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In spite of the challenges heaped on the retail sector from the Covid-19 pandemic, many fine food shops ended 2020 on a high as demand for food surged.
In fact, UK supermarkets welcomed record spending of nearly £12bn on food and drink in December – the biggest month ever for grocery sales, according to Kantar. It came as restaurants, bars and cafés were forced to close their doors due to tighter coronavirus restrictions. And 2021 has been off to an equally busy start as a crackdown on Covid-19 across the nation led to rising demand for online food deliveries.
But what did Britain’s independent retailers make of 2020? We spoke to four fine food shops to learn their main takeaways from a year unlike any other.
Many farm shops and delis trialled new business ideas in 2020 as Covid-19 turned the retail sector on its head. Emma Mosey of Minskip Farm Shop in York did her fair share of experimentation throughout the pandemic – for instance, during lockdown when the shop’s café was forced to close, she boosted the retail offering in response to high demand by expanding the farm shop into the café space and doubling the size of the shop’s car park.
But Emma stressed the importance of checking whether your new ideas make financial sense before going full steam ahead, and altering your plans where necessary. “We’ve adapted, but we’ve only continued with something if it’s actually making us money,” she says.
Cobbs Farm Shops, which operates across four sites in the southwest, also tried new ideas in 2020 that proved to be successful. “We launched a Friday night takeaway service, which has been really popular,” says Katie Westwood, marketing manager. “We wanted to give customers a night off from cooking at home! We continued running the service due to its popularity and are re-launching it again January 2021 with a bigger menu.”
Online shopping saw a significant surge in 2020. Savvy independents boosted their digital offering as soon as the first lockdown hit, and for many shops it proved to be a vital service for customers who were shielding or self-isolating.
“Our online store may have been live for several years, but 2020 saw unprecedented demand,” says Will Docker, founder of Fife-based farm shop Balgove Larder. “We added many new items across our categories of larder, fruit and vegetables, dairy and deli, ready meals, butcher counter and bakery so that people could shop for their weekly essentials online.”
And at a time when major supermarkets were struggling to meet the demand for home delivery, Will says his shop made key inroads. “Where we really shone was the speed of delivery – while the multiples were giving delivery slots in several weeks’ time we were delivering locally the same day and nationally next day,” he explained.
Cobbs Farm Shops also introduced new digital services for its customers – something it plans to expand upon in 2021.
“During the first lockdown in March 2020, we launched an online click-and-collect service for meat and veg boxes – a completely contactless service for anyone shielding. We had time slots and click-and-collect areas in our car parks where customers could come and pick up their boxes without entering the farm shop.”
When demand for click and collect fell, Cobbs quickly adapted with a call-and-collect option for those who were still shielding. “We are hoping to offer an online shopping option for our customers in the future,” Katie added.
While managing footfall is key during Covid times, Katie says Cobbs learned a lot from its new Christmas collection time slots – pandemic or not. “We were expecting to be busy, particularly on our Christmas meat collection dates, but we introduced a time-slot collection and it worked well for us.
“It helped us manage the footfall through the shop, reducing the amount of customers in the shop at one time and the queue times at the tills,” she says. “It is something we will continue in the future,” she says.
Farm shops and food halls have always been champions of local producers, but in 2020 this was a key to their success as supply chains were disrupted by the pandemic.
“The importance of a single-link supply chain was reinforced during the past year,” Will says. “We did not run out of stock as we literally have fields full of it, and this year we will continue to work on our home-grown and reared offerings and our partnerships with local producers and farmers for good, local food for our customers.”
Katie agrees, explaining that smaller local suppliers went above and beyond to ensure Cobbs’ shops were always in stock.
Fine food shops provided an important service to their local communities in 2020 – not only did they offer great food, but they also were a place where customers could treat themselves to something special, as well as a friendly chat.
“We are extremely grateful for all the hard work our staff put in to keep our farm shops open and proud that we have been able to provide an essential service to our local community throughout this difficult year,” Katie says. “We’ve noticed how important shopping and supporting local has become to our local community too and it’s a really nice feeling,” she adds.
Those shops that prioritised their community also received support back from locals. Chef Charlie Hodson opened Hodson & Co Cheese Room in May 2020 even as the pandemic raged on. Three months later he was diagnosed with bowel cancer, but he says the support he’s received from his community across Norfolk has been a huge help through the challenging times.
“Both myself and Hodson & Co have gone from strength to strength, and we are so thankful for all the support that has come from our local community of Aylsham,” he says. Community is central to Charlie’s business ethos. “Prior to the Hodson & Co team taking up residence, the shop has had several other inhabitants, most notably being run over 20 years ago by Geoff Harvey and his wife as a bakery and deli,” he explains.
“They were well-respected and loved because the shop was about the folk who shopped within. It was a shop that had its community at its core, and as we are all learning through these times, community is the absolute key to success.” Looking ahead to this year, he plans to expand his network even further with a mobile cheese service “taking our community values, and most importantly our cheeses, to other villages and towns.”
2020 was a challenging year for fine food retailers, and 2021 has already offered up more surprises. However, for the shops that are prepared to take what they learned over 2020 into the year ahead, there are plenty of fresh opportunities.