VOLUNTEERS and staff at a village store have had to adapt to changing times during the pandemic.

Fittleworth lost its grocery store and Post Office in 2011, prompting a community campaign to bring back services to the Sussex village.

After meeting in 2016, a new shop opened in 2018, and its importance to villagers has been shown in the support it received.

It has been described as a “lifeline” by customers, with one person telling staff: “We would truly have been lost without you.”

But manager Alison Welterveden said the past year of lockdowns has proved tough.

She said: “The past 12 months have been a roller coaster for us, having to constantly adapt to many new challenges.

“As the pandemic has evolved we have needed to think differently about the way we operate to ensure that we continue to meet the needs of our local community.

“Although we are a relatively new business, we quickly became a central hub within our village.

“This role has become ever more important during the coronavirus crisis with many villagers referring to us as a lifeline.”

She said they were worried about what the closure of the popular village cafe would mean for money coming in.

But she says shop sales have gone through the roof. There is a new click and collect service for customers, and also a new layout inside the shop to ensure easier social distancing.

Fittleworth Stores also runs a foodbank to help those most hard-up in the area, providing emergency provisions within hours of a referral.

Alison said: “We have been fortunate in that our shop sales have helped to compensate for the loss of income from the café- at times last year sales averaged £50,000 per month in the shop which is staggering given we operate from such a tiny building.”

Now everyone in Fittleworth is hoping that as lockdown measures ease over the next few months, exciting new plans for expansion can go ahead.

The chairman of the committee in charge Mick Foote said: “The shop has been doing fantastically well and has surpassed all expectations.

“We are very excited about our plans to extend our café and look forward to continuing to expand the business further.”

The store was previously a winner of Village Store of the Year in the Farm Shop and Deli Awards in 2020.

Alison said: “We feel very confident about our future. Our original business plan when we first set up the shop assumed a turnover for the previous financial year of between £260,000 to £295,000.

“Our actual turnover was £510,000.

“We are even planning an extension to our café which we have just submitted a planning application for.

“We have a post office too. Although we now have a very formalised home delivery and click and collect service we have always delivered groceries on a more informal basis to residents who have been unable to get to us and we will continue to do this.”

The store can get pharmacy prescriptions delivered there for customers to pick up, and is a part of parish council and church activities.

Another key scheme is supporting the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, allowing teenagers in the area to work in the shop as volunteers.

Alison said: “Volunteering not only helps to reduce social isolation but also brings together people of all ages: we have had volunteers from as young as 14 to those in their 80s all working side by side in non-Covid times.

“Youngsters have learned valuable workplace skills, and many of our customers have enjoyed getting to know our teenage employees over the years and our teenagers have been able to support our elderly.”