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During my time in the food industry I have learned that lessons often repeat themselves. When my father started the business in 1945 he wasn’t a fine food importer, he was finding any food he could to sell. It was a situation close to the one we faced in March when Coronavirus struck; it was a seller’s market. The sort of things we sold at the beginning of the company would astonish my colleagues today; things like luncheon meat, corned beef and cheap canned fruit – it was nothing like what we do today, but it was necessary because there was severe rationing and people just needed something to eat. Younger generations can’t imagine how awful food was after the war until around 1965. Somerset Maugham got it right when he said, “If you want to eat well in England, you must take breakfast three times a day.” British food was unimaginative, and that was understandable; the old joke in the industry at the time was that a salesman would phone up a buyer and say, “I have 100 cases,” and the buyer would respond, “I’ll have them – what are they, and what’s the price?” Then, as now, survival meant evolution.
The best decision my father ever made came in the mid-Fifties, when rationing had ended, and all of a sudden all sorts of products were available that hadn’t been before. He realised that a company of our size would not be able to compete with the big boys selling mainstream products – he would need to specialise. I joined the business in 1960, by which time we were entering the speciality sector. I worked in sales until his death in 1983, and my skill was in spotting opportunities – something which has proven itself to be invaluable throughout my decades in the industry.
Since the war supermarkets have gained substantially in numbers, and this has led to survival of only the fittest independents. The concept of supermarket-style self service was definitely around at the time I started, but it was a much smaller part of the mix than it is now. That, of course, was of benefit to the independent food retailer but by 1970 the writing was on the wall – independent retailers were closing rapidly, supermarkets were opening, and if you represented a food brand you had to take the supermarkets seriously otherwise you wouldn’t have enough business.
Retailers were slow to recognise the effect, and they didn’t realise that they had a lot to learn from these larger scale operations. Many of the most innovative fine foods were launched in this country by the supermarkets, and they employed a lot of bright young people who would travel around the world to discover the next big thing and bring it back to the UK. I always used to say to people in the trade that if an independent retailer walked around a supermarket they would see some of the things they should be selling; they just needed to do it better. Things have been turned on their head; the pendulum has swung so that independents are leading the way in terms of trends and new product areas, and now in their response to the Coronavirus.
Undoubtedly some businesses have struggled immensely, but overall I would suggest that independent retailers are creating success out of the current pandemic situation. We’ve gauged this using recent sales data, where we can see that purely in the independent sector our sale of olives increased by 45% in the 12 weeks ending 18th July. Antipasti by 76%, salad dressings by 62%. Shoppers were having to consume the food they’d normally enjoy in a restaurant at home, which fuelled this, as did a second factor…
My father always used to say that the best possible trading conditions for an industry like ours were at the beginning of a recession. People don’t have the financial confidence to buy a new car or television, so they console themselves with affordable luxuries like good quality food and drink. That undoubtedly happened as a result of the outbreak of Coronavirus.
Nobody had time to digest what they had to do when it came to the impact of the virus, they just had to get their heads down and do it. I believe that the supermarkets suffered – despite what many headlines were suggesting – because people didn’t feel comfortable in that environment. They didn’t want to be queuing outside to get into a space where social distancing wasn’t being properly observed, and where they didn’t know how many hands had touched the product they picked up. Independents weren’t as crowded as supermarkets and there were proprietors managing the situation at close hand, and I believe that has been a contributing factor in the recent growth of the independent sector. As they do, things are now changing, and since the end of lockdown people are reverting to former buying habits – that may mean that the pendulum swings back a bit, but if independents have done their job well up until now and continue to do the right thing, I trust that they will hold on to a lot of their new business.
To continue their success, I would suggest that independent retailers think long and hard about why it is that customers are coming to them. What do shoppers want that they could latch onto and maximise. They need to convince the people who shop with them that they’re nice people to deal with and that they supply inspiration and ideas around the products they sell, simultaneously getting into the minds of their new customers and asking what will they continue to buy from us – so long as we are able to give it to them. This highlights something I’ve been banging on about for years – that, rather than only selling products which are unique to them and not sold in supermarkets, independents should stock familiar products amongst the speciality ones. This doesn’t have to mean compromising on quality; Kikkoman soy sauce and Mary Berry’s salad dressings are fine examples of this. They sell well without sacrificing quality, and offer good value during such times; sales of Kikkoman soy sauce, for example, jumped 99% in the 12 weeks ending 18th July. There should be a balance between unique, specialist products and those with a recognised brand and value.
What happens next is very much dependent on what happens with the virus. If we experience a second wave, that will loop us back to the situation we’ve just been through. That will produce the same result as happened the first time around, in terms of new customers shopping with independents. We are about to enter the mother of all recessions and have three million unemployed in the UK. Money will be tight and consumers will be consoling themselves with a small luxury treat even more so than they have been during the past few months, and for this reason I’m confident that the upcoming Christmas season will be positive for our industry. Advance orders have already exceeded our expectations, and I’m taking that as a sign that this Christmas could be a good one.
There are a lot of unknowns coming up, and the independent retailer has to reconcile themselves that short term there may be a return to the supermarkets, but I don’t think they will lose all the gains they made – so long as they are smart and exploit the customer relationship advantage that they’ve gained during the past few months.
At RH Amar, we are very much of the belief that speciality food has a bright future.