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Farm shops, greengrocers and independent food halls were the heroes of lockdown for many communities. Consumers who were on the hunt for a safe place to shop with during the peak of the coronavirus crisis were drawn to their local speciality food shop, but now, as restrictions ease, the challenge for these retailers will be holding on to their new customers.
Ceri Ritchie, head of food & drink at SAC Consulting, part of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), says that staying relevant and embracing developing market trends will be the key to success.
“The cynics say that the majority of customers will just revert to type and move back to their traditional mainstream UK grocery multiple buying habits – and many probably will,” Ceri says. “But research by various organisations suggests that they will share their shopping basket over a number of outlets.”
So how can small businesses ensure that they’re staying at the front of their customers’ minds? Ceri suggests that new trends are emerging as the lockdown eases, and local retailers should “think laterally” about how to package and promote their range and offers to make the most of these opportunities.
New consumer trends include socialising at home, holidaying in rural places and healthy eating, as well as an appreciation for local produce. Ceri says that shops can benefit by focusing on their “local story”: “Socialising is largely happening at home with barbecues, parties and picnics and the great British staycation is a major opportunity – and not just for the summer season. Businesses need to emphasise their community role, their place in the locality, their local story or to link to local traditions, heritage celebrations, landmarks and activities.
“Can you provide the ‘walkers’ picnic, the ‘munro baggers’ lunch or the ‘beach brunch’?” Ceri asks. Alternatively, with many still working from home, how can you business cater to easy-cook food and healthy snacks? For those returning to work, healthy pre-packed options will also be sought after.
Value for money will also be an important issue for shoppers going forwards. “Your offer needs to match your customers’ perceived needs and aspirations, and to help them to achieve a safe, fulfilling experience both out shopping and when they are cooking, eating or drinking at home.”
Still, there will be an increased focus on locally sourced, meat-free and plant-based meals due to health and environmental concerns, and this gives shops the chance to tell the story behind their products, Ceri says.
The road ahead won’t necessarily be easy or straightforward, so above all shops should continue to listen to their customers to understand the changes in behaviour that will influence their shopping habits. “It’s more important than ever to keep close to your customers, take the opportunity to speak to them and gather feedback to understand what influences their buying behaviour and make your business and your product offering relevant. Undertake research of your customers and, if possible, take advantage of available research provision.”
Independent shops have the advantage of being able to pivot quickly to new changes in consumer behaviour, and Ceri says they should learn from the past as they look to the future. “Local food and drink businesses were the heroes of lockdown and have the opportunity to continue be the heart of their community.”
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