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Campaigns urging customers to shop locally over the past year helped assist the evolving changes in consumer habits and played their part in the shift in retail behaviours. As a series of lockdowns swept through the country for most of the past year and confined everyone to the indoors, consumers found themselves relying on their local area to source everything they needed.
Soon after, digital food directories began to appear all over the country in a bid to support local economies and make it easier for customers to find and access local businesses. Help Kent Buy Local, an initiative established just 48 hours into the first national lockdown by Produced in Kent (PinK), was met with such enthusiasm that it rapidly expanded into Sussex and Essex as Buy Local South East.
The benefits of digital local food directories are twofold: not only do they help consumers connect with their local businesses, but they also introduce a level of convenience that was previously unknown. The various options available to consumers on these online platforms, from contactless card payments to click and collect or home delivery, have made it easier than ever for customers to shop locally.
“Without a doubt, digital directories have formed part of a new e-commerce trend that is here to stay,” comments Floortje Hoette, chief executive of Produced in Kent. “Pre-Covid, there were barriers to shopping online. A level of reluctance, perhaps a lack of knowledge surrounding accessibility and functionality. Through increased need and reduced choice of shopping options, these barriers have been removed and now there is a rise in reliance on social media and initiatives like Buy Local South East.”
While these options were very helpful in the context of the pandemic, many retailers fear that they will have changed consumers’ approach to high streets permanently. There are concerns that shoppers will not want to deviate from their new-found shopping patterns and continue to avoid public shopping settings.
Paradoxically, the pandemic might have kept everyone 2m apart, but it also brought local communities closer than ever before. As consumers rediscovered the beauty and abundance of what is on their doorstep this past year, they also realised the value of meaningful connections with their communities. A warm greeting from their local butcher and a conversation with their local baker are uniquely human experiences, and they cannot be replicated online. Such experiences are the key to keeping bricks and mortar retailers in business and thriving.
“Consumers want to support local and sustainable businesses, and we are seeing this across the southeast” comments Jill Sargent, business development manager at Produced in Kent. “Online food directories are here to stay” she continues, “but they are certainly not at the expense of high street shopping. In fact, we believe they go hand in hand, both bringing their own unique advantages, and we encourage retailers, food halls and farm shops to see this as an opportunity to reinvent the high street experience.”
By engaging customers in a way that they cannot experience through a screen, bricks and mortar food retailers have the opportunity to make high streets, shops and restaurants an interesting place to visit again. By reimagining the social aspect of their setting, making sure the space available to consumers offers an immersive experience to complement their offer, they can establish themselves as a place of interest that customers want to visit and shout about online.
Food retailers should ensure a positive and personalised customer experience by delivering excellent service, but also by sharing their expert knowledge. “Consumers are interested in where their food is coming from and who is behind it. By passing on their knowledge, showcasing their brand story and product provenance, retailers show authenticity, which helps forge valuable customer relationships.” says Floortje.
Now is also a good time for food retailers to reassess their target market, as a thorough knowledge of their customers will enable them to best meet their needs. According to research from the High Street Task Force, the towns that cater best to their communities’ needs are expected to recover fastest from the impact of Covid-19.
As life progressively resumes its course, the best way forward for physical stores will be a holistic blended approach that both meets online consumer demand for convenience via digital food directories and offers unique, authentic social experiences.