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Local fine food shops were a lifeline to many communities during the pandemic, offering reliable supply chains with local producers, safe environments for shopping and a place where isolated community members could speak to a friendly face (behind a mask, of course).
Despite the challenges Covid-19 has caused for the food and drink sector overall, new research reveals there has been a rise in openings of independent shops, grocery stores, bakeries and delis since the pandemic began.
A survey conducted by Local Data Company found that between March 2020 and May 2021, there was an 11.6% rise in openings of local food shops and delicatessens, with the greatest proportion of new shops in the West Midlands, Yorkshire, Wales and the North East.
In London alone, 796 independent food shops opened during the same period, a rise of 4.2% versus the year before. Across the UK, there was a 7.3% rise in fishmongers, a 9.3% growth in grocers, a 2.2% increase in delicatessens, and a 5.1% rise in halal butchers.
“Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, consumers have really connected with their local retailers, as provenance, community and quality came more into focus,” said Sarah Phillips, senior manager at the Local Data Company. “The increase in independent food shops is a positive step for UK high streets, creating unique shopping experiences and opportunities for foodie entrepreneurs to open stores offering amazing quality food and drink, tailored to their local area.”
The pandemic sparked a revival in the local shopping trend, but what’s next for indie retailers as the easing of lockdown restrictions continues? Andy Harris, founder of Ealing Grocer, admits that opening a small, independent grocery shop during lockdown was “extremely risky” – but after seeing how much people were enjoying shopping locally during lockdown, he was convinced of his decision. “Ealing Grocer was born – selling all sorts of things from Amalfi lemons to Hedone bread, Neal’s Yard cheeses and a glut of beautiful fresh vegetables and fruit, and we are thriving.”
A recent survey from payments firm Cashflows found that the desire to support local shops remains strong, with 62% of Brits saying they enjoy buying from independents, such as farm shops. What’s more, nearly three in four are willing to spend up to 10% more on an item from a local provider versus the same item from a large chain.
And while 39% said they now buy more from chains or large corporations like Amazon following the pandemic, 12% say they feel guilty about purchases made via Amazon, while 27% are proud to buy locally. “In a world of Amazons and ‘the big four’ it’s so heartening to see customers coming on a regular basis for their daily essentials and to chat,” Andy added. “I think people love our personal touch. It just goes to show that if it’s good, the people will come. And clearly people like that we sell things you can’t buy easily anywhere else.”
Many SMEs also went above and beyond during the pandemic to support their local communities, with retailers offering free local deliveries or brand new click and collect initiatives. But this generosity extended beyond the doors of retailers’ own shops, as a report by Oxford Economics and Intuit QuickBooks showed. In March 2021, the nation’s independent small businesses donated more than £6bn in cash and gifts to a range of good causes, as well as donating another £11.4bn worth of volunteering time.
Moreover, a report by IFB Research Foundation found that family businesses will be critical to the recovery of the UK’s economy, with these SMEs contributing almost 30% of the UK’s national income in 2019. “Family firms are the driving force across all regions, communities, and sectors of the UK, and as such, are pivotal to the future prosperity of the country as we emerge from the pandemic,” said IFB director general Elizabeth Bragger.
The new entrants to the UK’s fine food retail sector will play an important part in driving the UK’s recovery, and by tapping into the demand among consumers to support local businesses, they can maximise their business in the months to come.