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Specialist food retailers, such as butchers and bakeries, reported strong sales growth in March compared to the previous month, the Office for National Statistics said.
The ONS reported that food stores’ sales grew 2.5% in March 2021, with feedback from specialist food retailers in particular suggesting the continued closure of hospitality over Easter had boosted demand.
Candice Fonseca, proprietor of Liverpool-based Delifonseca said March sales in her food hall were “booming”. “We put that down to customers wanting to treat themselves at home while still in lockdown,” she said.
“With hospitality venues still closed in March 2021, many people headed to their local baker for sweet and savoury treats to celebrate the Easter period,” agreed Karen Dear, director of operations at the Craft Bakers Association. “The increase in sales can be attributed to two things. Firstly, the offering from the local bakeries tapped into the consumer mindset to treat themselves, after a difficult three months. Here the quality and great taste of bakery products – from traditional seasonal bakes such as hot cross buns and simnel cake, to the perennially popular fresh loaf of bread, proved hugely popular,” Karen said.
“The second reason is the growing interest in shopping locally and in products with provenance, which bakers are perfectly placed to offer. These trends have only been growing since the start of the pandemic, and we expect them to continue for many months, if not years to come,” Karen added.
Ben Ozmen of BENS Greengrocer shops in London, also saw increased footfall in March. “As the weather got warmer, a lot of our customers who had been ordering online started to come in as part of their daily or weekly routine,” he said.
Overall, however, online retail sales remained steady. According to David Jinks, head of consumer research at ParcelHero, analysts had expected e-commerce sales to slump in March, but the proportion of online sales only fell slightly month-on-month to 34.7% compared with 23.1% in March 2020. Online sales of food more than doubled in March year-on-year.
“Of course, March’s retail figures are just the warm-up act. April’s ONS figures will help give a fuller picture,” David said.
In March, Candice noted that sales of cheese and charcuterie items performed “exceptionally well due to more and more people lunching at home”. She added, “At this point, outdoor restaurants and bars were yet to reopen their doors, so it would appear that foodies were looking to recreate that kind of experience with store-bought, high-quality produce.”
As well as growing demand for products fit for a sharing platter, Delifonseca said sales of its handmade products were flying. “Our savoury items, all made in-house, were also a bestseller,” Candice said. “This includes everything from sausage rolls, Scotch eggs, and fishcakes to name a few. Sweet treats such as the Diforti cannoli range also performed well.”
At Delifonseca’s butcher’s concession, Edge & Son, demand for at-home cooking has buoyed sales consistently this year. “Now,” Candice said, “as we head into the warmer seasons, we expect this to continue, particularly with outdoor dining provisions in place.”
In the drinks arena, Candice found that local as well as German-made beers were performing well. “Looking at our sales from March and indeed, recent months in general, we can see that cans look to be the trend now over traditional bottles,” she added.
Meanwhile, Ben added that since lockdown eased in April, more customers are coming into the shop to enquire about the origins and seasonality of produce, proving that provenance continues to be a key selling point for fine food retailers.
As consumer spending increases, EY Item Club predicts the UK’s economy will boom, growing at the fastest rate since World War II. EY upgraded its growth forecasts for 2021 as the vaccine programme and the easing of lockdown restrictions boosted the economy faster than expected. Now, the group expects GDP to grow by 6.8% in 2021.
“The UK economy has proven to be more resilient than seemed possible at the outset of the pandemic. Businesses and consumers have been innovative and flexible in adjusting to Covid-19 restrictions and, while restrictions have caused disruption, lessons learned over the last 12 months have helped minimise the economic impact,” said Howard Archer, chief economic adviser for EY Item Club.
Many fine food independents have been a bright spot in the economy through the pandemic as essential retailers. As lockdown restrictions are relaxed and a new normal emerges, finding new ways to delight customers in store will ensure they continue to be key to the UK’s economic recovery.