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At the start of the pandemic, independent food shops were forced to adapt to Covid-19 practically overnight. Screens went up, sanitising stations were put by the doors and masks were donned.
Nearly a year in, social distancing and face covering measures are just as important, if not more so. Should retailers be considering making more permanent changes to their shops, and how can they balance safety with in-store innovation?
“For many, they started as quick fixes, and now we’re probably into some fairly fundamental changes. With time, I think that people see the necessity to possibly invest and spend a bit of time thinking about their shops,” explains Edward Berry of consultancy The Flying Fork.
“The problem with the deli and farm shop world and independent food shops is they’re all different. There is no standardisation at all,” he continues. “You’ve got little delis with a few hundred square feet, rammed to the rafters, and then you’ve got the big farm shop with lots of space and open windows and an opportunity to perhaps reduce the number of aisles and add more space.”
This means retailers have to come up with different solutions depending on their circumstances. So far, this has typically taken the form of directional signage, one-way systems and screens, as well as changing opening hours and restricted customer numbers. One village shop event created a video showing other small retailers how to make a traffic light system for their store for just £12.
Katie Westwood, marketing manager at Cobbs Farm Company, which owns several farm shops, says her business invested in floor markers to help with social distancing, as well as screens for the tills and sanitising stations throughout the site. “We have implemented these things since the first lockdown in March 2020, so we were well prepared for lockdown 3, and our customers are used to our procedures now,” she tells Speciality Food.
Additional measures are taken over busier periods, such as manning the doors to manage customer flow, and during the Christmas shopping period the store introduced time slots for collections. In order to reduce the risk of an outbreak, staff also now work in bubbled shifts.
Many shops are also managing collections and deliveries on their premises now due to the rise of online shopping. “When it comes to layout, that’s going to be something that people will think about,” Edward says. Those that are lucky enough to have the space have expanded these operations into other areas of the shop, such as cafés, barns or warehouses. Going forward, although online orders may dip somewhat as Covid-19 measures are relaxed, experts predict that this trend is here to stay, so it’s something that all shops must now consider.
When spending time indoors, the main Covid-19 requirements are wearing masks and making space. While small shops generally have less of an issue encouraging customers to wear masks, space is often at a premium.
Aside from limiting shopper numbers in the store, how can fine food shops manage their customer flow? One innovation Edward spotted recently was a double aisle system. “It’s a bit like fast-tracking people to walk as opposed to meandering, where you have a line of things which are obvious, where you’re not going to spend any time doing any considering. And then if you want to hang around and linger you flip to the other aisle where you have a little bit more of a discovery,” he says.
Other ways to increase customer flow are by closing some areas of the shop or creating ‘grab and go’ sections alongside areas where shoppers have more space to browse. The key is in balancing the Covid-19 requirements with the shopping experience. “Our world is not about getting people in and out as quickly as possible. We like people to browse, and we like to interact. So how do you protect that really important part of our business, whilst at the same time ensuring that sense of space?” Edward asks. “It’s not easy. It’s being a little bit innovative and creative.”
He continues: “The sad thing would be if it resulted in smaller numbers of lines, therefore focusing the customer’s attention on a quicker purchasing exercise. The independent food business is all about range, it’s all about innovation, it’s all about discovery,” Edward says. “It’s not about just fulfilling the needs of a grocery or basket shop because that’s done very well by other people. We are the protectors of the artisan.”
Yet shopper safety is now of utmost importance. “When previously you would encourage a customer to come to your shop because they liked your offer, they liked your staff or they liked your music, the first thing they’re going to do when they look in the door is to see what you’re doing to keep them safe,” Edward says. “And that’s absolutely crucial that we recognise that.”
In the shorter term, this may mean focusing on operational efficiency over “retail theatre” as Edward says, but he is hopeful that this won’t be Covid’s lasting legacy for the fine food sector. “It’s produced a huge amount of innovation,” he says, and with shoppers spending more on food and in local stores, many food retailers have had a positive experience through the pandemic.
It’s impossible to predict when and how Britain will return to any sort of normality, but with the taste for fine, local food growing, there will certainly be a place for speciality food shops in the future retail landscape – whatever that might look like.