25 November 2020, 08:37 AM
  • Is the future of farming online? We explore the pandemic’s impact on the rise of online farm shops and veg boxes, and whether this trend is here to stay
How e-commerce is unlocking new markets for fresh produce

Throughout the pandemic, online sales have boomed. Whether shoppers were wary about browsing in person, restricted by a lockdown or simply looking for an option to avoid the Covid queues, many have opted for e-commerce.

It’s not just online alcohol sales that spiked in lockdown; health-conscious consumers were keen for fresh produce delivered to their door, causing meat deliveries and veg boxes to soar in popularity.

Data gathered by The Food Foundation from more than 100 veg box schemes found sales rocketed by 111% during the six weeks from the end of February to mid-April. And while larger schemes like Abel & Cole and Riverford Organic Farms reported steep rises, smaller box schemes were particularly in-demand, with sales growing by 134%.

The group estimated that 3.5 million veg boxes were likely to have been delivered over the period, and with 82% of box schemes having a waiting list as of April, demand was clearly outstripping supply.

But is this trend here to stay?

Ben White-Hamilton, founder of Harvest Bundle, a digital marketplace that brings shoppers high-quality produce from farms and fisheries around the UK, is a big believer in farms and farm shops taking advantage of their online opportunities.

“People don’t live near farms anymore, they live in cities. Farmers’ markets have worked well for centuries, but with people leading lives that are incredibly busy it’s often hard to make time to visit them,” he said. “What e-commerce allows is modern technology applied to an almost forgotten historic tradition of buying direct.”

This, combined with the trend of more people wanting to support local businesses “has formed a potent mix and sped up the whole process of people shopping for food directly from the businesses who they want to support,” Ben said.

“What this year has highlighted to me is how innovative businesses can be when they are forced to change. We have seen this with many farmers launching online sites.”

However, Rosie Jack, the manager at Bowhouse, which connects small growers and producers in Scotland with shoppers, argued that not every farmer needs – or wants – to have a digital presence.

“While many farmers are happy to engage on social media, others communicate this in different ways. There’s really no substitute for face-to-face conversations at markets and on the farm,” Rosie said.

But for farms that want to expand beyond their own fields and farm shops to reach new markets, the opportunity is certainly there for the taking.

Daylesford, a Gloucestershire-based organic farm, shifted its focus during the pandemic from its bricks-and-mortar shops in London and the Cotswolds to its online shop. “This changed rapidly in the spring when many of our customers were unable to make it to our farm shops,” a spokesperson for the business said. The team quickly boosted their online offering to include fresh, organic fruit and vegetables, veg boxes and larder staples, as well as homewares and gardening items.

“E-commerce can absolutely unlock a new customer market for farmers and farm shops. We saw sales grow exponentially during the spring and summer when it was such a challenge to get groceries delivered,” Daylesford’s spokesperson said.

Thyme & Tides Deli in Stockbridge responded similarly when the pandemic hit, setting up a delivery service that proved so popular, the team behind it scaled it up to launch The Food Forager, an online business that is shining a light on local producers in Hampshire and Wiltshire

“Probably the most exciting part of The Food Forager is that we’re focusing primarily on sourcing and supplying local produce and supporting small, local start-ups. It’s a way of nurturing upcoming talent and helping put these brilliant small businesses on the map locally, while also giving our customers access to new and exciting products,” said Thyme & Tides’ founder Iain Hemming. “It’s a win-win really.”

Tips for getting started online

Those who have yet to dip their toes into the ever-growing world of e-commerce may find the process of getting started to be intimidating. Read on for Daylesford’s top tips on starting your online journey:

    Window to the world: “It’s important to see your website as your storefront that everyone can view and build their own perception of your brand from. There are brilliant platforms available that can help create a beautifully merchandised offer and seamless customer journey, from the moment they visit the website until the moment they receive their order.”
    Maximise value with recommendations: “Thoughtful cross-selling and upselling can add enormous value – from recipe suggestions to a simple ‘this goes well with’ recommendation. You can also look at dynamic content so that when your customer lands on your website they see their most recently viewed items and can pick up where they left off.”
    Invest wisely: “Don’t be under any illusions that online is that much less expensive than maintaining a bricks-and-mortar store. This is even more of a challenge with perishable goods and fragile items such as eggs and pastries. It’s important to go into it with your eyes open to all the costs.”

Looking for more top advice for boosting your online business? Download a free copy of The Ultimate Guide to Online Retail here.

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