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During the pandemic, farm retailers have seen an 89% increase in sales, and 64% of farm shops expect sales to increase further in 2022.
Considering that there are an estimated 1,581 farm retailers across the country, these figures demonstrate the important role that farm shops play in the British economy today.
The study is the first of its kind into farm retail and was funded by the Farm Retail Association (FRA), which revealed the results at its annual conference this week.
New FRA chairman Rupert Evans explained: “This was the biggest research project that the FRA has ever undertaken and the results show the vital part that farm retailers play in the community as well as on a national scale. Collectively we are generating more than £1.4 billion in sales which is absolutely staggering and a testament to the passion and integrity of farm retailers.
Tom Newey, CEO of Cobbs Farm Co. Ltd commented: “It’s fantastic to finally see some firm numbers of what our sector contributes to the national and more local economies. As a group we were fortunate to see like for like retail sales grow over 40% during the pandemic.”
Why have farm shops become so successful?
Further research from the study revealed that customers are increasingly seeking higher quality products and excellent customer service and this is why they are attracted to community farm shops.
Alastair Boot, senior lecturer in food retail and marketing commented: “[This survey] establishes the growth of the sector and its enormous value to local economies. It is clear that farm shops offer a different experience to high street shopping through the quality of their produce and their standard of service - and that this difference is increasingly appreciated by customers”.
Moreover, nationwide lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 allowed consumers to try new food products at home instead of dining out. And with top-quality local produce, exciting artisanal products, and idyllic farm settings, it’s easy to understand why consumers rushed to visit their community farm shops during the pandemic.
Rupert Evans continued: “We knew anecdotally that consumers are preferring to shop and support local more than ever before and this data confirms just that. The trust was built up through the pandemic as farm retailers could adapt quickly to introduce Covid safe measures and people felt safer shopping in smaller environments as opposed to large supermarkets. We think the pandemic will have changed shopping habits for many and will be here to stay.”
Tom Newey agreed: “With our restaurants closed, it did allow us to put all our focus into delivering a safe environment for staff and a safe shopping experience for customers, with exceptional produce and customer service continuing to be our strength.
“With the uplift in sales, we also saw many new faces through the doors and most encouraging is what seems to have been our ability to retain them now things are improving. This year is already presenting a whole new load of challenges, with inflationary pressures being the obvious one, but the last 2 years will have given most some breathing space to weather this particular storm.”
Deli’s show a different side of the story
However, the growth seen by the UK’s farm shop sector hasn’t been replicated across the board. Mark Kacary, managing director at Norfolk Deli, explained: “Businesses like ours saw a significant increase in some areas. For example, for us, we had one of our best years ever in 2020 with online taking up the slack or the loss of footfall. However, has this been maintained? No, and we never expected it to.
“Whilst sales grew during the pandemic as a result of supermarkets being unable to deliver everything it gave people the chance to try out new places. We always knew that many people would go back (if not 100% to their old routines) but far more so than many people were bullishly predicting.”
Part of this difference may be due to the fact that while the public can just pop into a high-street deli to have a look around without buying, farm shops are destination retailers so customers have to travel there and will only be going with the intent to purchase.
As Mark Kacary explains, “It is all about ‘location, location location’ and it is likely that the delis which share the high streets with supermarkets may have seen a fall in the level of interest they had seen during Covid as people started falling back into their old ways. The emphasis on supermarkets being viewed as almost the only way to buy food was highlighted when independent shops rarely if ever got a mention by government ministers during the lockdown and it was all about supermarkets.”