Stephen Jempson still cycles to work every morning to the Peasmarsh store (which celebrated its 80th anniversary last year after opening in 1935) from his home in Beckley. Now aged 54, he left school at 17 in 1979 to join his father Harold in the grocery business. Over the last 30 years, this has grown to be one of the largest family-controlled retailers in the UK.
The challenges have been formidable with the industry changing dramatically. In 1978/79, when Stephen started, Tesco was building a new supermarket at Hollington in Hastings, and Budgens opened in Rye in 1988. A disastrous fire at Peasmarsh nearly destroyed the firm of Jempsons in 1997, but bankruptcy was averted and out of the ashes was spawned a new superstore.
Seven or eight years later, Stephen Jempson and his brother Andrew were ready to expand, but every likely site was being snapped up by the big national supermarket chains. Then in 2006 the new owners of Budgens signalled that they were prepared to make room for a local partner in a type of franchise agreement and Jempson’s subsequently purchased Budgens’ three stores in Rye, Battle and Hawkhurst in 2006 and 2007.
Then came the next frustration, with Tesco and Sainsbury both having acquired planning permission for a new supermarket on the Lower School site. At the same time, Jempson’s store extension plans in Rye were blocked by the discovery of a Southern Water main drain under the site and Stephen’s attention turned to acquiring, developing and opening other outlets in the locality at Northiam and Wadhurst in 2014.
Then in March 2014 came the opportunity to assume full control from Budgens, trade as a single entity and as such to resurrect the plans for a store extension from 10,000 to 16,000 sq. ft. With Tesco and Sainsbury withdrawing from major new store building in Rye, the extension plans are able to move forward once more – and the Post Office has been consulting about moving inside the store. It is currently located just around the corner opposite the bus stops and by the bus parking stand.
I asked Stephen Jempson about how he viewed trading in Rye. “It’s always been our ambition to give the same level of service in Rye as we provide at Peasmarsh”, he said. “Since 2014, our pricing structure is the same at both stores and we’re only about 1.5% more than the multiples hypermarkets on a comparable basket analysis. It’s also a fact that, with our policy of purchasing local produce wherever possible (£4 million worth in 2015), the family business’s profits go back into the community, not to foreign shareholders”.
On the car parking issue, and the criticism it aroused, he said : “We had no choice as often our customers were unable to reach the store, because the spaces were taken by all-day parkers, rail commuters and other non-customers.”
Why charge on Sundays, when the store isn’t open? “As a business we have to pay over £100,000 per annum in rates. We have to manage our assets on a business basis”, he said. .
In conclusion, Stephen Jempson stressed his commitment to the local community of which he is part: “The business has prospered largely because of the loyalty of our customers and staff”, he said.