Is vending the future for small farm shops?

29 January 2024, 07:00 AM
  • Having a physical store presence isn’t feasible for everyone – and a new kind of retail is popping up across the UK in response
Is vending the future for small farm shops?

Upmarket Northern supermarket chain, Booths, became a source of curiosity and debate at the end of last year as it announced a mass ditching of self-checkout tills in all but two of its stores. MD Nigel Murray said they’re “not great fans” of the system which, admittedly, can be infuriating for customers, especially those doing the ‘big shop’, whose time is eaten up by weighing products, being told they’ve got an ‘unknown item’, or waiting for staff to remove security tags.

There’s no doubt, in fine food retail, that it’s the personal touch that matters. Customers visiting delis, food halls and farm shops are seeking out not only higher quality produce, but the stories around that produce, and conversations about how to prepare, cook and store it.

But not everyone in the food industry wants to be a shopkeeper. This is, perhaps, most applicable to farmers, who tend to want to get on with the actual business of farming rather than manning a till trying to sell a few bottles of milk or the odd packet of chuck mince and sausages.

Then, though, there’s the issue of making money. With milk prices dipping, and increasing pressure on those rearing animals and growing vegetables, farmers are increasingly having to devise ways to generate a profit.

Farm shops, and the cafes that often follow, have traditionally been the answer. While they can be hugely successful, they are costly to build and, with their requirements for staffing and stocking, can become a bigger beast than some care to handle.

The solution, for smaller farms, could be as simple as introducing a vending machine or vending locker set-up. Already many of these have been installed across Britain, with a boom seen in the industry during the Covid lockdown era when selling face-to-face in a small space wasn’t possible.

A pioneer in this field, and a farmer who has come full circle in the way he approaches on-farm sales, is Jonny Crickmore of Fen Farm Dairy.

The farm’s world-renowned cheese, Baron Bigod, owes its creation to vending machines, Jonny says, wryly. It was branching out into selling milk directly to customers that sparked one of Britain’s most successful dairy farm diversification stories.

In 2011, Jonny noticed a local free-range egg farmer selling from a shed on the side of the road with an honesty box. “I just thought it was so simple, straightforward and brilliant,” he says. “The customer gets to come on the farm to buy their food. It creates that connection to where food is coming from. I thought to myself, ‘why don’t dairy farmers sell their milk like this?’.”

At the time, buying milk from a supermarket was, he says, “boring”.

“It had no personality. The bottles didn’t show where the milk came from. And I thought if we could make our milk stand out, it could really work. Also raw milk, at the time, was a niche opportunity. When I talked to people locally they weren’t sure about it. They said, ‘it won’t work, your milk will taste no different to what’s already in the shops, and it’ll be more expensive’.”

It was daunting. But he persevered, bottling up the farm’s raw milk with a label - ‘Jonny’s Girls’. “The cream came to the top and formed a line. It looked a different colour to what was in the supermarkets – more creamy in colour than white. We put it in a fridge with an honesty box in a garden shed, and that just took off!”

The only downside was some customers weren’t so honest. Jonny believes the more popular you become, the more open you are to theft. He overcame the problem by investing in one of the UK’s first milk vending machines, having spent a long time researching what would work best on the farm. 

“I randomly found these milk dispensing machines from an Italian company. It was really interesting, because what was going on in Eastern Europe and Italy was customers were using the glass bottles and returning them to the shop. I’d never seen it done like that in the UK. I thought, ‘wow, this looks like such a good idea’. We could brand our bottles up and make them look really posh, and people could fill up their own.”

Investing in the machine was expensive. The milk was sold at a premium. Would it put shoppers off? “No. They loved it. And they kept coming back for more.”

Before long other farmers were on the phone to find out more, and Jonny would go on to actually advise on and sell milk vending machines. But he had a decision to make – did he want to be a vending salesman, or a producer? Thankfully, for the sake of cheese lovers everywhere, he chose the latter – but not before he’d sold around 50 machines, starting a bit of a revolution in the UK.

A full vending machine-led farm shop shed soon appeared at the farm gate, selling cheese, butter, milk, and local produce. But most recently Jonny has returned to the ‘honesty’ system, opening a high-tech, unmanned mini farm shop in a highly visible spot beside a busy main road.

