High Streets Initiative · 26 January 2018

Rural shopkeepers demand improved digital infrastructure to meet investment ambitions

Two-thirds of rural stores are independently run

Britain’s rural shopkeepers invested £315m into their business in 2017, new research has found, but poor digital infrastructure has undermined efforts to deliver crucial services to local communities.

The 2018 Rural Shop Report, released by the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), confirmed the importance of local convenience stores to rural areas, and provided an overview of the challenges facing such business owners.

With independent retailers making up 76 per cent of all rural stores, the sector is predominantly populated by small business owners. Rural shops also make up a third of all UK convenience stores.

As the majority of rural stores operate with no other business or service provider nearby, many are providing essential products and services that would otherwise be absent to local communities, such as bill payment services, free-to-use cash machines and postal services.

In 2017, rural shopkeepers invested a total of £315m into new services like contactless payment technologies and Post Office counters to meet the needs of customers. Investment increased steadily throughout each quarter, demonstrating optimistic outlook among business owners.

  • February 2017: £59m
  • May 2017: £74m
  • August 2017: £88m
  • November 2017: £94m

However, lack of high speed internet infrastructure, poor mobile data coverage and effective support for rising business rates have continued to cause concerns for rural shopkeepers.

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In 2015, the government proposed a Universal Service Obligation (USO) that set of a target of delivering speeds above ten megabits per second (Mbit/s) for every home and office premises in Britain. ACS welcomed this commitment, but recent Ofcom research revealed that 65,000 rural business owners continue to access internet speeds below this benchmark.

Commenting on the report, James Lowman, ACS chief executive, detailed some of the unique challenges facing rural shopkeepers, and called for new government strategies to support local high streets.

“Rural shops have to deal with many of the same issues as other stores such as rising employment costs and crime, but also face unique challenges when compared to their more urban counterparts,” he said.

“Sub-standard broadband and mobile connection speeds and a lack of effective business rates relief remain serious concerns for rural stores who are keen to invest in their businesses, offer more services, and use new technology to provide the service their customers need.”

Around a third of rural stores contain a Post Office counter, while a majority offer either cash back or a free ATM, according to the report. With Post Office numbers and the LINK cash machine network looking increasingly threatened, Lowman pointed out the importance of convenience stores to local communities.

“Rural shops are crucial to the UK economy and to the often isolated communities that they serve, and we encourage government to continue looking at ways to support these businesses and encourage retailers to invest.”

Read more: Bath shopkeeper calls for support after £300 fine for putting rubbish out too early

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Simon Caldwell is deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and communications from the University of Liverpool, and has previously worked as a content editor in local government and the ecommerce industry.

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