30 July 2020, 08:57 AM
  • Many independents are recognising the opportunity offered by direct-to-consumer business models because of Covid-19
How farm shops can cash in on the meal box delivery trend

The coronavirus pandemic caused a conundrum for many consumers: although they needed to make more meals at home, many were also fearful or unable to shop through their regular channels.

This dilemma led many shoppers to search for a new way to buy food during the lockdown, with direct-to-consumer meal kits becoming a clear winner, according to a report by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).

As consumers sought out ways to simplify mealtime, existing meal kit operators such as Hello Fresh and Gousto saw their customer bases soar – Hello Fresh had to increase the workforce in its UK factory by 50%, and Gousto was forced to stop taking new customers in March as demand skyrocketed.

But they’re not the only ones benefiting from the trend – many bricks and mortar farmers, processors and retailers have innovated and collaborated to find new routes to customers alongside their traditional operations.

At the height of lockdown in March, independent butcher HG Walter collaborated with high-end burger restaurant Patty & Bun to produce a DIY burger kit, priced at £25 for four burgers, including buns, salad and relishes.

Catering butcher Fairfax Meadow managed to switch to a consumer-facing business model in less than a week, offering delivery of meat products ranging from restaurant-quality dry-aged beef chicken breast fillets, plus packs of pork loin steaks and back bacon. The catering supplier Direct Meats in Essex also converted to supplying both meat boxes and pantry basics such as bread and milk to consumers.

Elsewhere, the popular cheese club Homage2Fromage took advantage of the curated box trend by quickly launching an interactive cheese box with a blind taste testing experience delivered straight to customers’ doors.

With pubs and restaurants closed in the lockdown, Huson Farm in Hawarden, Flintshire, diverted these supplies to their shop and veg box scheme, leading to a 500% increase in sales.

Interest in meat boxes as measured by Google trends has softened since its peak in March, but it is still three times higher than before lockdown. A survey by HIM in May also found that 54% of consumers would be interested in purchasing direct-to-consumer products from wholesalers. However only 26% were aware that wholesalers had begun selling directly to consumers.

Going forward, consumers will have to keep limiting contact where possible, meaning that online channels will likely continue to thrive. Indepdendents have their work cut out for them as they compete with online supermarkets, as well as the likes of Amazon, which is moving ahead with a hefty rollout of its UK online grocery service Amazon Fresh by the end of the year. Currently, Amazon Fresh is only available in and around London, but the company is seeking to take a slice of the growing market.

This, plus increasingly strained finances among shoppers, will require independents to demonstrate their added value and time saving credentials or offer more budget-friendly boxes to find success.

AHDB offers support to farmers or suppliers who may be interested in exploring direct-to-consumer routes to market.