“It’s life, Gill, but not as we know it”
As it will have been impossible not to notice, our ‘Little Shop’ as it is often affectionately known, is not currently the shop we all knew and loved. Gone is the usual question ‘morning, how can I help you?’ from someone behind the deli counter, gone is the sound of milk being frothed for a cappuccino, gone are the people sitting at the picnic tables eating croissants and drinking lattes, gone are our army of volunteers manning the till and gone is the warm and friendly atmosphere that envelops you as you push open the door and step inside. But despite that, our Little Shop is still functioning, and remarkably even thriving, in these challenged times.
Things gradually started to change in early March 2020 as the onset of Coronavirus started to take hold in the UK and across the world. In order to safeguard our customers, our staff and our volunteers, the services offered by the deli were gradually reduced, the number of customers in the shop at any one time started to be limited and by Tuesday 24th March, the shop was officially closed to walk in customers, providing a delivery only service.
To those not in the know, a quick glance at the shop nowadays would suggest it isn’t open. The blinds are closed, no customers are coming or going and the general buzz has stopped. But that is so far removed from reality. For those of us lucky enough to be involved in the shop delivery service, we know that the story is quite a different one – one that I am going to try to shed some light on here. People know that they can place an email order or order over the telephone. People know that a box will land on their doorstep the same day as their order is placed. People know that payment will be taken in due course. But do people really know what happens behind those closed doors (well, technically not closed doors as we keep them open to avoid people needing to touch door handles…but you get my drift)?
Someone arrives around 7.45 to open up. The sun canopy goes down, the lights go on but the blinds stay down – as much as we hate to do it, we need to discourage people from physically coming to the shop so the blinds stay down in an attempt to do this.
The fresh fruit and veg – which is all ordered in every day – is brought in and sorted. The staples such as potatoes, onions, carrots and apples – and the luxuries such as local asparagus, melons, avocados and spring greens. We’re all getting excited about the day when our delivery will contain all the local ‘summer’ seasonal produce such as strawberries, raspberries and colourful heritage tomatoes. And we can finally fulfil people’s orders for peaches!
Next it’s our daily milk delivery to be sorted – milk literally flies off the shelves at the moment – probably an indication of how many cups of tea and coffee we’re drinking during lockdown! Papers too need to be sorted for those that had a standing order prior to lockdown. We are often sent a few extra of some papers so it’s always worth asking in your order, just in case we have a spare one to hand – but only if you wouldn’t be disappointed if we don’t!
And then, probably the most important thing to be sorted – the orders. The laptop is checked and all the orders are printed off – from midday the day before through to the morning. And is then continuously checked until 12pm that day – the cut off time for same day orders. They are collated into ‘areas’ such as Hambledon, Chiddingfold, Wormley, Vann Lane so that deliveries by the volunteer drivers can be planned. We want their journeys to be as efficient as possible.
By this time it’s around 8.45 and so, once the coffees have been handed round (not quite the nice lattes or cappuccinos which used to be crafted on the coffee machine but made the old fashioned way with a kettle and a jar of instant coffee), we set to work.
Once the orders have been collated, they are then ‘picked’ (where the items are taken from shelves in accordance with the order) and placed into a basket with a copy of the customer’s order – the order is annotated by the picker to indicate what’s been successfully picked and, on the rare occasion, if we are out of stock on something or if something has been ‘subbed’; each basket is then, in turn, picked up and the shopping is emptied on to the till counter and rung through the till; an IOU is created on the till for that particular customer (so that payment can be taken later); the shopping is repacked into an appropriate sized box and taken outside where the drivers will place them in their cars to be delivered. Once a driver has five or six orders, off they go!
This process continues throughout the day. Once 20 or so deliveries have been made, we will start to call our customers to take payment. This is a nice task as we are often told how grateful everyone is for the service we are providing and what a great job we are doing (*blushes*). Very occasionally, it can instead be a stressful task if we make a call for payment and we hear the words ‘erm, thank you, we’ve received our order but it doesn’t seem to match the receipt that’s attached to the order’. At that point, hearts stop and we wonder what has gone wrong. I’d like to stress this has only happened once or twice and has been rectified – and I’m sure even happens to Waitrose or Sainsburys!! We recently had a call where someone phoned with a query as to why we had supplied prosecco and shallots when he hadn’t ordered them – there was then the collective panic (had we sent the wrong order? how could we have got it wrong? had we inadvertently put prosecco in his basket?) until the customer realised, whilst on the phone, that unbeknown to him his daughter had sent an order to him from the competition – Sainsburys!! – which was sat on his doorstep alongside our box. He was most apologetic – both for questioning us AND for his daughter having ordered from Sainsburys!
