How farm shops upped their game during Covid-19

02 March 2021, 10:48 AM
  • In an exclusive column for Speciality Food, Jenny Rose, manager of the Farm Retail Association, reflects on the opportunities the pandemic has provided independent retailers
How farm shops upped their game during Covid-19

Challenges are inherent for the farm shop sector. Farm retailers are well attuned to the multitude of challenges that come with operating in the world of commerce. Many of the owners in this industry hail from a farming background and an industry renowned for its volatility, and so being able to adapt and learn quickly is a skill they have picked up along the way.

2020, however, was a different ball game entirely, and together we’ve faced more challenges in the space of 12 months than we ever could have imagined. Thankfully, there have been many positives to come out of Covid-19 for farm shops.

As essential retailers from the start, our members’ businesses have remained open throughout, and have welcomed many new faces through the doors. The challenge now is retaining those new customers, and using this as an opportunity to further demonstrate the benefits of shopping locally rather than defaulting back to supermarkets.

One of the swiftest responses to Covid-19 has come from really upping the game when it comes to e-commerce. Farm shops quickly realised they needed to ensure customers had plenty of choice, and were able to shop with them in a way that made them feel safe, whether in store or online.

New innovations including click and collect, home deliveries and even drive-thru farm shops were implemented overnight. Will these options remain in a post Covid-19 world? Perhaps not to the same scale, after all farm retail is intended to be experiential. Regardless, it’s great to know that the sector has the ability to serve customers better digitally and so farm shops are now more prepared for the future.

A huge part of the farm shop proposition is the café and restaurant side of the business, which of course has been hit hard by Covid-19. For the majority of the past year, the cafés and restaurants have been closed or operating at extremely reduced capacity. It’s been up to the farm shops to really make the retail side of their business boom, as well as exploring other revenue opportunities.

With ‘normal’ shopping outlets closed, many farm shops really upped their proposition in departments such as giftware.

Rupert Evans from Denstone Hall, said: “Sadly, in the first lockdown we had to close the gift department completely, but we quickly managed to list lots of items on our click and collect site which totally exceeded our expectations. Once we were able to reopen, we saw a huge uplift in sales of anything related to wellbeing, craft kits, puzzles, books, gardening tools and seeds, pet accessories and indoor house plants. Basically, anything to keep people occupied! Thankfully with the increased turnover from food and gift we more than made up the shortfall from the café.”

In a year where being outside became the norm, it was fascinating to see families in their droves seek out new experiences. Farm shops with strawberry picking and pumpkin patches simply could not keep up with demand, as parents sought new solutions to keep their children entertained in a situation where ‘go-to’ days out weren’t operating. Again, these businesses adapted quickly to make sure they were a safe option for families – one-way systems, hand washing stations, ticketed time slots – not to mention the plus point of being open air all helped PYO’s run extremely successful seasons in 2020.

At the same time, this success drove yet more customers through farm shop doors to pick up dinner after a happy day spent in the fields! John Sinclair from Craigie’s Farm in Edinburgh said: “We saw demand and excitement like never before when we started our PYO activity back in June. People couldn’t wait to get out in the fresh air of our fields after long months in lockdown. In October, our pumpkin patch was hugely popular, and like other farms across the country, we saw a big demand for it last year as families looked for fun Covid-safe activities to take part in.”

Many farm shops were also able to capitalise on their natural environment, offering high quality take away food and drink in a space that also allowed for socially distanced walks and socialising. Michael Dart of Darts Farm Shop said, “We have never seen as many people wandering around our farm track, admiring the breath-taking estuary views and observing what we are growing in the fields. The pandemic has really changed the way people live their lives; they have gone back to their roots and are enjoying the simpler things.”

Rob Copley, chairman of the Farm Retail Association and owner of Farmer Copleys Farm Shop, said: “It’s been a whirlwind year. The staff have worked incredibly hard, and keeping team motivation up has been a huge part of being able to keep moving forwards positively. Through the Farm Retail Association, we’ve managed to bring businesses together to make sure they do not feel isolated – we’ve been in it together and will come out stronger the other side. I think its safe to say, we’re ready to get back to business as usual!”

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