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Bigton shop adapting to needs of community during Covid-19 crisis

June 18th 2020

The Covid lockdown has forced everyone to acclimatise to new ways of doing things, and you could forgive customers who find the process of pre-ordering from their local convenience shop … well, less than convenient. But at Bigton Community Shop it has been a source of amusement more than anything, according to volunteer Laura Whittall.

A muffled phone line saw an order of a pack of Tuc biscuits mistaken for a block of Stork margarine, while a man she thought was asking for “Shetland pies” was actually after a copy of the local newspaper.

“The telephone system, a lot of people will criticise that,” Laura told us. “But by phoning it in it keeps people connected and you can have a laugh with them. The telephone line has not always been great and you mishear things, but people are able to laugh about it.”

The shop, which opened in 2012, is primarily staffed by volunteers. In addition to taking regular deliveries of fresh food, it provides Post Office and National Lottery services and is a collection point for the Shetland Foodbank.

Helpfully shop manager Caroline Smith is scientifically educated to PHD level, while Laura herself was a hospital ward sister, so they were well primed for the onset of Coronavirus. From early March the team has been scrupulously washing everything people came into contact with to minimise the risk of spreading infection.

“When it became clear lockdown was going to happen we decided we would not have anybody coming into the shop,” Laura said. “It would be a phone-in and we would deliver the errands to folk, or they would come to the back and pick it up.

“To start off with I went in every night and washed the shop, washed everything that was touched by people – phones, pens, scissors, worktops, shelves. People working in the shop have started to gradually take that on board, and it’s been great.”

During lockdown 10 volunteers have helped in the shop while a further 10 have helped by collecting supplies and delivering orders.

She continued: “I was furloughed from Alzheimer’s Scotland, and it has relieved my survivor guilt because Ann [Williamson, local dementia adviser] is still working. By going into the shop I know I’m helping serve people within our communities who have diagnosis of dementia… and helping keep our community going.”

As lockdown begins to ease, plans are afoot to tentatively reopen with a limit on the number of customers allowed in at any one time.

People in the community are eager to resume interacting with one another again, Laura said.

“When the First Minister makes her announcement about smaller businesses, hopefully we can give people a date. The shop will be different in that we’ll probably have to take telephone orders in the morning, and maybe open in the afternoon for a couple of hours.

“Those who are shielding are still going to be shielding, so those that are not able for health reasons will still have that opportunity [for delivery].”

One theme repeatedly cropping up in conversation with Shetland Food & Drink members lately is the importance of small producers and outlets supporting each other to help the local economy get back on its feet again.

Bigton stocks a wealth of local produce from Sandwick, Waas and Voe bakeries, meat from Anderson’s and Scalloway Meat Company, fish from Blydoit and Island Fish, tatties, eggs and Shetland Farm Dairies milk, cream and buttermilk. It also has a range of produce from Scoop Wholefoods, beer from Lerwick Brewery, Shetland Reel Gin’s range and Kirkhoull strawberries when they’re in season.

“We aim to support local producers and source as much of our produce locally where possible,” Laura said. “We’ve been truly grateful for the quality of produce that we’ve had from the local suppliers – it’s fantastic!”

Much of its fresh fruit and veg comes from Knowles and she said people were starting to grasp that the more people buy from their local shop, the fresher it will be. Bigton has now increased the frequency of deliveries to three times a week.

At times the shop has even evaded apparent nationwide shortages of certain goods. Laura’s daughter, who stays in the West End of Glasgow, kept mentioning the lack of pasta and flour in her local area: “I said ‘how much do you want? I can send you pasta, flour, yeast…’”

While some customers will inevitably drift back to supermarkets once more workplaces reopen, Laura is hopeful some consumer habits will be changed permanently by the experience of lockdown.

“A lot of folk have said it’s been so invaluable that they’ve vowed to keep supporting the shop,” she added. Let’s hope so.

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