Sometimes days are busy and this process continues, one order after another, barely drawing breath, until the last order has gone out which can be as late as 3 or 4pm. The record stands at some 60+ orders in one day. Some days are quieter – which means orders are steady but that inbetween them coming in, we are able to take in deliveries from suppliers, re-stock shelves, re-jig the fridges and freezers, have another coffee … oh, and have a pasty from Young’s butchers (if you haven’t already tried one then you should – pre-order with us!). Then What’s App messages continue through the day and evening between teams once the shop has ‘shut’ for the day – ‘don’t’ forget so and so’s meat order for tomorrow’, ‘eggs need collecting at 9am tomorrow’, ‘so and so will be delivering such and such a thing on Tuesday’, ‘have we got pasties for our lunch tomorrow’(that’s the REALLY important question which never gets ignored).
Somehow team roles have naturally evolved over the last month – with seven in each team (five in the shop and two delivery drivers on any one day), everyone has found their niche and the roles have fallen into place to compliment the process we have in place. These roles also help with trying to achieve social distancing so that only person touches the till, one touches the card machine, one handles the telephone and so on (quite challenging in such a confined space but also achievable).
We have someone who is responsible for checking and printing orders and who also processes the orders on the till (meaning that person can stay behind the till counter). We have ‘pickers’ who are responsible for actually selecting the items from the shelves in accordance with the orders – who also have the dreaded task of ‘substitution’! Frequent discussions are had as to whether pilchards can be subbed for sardines or whether plain four and baking powder is a sub for self-raising flour. Though one picker recently read an order for ‘green organic milk’ for a bar of Green & Blacks organic milk chocolate which we didn’t think was the customer’s intention – but who knows, he or she might have been most disappointed at receiving a two pint carton of green milk! Someone takes responsibility for collating the orders into area postcodes, unpacking and repacking orders to assist the till operator and liaising with the delivery drivers about where those orders are going. Someone takes payment and someone takes responsibility for looking after the team and the shop – that’s sorting stock, making coffees, answering the phone, running any errand that needs doing and generally being a ‘do-er’. And not forgetting our drivers who, in accordance with social distancing rules, remain patiently outside the shop in all weathers and have as little contact as possible with those inside.
And of course, where would be without our King and Queen of sauce (red, brown, tartare, Worcestershire?) – sorry source – Martin and Gill. No one has any idea how all-consuming it is trying to keep our shelves stocked so that we can offer the range of products we do. Suppliers are short of so many products nationwide so the daily juggling act is done – by Gill remotely in Cornwall (where she is currently supporting her mother) and by Martin here physically in Hambledon – to source supplies. Gill spends HOURS on her laptop trying to find different products from different suppliers (flour? yeast? pasta? no problem!) and Martin treks to the wholesalers in Aldershot at least three times a week to get all those essentials we can’t do without (Kellogg’s cornflakes? McVities digestives? Galaxy caramel? of course we can get them!). Be in no doubt that if it wasn’t for the efforts of Martin and Gill, it would not have been possible to offer the service we’ve been able to and be satisfied that we can give our customers not only what they need but also what they want.
And not forgetting Bron for keeping us stocked with fresh fruit and veg, milk and bread, Jon for keeping us stocked (and consequently sloshed – the phrase ‘furlough Merlot’ has been coined) with wine and beer, and Alison for, amongst other things, keeping the post office open … oh, and making sure we have adequate supplies of ice cream and also charcoal for our BBQs. There’s our village band of volunteers who are happy to pick up eggs or asparagus at short notice, our ‘paper girls’ who deliver papers on the day that the shop is shut. Our local suppliers such as Jane Cookman for supplying delicious cakes and frozen meals, Mandira’s Kitchen for her delicious frozen curries (and who has recently made the national press!), Young’s butchers in Chiddingfold for being able to ‘meat’ people’s orders (groan, sorry) and all those other local producers who allow us to offer such a variety of products.
And last but not least, you, our customers, who continue to place orders so that the shop can stay open (albeit not literally) for business. We hope we have surprised those of you who may not have been too familiar with us before lockdown with the range of products we stock. On a personal note, I have not stepped foot in my usual supermarket for over six weeks, having been able to get everything I need from the Village Shop. What more could you ask for in the current climate?
As Jon recently referenced in his Sunday reflection, we are the lucky ones to be working and benefitting from a sense of purpose at serving the community. The sense of camaraderie and solidarity in and between teams is quite something. We love the orders to come in, we’re so happy when we can supply everything on a customer’s list (literally, high fives all round) and we’re so grateful to receive your thanks and praise.
As Gill summed up recently, the 1038 orders placed in April didn’t just equate to 1038 orders for the shop, it meant over a thousand journeys to supermarkets not made which surely contributed to keeping vulnerable and elderly members in our community SAFE. That’s all the thanks we need.