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With government advice to stop non-essential contact and travel leading the battle to slow the coronavirus spread, retailers are swiftly implementing measures to protect their customers, their staff and their businesses.
Open deli counters are closing, disinfecting of touch points stepped up, opening hours set aside for the vulnerable, gloves for staff and customers supplied and payments confined to cashless. For those with cafes, tables are being moved apart; and websites and social media feeds are buzzing with caring information, regular updates on a continually developing situation, and wonderful opportunities, consequently, for engaging with customers through positive messages of help and empathy, which has seen supportive #HereToHelp and #StaySafe hashtags abound.
Premium frozen food specialists, field fare, supply loose frozen produce, bakery items and ready meals to over 370 retailers across the UK. Says MD Karen Dean, “Our stockists are all local independents, predominantly farm shops; and are particularly rooted in their communities. With supermarket supplies overrun and travel discouraged, they have never had a more important role. And most would say that they welcome the opportunity to actively contribute to their community and to support their customers through this difficult time.”
“The result, when we come out the other side,” she continues “can only be a strengthened customer loyalty, but many are also reporting that the positivity of belonging, giving back and thanking their community is an unexpected plus side to all the worry.”
Most of her stockists are rushing to set up online ordering and click and collect or home delivery services, then. Generally with the caveats of a minimum spend, maximum delivery distance; and the offer of collection from carparks, deliveries left at doors or of not unloading groceries, to maintain that critical ‘social distancing’.
Some are going a step further. Darts in Exeter are offering free delivery to the over 70s and vulnerable, for example. Both Strawberry Farm in Devon and Kenyon Hall in Warrington have not only put most of their stock online, but their cafes too, with the former offering a takeaway Roast of the Day and even promising to try and source any products that are missing from their stock.
Producers too are adjusting their focus to ecommerce. Kentish confectioners Fudge Kitchen have closed their Canterbury shop to turn it entirely over to producing fudge for online sales. “In this time of uncertainty, I want our customers to know that they can still rely on us,” said MD, Sian Holt, “and to take comfort from the fact that in an artisan kitchen in Kent, at least, it’s business as usual. Practically speaking, we are planning for a potential lockdown and anticipating growth,” she continues. “Our online sales are already up 14% this month and set on an upward trajectory”. Their next contingency plan will be to train up staff from their Aylesham production facility, where their wholesale ranges are produced, to help meet this demand.
For those who are losing their regular customers to the situation, however, a complete refocusing may be required for the duration. East Grinstead based meat wholesalers, CMB Foods, usually supply restaurants, hospitals, schools and hotels around the South East; so have watched their business drop off by 50% each week in March, with the schools closure finally forcing a rethink.
One post on their facebook page, offering meat deliveries direct to homes within a 10-mile radius, elicited an immediate response and supportive sharing across social media; not least from customers and schools that they usually supply, all eager to help the resourceful company.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” said business development manager, Richard Loader (notably from the wheel of a delivery van). “We are a small family business, so any assistance that people can give to soften the blow is amazing. We started as a local butcher 40 years ago, so this is a return to our roots.” He admits that there is a huge feelgood factor to supporting and being back in the heart of their community, and with home deliveries outstripping current logistics within days, CMD Foods has already had to offer a click & collect service from their factory.
One of the key lessons to be learned here is not to underestimate the good will and desire to support small and local businesses that is out there. Nor, with a nation glued to their phones, eager for the social contact that is denied in reality, and to help each other with relevant news, the particular power of social media. Word of mouth has become word of WhatsApp.