Why shoppers still crave the human touch during the lockdown

Liz Kemp believes the old-fashioned general store still has a future, provided you are willing to move with the times, writes Deputy Business Editor, Greg Wright.

Liz Kemp

A retail business built around bricks and mortar stores can still prosper in the era of click and collect.

To prove this point, organise a video call with Liz Kemp, the founder of Kemp’s general store in Malton. She believes shoppers will always value the human touch, especially during a crisis.

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Ms Kemp loves to use technology to provide each customer with a clear view of the goods on the shelves in her shop, so they know exactly what they are buying.

Liz Kemp

It’s a modern twist on the ancient art of being a good shopkeeper.

“We still have a personal service to differentiate ourselves from Amazon,’’ she said.

“I do Skype calls with customers so they can actually see the shop. I can pull stuff together on the table in the middle. People like to have somebody different to talk to during the lockdown.”

The coronavirus pandemic has placed appalling strains on many businesses, but Ms Kemp believes it will also make us appreciate the powerful ties forged within our own neighbourhoods.

Last year, she saw a message on social media from a customer who had just had a double hip operation, couldn’t drive and wondered how they could do their Christmas shopping.

She messaged back offering to take the customer on a Skype journey around the store, so she could decide what she wanted.

In the end, around 70 per cent of her shopping was completed in that 30-minute call.

The delighted shopper has since written a post about her experience online, which has generated goodwill for the store on a vast scale.

Kemp’s General Store was founded in 2017 by Ms Kemp, a shopkeeper’s daughter who fell in love with her adopted home town.

She grew up in the small village of Bramham, in West Yorkshire. Her mother and father ran a small shop in the village centre, on what was then the A1.

“I’ve lived in Malton for 20 years and I saw shops beginning to arrive and stay,” said Ms Kemp. “I wanted to provide old-fashioned service in a bricks and mortar shop.”

Above all else, she wanted to create a memorable shopping experience, somewhere people could come in, touch the products and feel welcome.

She said: “People come into Malton for an authentic experience and a lovely day out. I also wanted to show that there was more here than just food.”

Malton is proud of its title as Yorkshire’s food capital. It has become a prized destination for everyone who values quality, locally sourced produce, but it also has a healthy array of other businesses.

“There is a lot of talent (in Malton) and people are willing to help by giving up their time and stepping into a leadership role,” said Ms Kemp.

“One of the joys for me of Malton is that it has still held on to all its banks. My solicitor is only four doors away. Everything you want is here.

“We need to remind people of that. You can get food in local shops without queuing. There is a more secure supply chain locally.”

But bricks and mortar businesses must move with the times, especially when the Government has told people to stay at home.

“We have just got the online operation up and running. We cracked it in two weeks,” said Ms Kemp.

The sales pattern has also reflected customers’ changing habits.

“We’ve been selling jigsaws and books hand over fist,” said Ms Kemp. “People in lockdown are looking for things to do.”

Perhaps nobody should be surprised by Ms Kemp’s dramatic flair. She is an experienced event production specialist who has worked with some of the biggest names in the business.

She graduated from The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in stage management, but her skills have provided a boost for businesses closer to home.

She was bid lead for a £164,000 application to The Big Lottery for a Building Communities Grant which was used to refurbish her local community village hall.

She describes her shop in Malton as “an emporium of beautifully created items”.

She has high hopes for the sister store, Kemps on the Coast in Whitby, which opened in September, but it is a “fragile baby”.

“The lockdown couldn’t have come at a worse time in the journey of developing the business,” she said. “The fact there is no time scale on this is making it hard.”

The shop in Whitby has temporarily closed but Ms Kemp is certain it will be successful in the long term.

“From a cash point of view it is hard,” she said. “We need to be agile and look for other channels of revenue. I can’t sit for three months and not do anything.

“But there is an informal network of support in Malton. I love the fact that we know everybody and we can chew stuff over.”

And what advice would she give to anyone who feels like taking the plunge and setting up their own store?

“You must think about where the gap in the market lies and always consider what the customer actually wants,” she said.

Every decision and strategy must be prefaced with that in mind, Ms Kemp said.

“Small independents really need to differentiate themselves from the mass market sellers,” she added. “We can never compete on price alone.

“At Kemps we do not just offer a trans-national shopping service. We try to offer an interactional shopping experience.”

Ms Kemp offers proof that a personal shopping facility can thrive even during the lockdown, provided you are willing to embrace technology.

Liz Kemp, founder of Kemp’s General Store in Malton, has brought her stage and event management skills to her retail business.

She is an experienced event production specialist and has worked with some of the best-known names in the business.

Over the years,she has worked with organisers of conferences, public events and festivals, in addition to well-known names in the world of theatre, cutting-edge agencies and FTSE 100 companies.

She has also had a stint as chair of governors of her local school, and acted as a business mentor at The Prince’s Trust.

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