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If Anya Clayton seems a touch weary when we speak, it’s hardly surprising. The day before, Anya hosted an art-and-wine afternoon at Rassasy, her deli and farm shop in Ferring, West Sussex – and the event took on a life of its own.
It was just one of the many diversification experiments Anya has trialled since opening Rassasy in 2019, and it proved another roaring success. “We had eight people in the shop, painting, drinking wine and chatting,” she says. “They were having such fun they stayed three hours longer than planned. I had to chuck them out in the end! When you see people so happy and engaged, you know you’re doing something really worthwhile in your community.”
And such initiatives aren’t just great for local people – it turns out, they can be spectacularly good for business, too. A renewed appreciation of local shopping, with growing numbers embracing the independent food shops in the towns and villages where they live, is a trend that was supercharged by the Covid pandemic.
Over the past two years, delis, farm shops and food halls across the country have found creative new ways to serve their communities through hard times, won over loyal customers as a result and seen their businesses prosper. And now the pandemic is (fingers crossed) on the wane, evidence is mounting that the localism trend isn’t stopping any time soon.
A 2021 Barclaycard report found that nearly two-thirds of consumers in the UK chose to buy closer to home in the previous year, with more than nine in ten saying they would continue to do so post-pandemic.
And brand new research from the Farm Retail Association paints an equally rosy picture. The research found that 89% of farm shops report an increase in sales since 2019, and 64% expect sales to increase further in 2022.
“We knew anecdotally that consumers are preferring to shop and support local more than ever before and this data confirms just that,’ says FRA chairman Rupert Evans. “We think the pandemic will have changed shopping habits for many and will be here to stay.”
Reasons to be cheerful for independent retailers, for sure. But how best to keep the positive momentum going? We explore six ways you can ride the localism wave.
1 Make your shop the heart of the community
According to Anya, you need to work hard to maintain a positive relationship with your community the pandemic recedes. And she knows a thing or two about getting it right – despite such a recent opening, Guardian readers last year voted Rassasy one of the UK’s Top 10 farm shops.
“When we opened in November 2019, it quickly became obvious that this was something the community had been crying out for,” says Anya. “The community was quite disjointed - people getting on with their lives alongside each other, rather than together. People left the village to do their shopping at big supermarkets, and there was a void where the heart of the community should have been.
“At the beginning, we provided a novelty element. But when Covid hit, the shop became essential to the community almost overnight. We were inundated by people wanting to help, and became known as the ‘war office’. And it turned us into a really strong community.
“Working from home can be very isolating, and during lockdown some people just came to the shop to chat. Since things have opened up, some have melted away. But many have stuck around as regular customers – people who might once have just done a big supermarket shop have realised what Rassasy has to offer and keep coming back for more.”
But maintaining such loyalty means a determined effort to stay connected to all things local. Anya has thrown herself into local activities like a Halloween ‘Scarecrow Trail’ that raised £700 for charity. When the Ferring Christmas lights were turned on, she was on hand with a pop up serving mulled wine and soup, and this year she’s planning a mini music festival to celebrate the Queen’s jubilee.
Covid may have put your shop at the heart of community. But to stay there, you need to continue proving your community creds.
2 Embrace online
Much as consumers have fallen back in love with visiting their friendly local store, they’ve embraced the convenience offered by online shopping, too.
Many adopting the online habit during lockdown, and research from Attest indicates that the UK will continue to balance online and physical shopping post-pandemic, with 50% of those surveyed say they ‘mostly’ or ‘always’ shop online.
Embracing online can be daunting. But Heather Parry, MD of award-winning Harrogate farm shop Fodder, urges bravery. “At first, the pandemic was a challenge - we had to adapt very quickly,’ she says. ‘And somehow, we managed to pull an online offering together within 48 hours. We’d never done it before, but people were ringing in desperation, saying they couldn’t leave home, or get a supermarket slot. We had to work together to get food to people who needed it.
“At first, it was pretty scrappy – we stuck to a five-mile radius of Harrogate and were driving deliveries around in our own cars. But our staff were amazing, and the customers appreciated it hugely. What we gained was customer loyalty and a community that came together.
“The pandemic kickstarted our online journey, too. From scrappy beginnings, our local online offering began to take shape, and now we plan to launch nationwide in April.”
Online shopping has grown in popularity within the context of local shopping, too. Staple purchases like bread and milk are being delivered straight to doorsteps, with a variety of sustainable and ethical choices available online.
Box schemes are also growing, with companies such as Oddbox working with local farmers to combat food waste by delivering fresh produce to the customers’ door. Anya Clayton was also quick to embrace home deliveries for her Rassasy customers, offering a range of deli boxes that can be either picked up or delivered locally.
