Karen Deans reflects on the growth of the farm shop and its opportunities in garden centre establishments
The good news for independent retailers is that the climate has rarely been so welcoming, with so many consumer trends to capitalise on and associate opportunities for market differentiation. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the particularly fad-led food and drink sector.
Consumers are looking beyond a mere purchase. They are looking for a personal, local experience and for provenance of product. We only source from a small number of specialist producers, many family run for generations; because, as the world continues to revolve around anonymous clicking, connecting with real producers and products, with endearing backstories and traceable ingredients, is increasingly important.
This throws up some exciting opportunities for getting proactive and interacting with your customers, your suppliers and establishing your shop as part of that trusted chain of authenticity.
Consumer demand for traceability firstly means that shoppers are waking up to supporting local retailers and producers. Hostility and cynicism towards the faceless supermarkets is growing in response, while the increasing interest in authentic, quality products completes a powerful trio of market factors that play to all the potential strengths of garden centre food halls.
Access to local producers and unique specialist products, for one, brings with it great potential in ‘meet your maker’ samplings and demos. It also offers a chance to directly engage with your customers, turn a purchase into an experience, underline the provenance of your products, flag up your support of local artisans and embed yourself positively in the community on which you depend. An all round winner, compounded by the social media and marketing opportunities attached to such events, from both your side and that of the small producer.
Mobilise your email-ers and social media platforms further, to spotlight a local producer or product, perhaps. Capitalise on being able to put a face and specific geography to a pot of honey, for example. It creates a dialogue with your shopping community, develops that all important brand personality and develops customer loyalty, trust and goodwill along the way.
Local also means minimal food miles, another increasingly important factor in decision making, by an infinitely more informed and accountable consumer. The quest for zero waste will only continue to gain traction, which again offers great differentiating opportunities for independents to target the eco-shopper, while coming out of it with your own glowing green credentials.
The war on plastic has only just started, so be a part of the #zerowaste conversation. Show your customers that you are responsible, caring, and provide another robust reason for them to return. That could be in your choice of products, informed by their packaging and ethical credentials, by your policies on plastic bags or sustainable vehicles, or through your own in store initiatives that turn you into a destination shop.
field fare, for example, began selling premium frozen food in a loose format 40 years ago, long before zero waste had acquired that hashtag.
Customers scoop as much as they need of fruit, veg, baked and fish goods into recyclable bags, soon to be replaced with biodegradable ones. Building on this, we are now actively encouraging our stockists to facilitate their customers bringing their
own re-useable bags and containers each time they shop, immediately encouraging return trade, and offering a unique, progressive service, potentially unavailable elsewhere, as well as that little old thing of helping to save our planet!
Frozen food has, of course, immediate eco-credentials. Precise volumes and minimal perishability vastly reduces food waste. Year round seasonality reduces hugely damaging air miles. And bulk transportation, in minimal packaging, further limits logistics impact. That alone is something to shout to your customers.
The other hugely impactful development in the food and drink sector is the rise and rise of Free From. Whether its gluten-free, vegan, flexi-vegan, dairy-free, clean eating or paleo, one in four Brits currently admit to avoiding certain ingredients, according to Mintel; as a lifestyle, rather than a medical choice. Organic too, is not going to go away, if those health and wellness trailblazers, the Scandinavians, are to be believed. Organic Denmark has just released the astonishing figure of a 13.3% market share for organic for all food & drink sales in the country.
Similarly impressive, the UK Free From market grew by more than 40% last year, with the fastest growth predicted in the next three to five years, and it is one that field fare simply could not ignore, not least as a route to the golden, 18 – 35 millenials age group, who are leading the charge here.
With demand comes competition, however, and our gluten free and vegan ready meal lines had to be of equal quality to mainstream products to meet this growing consumer expectation. There are some incredible producers out there, we discovered, recognizing this development and creating exceptional, innovative, undiscernibly Free From products in response. Targeted industry awards are also springing up commensurately, which all suggests that this is a category that is here to stay for some time. A whole new language is evolving around them, in fact ‘plant-based’ over dairy-free, for example. It is a language that promotes what they do offer, rather than what they are missing.
Promoting what you offer is an obvious point to make. You may be stocking a portfolio of product choices that covers every conceivable foodie zeitgeist, potentially expanding your customer base, future-proofing your brand, encouraging customer loyalty and saving the planet, but if they don’t know it, you needn’t have bothered. Again, there is a wealth of opportunities open specifically to the independent that can help build your customer community and establish yourself as not just a retailer, but as a resource.
Some of the most successful ideas from our stockists include cross selling through signage, to direct and inspire an increasingly experimental consumer with suggestions of other complementary products. Some of our farm shops and butchers, for example, have recognised that their customers tend to mix and match a shop across frozen, fresh produce and artisan products; and place ‘Why not Try” messages at the meat counter, directing customers to our freezers of roast potatoes. Or place artisan relishes alongside cheeses with serving suggestions, for example.
Equally, for our garden centres with cafes, including our products in their menus and advertising the fact that they are available in store in our branded freezers, has had an impressive impact on sales, because nothing sells like actually trying the product.
These are exciting times for local independents. And while the mults scurry around, engineering pseudo producer sources, developing small sub-brands to stealthily ingratiate their way into a local community and gearing their advertising to interacting and personalising the customer, notably Tesco’s “Food Love Stories” and Sainsbury’s “Food Dancing” campaigns, it is time to celebrate the fact that these are your defining, authentic qualities and work them.