Justin Tunstall of Town Mill Cheesemonger shares the highs and lows of life as a cheese seller

“Time, gentlemen (and ladies), please”

I’ve read opinions in this magazine that shops should always be open if there’s a chance of customers being around. That’s fine if one has an adequate supply of trained staff that can be put onto adjusted rotas and thus spread more thinly – the marginal cost of opening for the extra time would then run to little more than electricity for lights, tills and scales. Small shops seldom have that luxury; our world has the constant challenge of scheduling staff to cover core hours around sickness, holidays and other unplanned events. Naturally, should the additional business add proportionately to turnover, then it’s worth looking at increasing headcount, or at least boosting the overtime budget

When I was drawing up the plans for my shop, the consultant with whom I worked, the legendary Juliet Harbutt, was forthright with her views on opening at those times when shoppers would be in short supply. “You’re creating a lifestyle business,” she declared, “so leave yourself some time to have a life!”

Doing my research and looking hard at potential footfall, I realised that the shop would best trade for a core block of hours, seven days a week during the summer season and just three or four days for the balance of the year. January and February (until half-term) offered such a meagre trickle of visitors that we elected to close completely and take the opportunity to take a winter holiday and undertake annual maintenance.

As time passed I learned more about the nuances of timing for my customers, opening a little earlier during the week than my initial plan, so that shoppers could visit and still catch the morning’s first return bus to the housing development at the top of the town’s rather steep hill. I was always ready to adjust hours to fit in with local events. This embodies what a shop like ours is all about – we care about our customers, and as a cheesemonger we’re a part of the agricultural industry – downstream, admittedly, but interdependent with farmers and producers alike. I tried later opening hours to fit in with evening events, but never with any success; it put a strain on staffing and we seldom sold more than a jar or two of chutney.

One element is crucial when deciding on opening times, or making subsequent adjustment to them: communicating them to customers. This is especially important for visitors out of hours. Hopefully, they’ll have peeked through the window and decided that they want to investigate further. They already know where the shop is, so they are primed for conversion. But all too often retailers miss out at this point– shoppers can’t easily find out when the shop will be open.

Here’s a checklist of places where opening hours could and should be communicated: on the door/window, on any answering machine message, on the website, on social media homepages, on Google, Trip Advisor and other listings. This becomes our promise to our customers: we’ll be there for you at these times. Any breach of this promise needs to be carefully considered. As a business owner, I’d always try and fill the breach if staff members were ill and the shop unable to open. Failing that, I’d call a neighbour to put a sign up to explain that today’s closure was unavoidable. I’d also go through the list of places where our opening hours are published and make the necessary adjustment.

Creating an effective compromise with an opening schedule that values our time and our customers’ convenience is a laudable goal. The clear communication of and adherence to it is essential.

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