Consumers have grown used to the convenience of online and home deliveries – and independents will benefit adapting to customer expectations if they plan to ride the localism wave.
3 Shout about your green credentials
Localism taps into the wider UK trend towards conscious consumerism – according to a Retail Economics study, the sustainable consumption and production of food has become a critical issue for consumers, influencing their choice of where to shop.
The study found that over half (53%) of all UK consumers now take environmental credentials and ethical sourcing into consideration when food shopping. This is excellent news for independents, which are perfectly positioned to tell a compelling story about provenance and environmental credentials.
Drilling down into the research provides even more reasons to be cheerful. According to the Retail Economics study, the most important sustainability issues for grocery shoppers are reducing plastic, food waste and animal welfare – all areas most independents can really shout about.
“At the beginning of the pandemic people who’d never normally visit a farm shop started coming to Fodder because they couldn’t get a slot in the supermarket,” says Heather Parry. “Lots of those people have stuck with us. And being around a farm shop has fuelled their interest in food and the environment. We’re definitely seeing a growth of interest in the quality, provenance and environmental credentials of food.”
For Anya Clayton, many of her Rassasy customers are on a journey in terms of learning about the provenance of their food - and she’s more than happy to be their guide.
“I constantly talk to people about the food they’re buying, and it’s the implications for the planet,’ she says. ‘You have to be diplomatic when talking about these issues, but they are conversations we need to have. People are genuinely interested, so they appreciate it. Knowledge is empowering.”
Whatever green creds you have, it will pay to shout about them loudly if you want to ride the localism wave.
4 Reframe the narrative
One barrier to customers – and a huge one during a full-blown cost-of-living crisis – is the common perception that independents are more expensive than the big grocers. But that’s often not the case.
Reframing the price narrative is likely to become increasingly important in the coming months and years.
“Lots of our Fodder customers tell us that shopping here saves them money,” says Heather Parry. “Take eggs, for example. ‘We sell a dozen free-range eggs from Ian up the road, for £1.10. At the supermarket, they’d cost £1.60. All that packaging, transport and branding costs a lot of money.
“Right from the beginning, our target market has been normal people – hard-working families for whom cost is a major consideration. Our aim is to provide quality food to those people at prices they can afford.
“We know we have a great story to tell – the quality of the food, the benefits of shopping locally, the experience of shopping in a place where the staff will remember not just your name, but your dog’s name too! And we let them know that they can have all that at prices that are doable for ordinary people.”
To ride the wave of localism, the message that independents can be just as affordable as supermarkets needs to be broadcast loud and clear.
5 Get creative with new products
The localism trend has opened opportunities for lots of creative thinking around new products within your local community.
The desire to shop sustainably means consumers are not afraid of abandoning brands which do not meet their expectations – so reaching out to local foodie contacts and innovating around new products can be a win-win.
At Fodder, 85% of the produce on sale is sourced in Yorkshire, and that’s the store’s USP. But when Heather noticed that customers could buy pretty much everything to whip up a delicious pasta dish, apart from the pasta itself, she reached out to the local farming community.
The result? The Yorkshire Pasta Company, an artisan pasta company launched in 2019, is now proudly displayed on Fodder’s shelves. “The demand for locally sourced products has rippled out and started new businesses, which provides us with new products to shout about,” says Heather.
This kind of thinking becomes a virtuous circle, feeding a healthy local ecosystem to help you ride the localism wave.
6 Make your place a destination
For those with the space to do it, turning your place into a destination for more than shopping is a must.
One of Anya Clayton’s most successful initiatives has been opening up The Snug, a micro pub in had once been a living room at the back of the shop. “The Snug looks out on the shop acts as a kind of shop window celebrating our range,” she says. “It’s brilliant – a completely different vibe to a normal pub, where women feel just as comfortable to meet up for drink as men. We have a bunch of regulars who come in every day. Firm groups of friends have emerged - it’s been a huge success.”
Fodder, meanwhile, has a popular café showcasing the food sold in the farm shop and an Airstream caravan selling food and drinks outside. “We’ve capitalised on the fact that we’re on a dog walking trail, so we get a lot of passing business from dog walkers – we set up an old Airstream outside and people stop by for coffees, snacks and lunches.”
For Anya and Heather, such innovations have provided more reasons for local people to come to their shops – great for the customers and brilliant for business, too.
There may not be a lot of good news around, but the rise of localism definitely provides a reason to be cheerful for independents and specialist food shops. If you adapt and ride the wave like Anya and Heather, that is.