20 March 1998

Scots farming family find hyperstore just grows andgrows…

It pays to listen to your customers and to keep them informed,

as Tessa Gates discovered when she met a family that is

creating a greater understanding of farming and food

production through its successful enterprise in Aberdeenshire

ITS MIDDAY on a dull February Tuesday and the car park at The Millers is packed, yet this family-run business seems to be in the middle of nowhere.

"People say that, but really we are only 20 minutes from everywhere," says Marion Miller who with her husband Frank runs this enterprise at North Lurg, Midmar, about 18 miles from Aberdeen.

"We do advertise but most of our customers hear about us through word of mouth," says Marion. And the reason they come? "Well as one of our suppliers remarked, you can buy everything from smoked salmon to cement here," she says.

It doesnt take long to discover that you can also enjoy a meal or a coffee and learn a thing or two about food and farming while you are about it. And of course, you can arrange JCB hire, for The Millers has its roots in Miller Plant, Franks first diversification from farming.

&#42 Hill farm

"Franks parents started with a hill farm, then he got a digger and things took off with the start of the oil boom," explains Marion, adding that they still keep pedigree Border Leicesters and a herd of Simmental crosses. "He has been 30 years in plant hire and if anyone had suggested that one day he would be selling food and clothes – well, I dont think he could have imagined it.

"About 10 years ago we sensed things were changing and started selling land drainage pipes and fencing wire… I cant remember how we got into the equestrian side, someone must have asked for it. Then selling feed was a major jump. All sorts come here for it from crofters to people wanting pet food – then someone encouraged us to try clothing. All the changes have been customer-led," says Marion, who seems slightly bemused at how the business – which employs 64 people – has trebled in size in the past six months and is still expanding.

&#42 First names

Initially most of the customers were farmers, and the family were on first name terms with 60% of them. "The farming side is busier and expanding but while we have kept our original customers and kept their credit accounts going, the reasons for people coming here have changed and the percentage we know by name has dropped. A lot of people call in for a cup of coffee now and buy something before they leave," explains Marion.

As their stock has grown and changed, they have had to adapt the building it is housed in. The original Portakabin with its merchandise stacked in boxes is long gone and the replacement agricultural buildings have had to be expanded and adapted. An upstairs showroom was created for equestrian products, quality clothes and gifts, and a new feed store cleared the way for the ground floor food shop and a coffee shop/restaurant.

"We have spent half a million pounds in the past five years. Fortunately we had a good history with the Clydesdale Bank and kept the manager informed about what we were doing although we have never had to produce a formal business plan," explains Marion. As she speaks workmen are busy putting the finishing touches to a new area for gardening tools and supplies, and plans for surfacing the car park – which was created by removing 100,000t of rocks and earth – are afoot.

Integral to the retail food side of the business is the commitment to local produce. The Millers stocks fine foods from Scotland but particularly from the north-east area, and the staff are well versed in explaining where and how the foods were produced. "We firmly believe that the food grown and made in the north-east is first class and we aim to be a shop window for it here," says Marion who wants her customers to buy with confidence. To this end The Millers has opened a food interpretation centre for adults and children.

"I think it is a touch arrogant to presume that the public should know about farming, why should they? For most people the connection between the farm and the food on their plates has been lost. We want to play our part in creating a link between farmer, food producer and consumer," says Marion, who had tremendous support from suppliers for the Food For Thought area.

&#42 Traceability

"We dont intend to ignore issues such as BSE. The general public knows it was to do with feed so we have a section supported by BOCM Pauls to reassure them about traceability."

Information boards and displays of raw materials – including a screw-topped jar of silage with "Smell if you dare" written on it, tell how the meat, dairy products – eggs, cereals and vegetables in the shop are produced and show some of the paperwork involved through a display of ear tags and cattle passports etc. While the boards will stay the same, the other exhibits will be changed according to the seasons. The childrens area has computer games, a farming CD-Rom, a Womens Farming Union educational video and one about an abattoir. "Children might not think they are being educated in here but they are," she says.

The youngest three of her four sons are involved in the business. Ian, 15, is still at school but as the store is open seven days a week, there is always something for him to help with. "He is a people person – he has been serving customers since he was four," says his mother. Allan is a trainee mechanic, and handles machinery with aplomb. Like his dad he is involved on the plant hire side of the business. Richard takes care of the agricultural supplies and the shop and he has been responsible for computerisation and a bar code system for the 17,500 items in stock.

&#42 Special evenings

"The part of the job I find most rewarding is the special evenings we run. We had 56 farmers here to find out how to improve the profitability of the ewe flock, and we were turning people away at the door after we had crammed in 135 people for a horse feed evening at which the three-day eventer, Karen Dixon, was the guest," says Richard, who has more events planned.

The Millers certainly seems to surprise the people who go there. "On the Sunday closest to Burns Night, my sons played the accordion and bagpipes and people were so pleased – one woman said she wanted to dance," says Marilyn, who likes to provide seasonal "treats" for her customers.

"They like the family atmosphere here and remark on how friendly and helpful our staff are. It surprises me that people comment about the staff – surely that should be the norm."

Unfortunately it isnt any more and that could be part of the reason people are prepared to seek out The Millers.

The food shop focuses on local produce from north-east Scotland, explains Marion Miller who has set up the Food for Thought interpretation centre.

Frank Miller and son Allan:Things like drainage pipes and fencing wire were the first commodities they sold. Now The Millers stocks 17,500 items which include equestrian products, clothes, gifts and fine foods.