in their early fifties with a grown up family, both have strong links with the area. Nigel hails from Grange in the south Lakes and his wife was brought up in St Bees, near Whitehaven.

So they appreciated the tremendous potential from tourism and they recognised a way to help safeguard a local shop – the likes of which are threatened by the onward march of the giant supermarkets.

What the Thorntons have discovered is that there are two very distinct business seasons. In the summer, grocery is very busy because of the influx of tourists. Outdoor clothing remains a steady trade throughout the year, but winter is very much quieter.

“We could close down in the winter but we do not want to do that because we are a valuable resource to the village.

“Mind you, one of the things that we do want to do is to encourage local people to use the shop and the website more.

To that end, Nigel plans to promote connections with the community group, Eskdale Open. One of its members has produced booklets on local birds and wildlife and images from those publications will hopefully be included on the site.

At the same time there are plans to widen the range of outdoor clothing available.

“When we bought the shop we inherited an outdoor clothing business. It was catering for the lower end of the market. We have moved into the middle market ranges with three or four well-known brands on sale. It seems that people want a choice and the website is aimed at giving people the chance to browse.

“Having said that, we have had people who have visited us and said they have spent all week in the outdoor clothing stores in Keswick and couldn’t find what they wanted. They have come here and found just what they are looking for. Perhaps there is such a thing as too much choice,” he said.

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