The shop is kitted out with several CCTV cameras to deter theft. “We’ve had a few people stealing, and we’ve reported them straight to the police. But, to be honest, it hasn’t happened a lot. We have a good system. Everything in the shop is accounted for and we know what sold in the day, then reconcile and can see the difference. We make it very clear people are being videoed. Anyone who might consider having a sneaky free coffee should be thinking, ‘is it worth it to risk my face being caught on screen?’ and on the whole they don’t bother.”

Location, with easy access and parking is important. “The best thing to do, if you want to set one up, is to think about what you do when you’re out and about and want to buy food. What are your habits? What are the things you’re looking for? Would you, for example, want to stop at a farm where there’s a dog barking, or milk stains on the floor, or farmyard stuff in front of the shop, or pot holes in the car park? If you don’t, others won’t either.”

Jonny says the beauty of this kind of shop is they are cheap to set up, and give maximum flexibility to the farmer. “There’s a bit more work than meets the eye. To do it properly you’ve got to keep it clean, and presentation is important. If you set it up well it will generate a nice little profit and be a good addition to your main business.”

He adds that vending and high-tech honesty set-ups are better suited to small businesses rather than big farms. “They’re brilliant for small farms, to add value to the product you make. If you happen to be in a place on the edge of a decent sized town, and you’re not up a long dark track, people will come and visit you.”

His top hints? Get your glass and lighting right. “If people spot a shiny glass door at the front of the shop and can see the produce inside, nicely lit, that can make a huge difference, we’ve found.”

‘Vending machines have enhanced our business’

When Dorset-based Meggy Moo’s Dairy was looking to add value to the business, Rachael Perrett, who operates the farm alongside her husband, and has a background in retail, thought an honesty box might work well.

Being based ‘off the beaten track’, they weren’t convinced it would amount to much. Could they really generate enough footfall? “Quite tentatively we just built a little cupboard on the side of one of the barns. I spoke to Jonny at Fen Farm, and he said to start small and see how we got on before getting a machine.”

To begin with, they’d bottle around 10lts of raw milk a day. “We were quite amazed at how many people were coming to the farm. Quite a few said they liked the idea of visiting us to buy milk, but they couldn’t drink unpasteurised milk, so I bought a tiny pasteuriser that would do 15lts or so. We started to sell pasteurised but unhomogenised milk alongside the raw milk, and that increased the footfall again.”

Soon, the farm added semi-skimmed milk and cream too. A farm shop nearby took on their products. And chefs on the local circuit were clamouring to buy dairy from Meggy Moo’s. Today, the farm has more than 80 wholesale customers, largely driven by the success of the honesty project, and generated by word-of-mouth. As it outgrew its ‘honesty cupboard’, the farm developed a proper shop, and invested in five milk and food vending machines.

Finding a machine that dispensed both whole and semi-skimmed milk was a challenge, but The Milk Station Company came to the rescue, providing the ideal solution for the shop. Today, customers can decant the milk of their choice into glass bottles, and also pick up the farm’s cream and butter, locally produced cakes, jam, honey, ice creams, frozen meat, and more.

“We are 100% a vending shop,” says Rachael. “We’ve tried to make it like a nice farm shop, and to do it beautifully. I was quite hesitant about vending machines to begin with, but my husband was very interested in them. At the time, they reminded me of being at school. But, actually, the machines we use are far more sophisticated. It’s minimal maintenance for us. In the morning we fill everything up, everything is cleaned, and then they’re self-sufficient for the day. We’ve even got a coffee machine that makes coffee with our own milk. And they all take coins, cash, and contactless card payments.”

Is there a downside? “Only the initial investment cost,” says Rachael. “There are lease options out there, but we’ve always bought ours. Another thing is they can break down, even though they are pretty reliable. You do have to scratch your head, thinking about how you’re going to trade without a working machine. But as farmers we’re quite good at getting around things.”

For Rachael, the pros outweigh any cons. “I like that they don’t have to be staffed, and they are very flexible in what they allow you to sell. For us, this is about creating an experience. We’ve always had to think about giving people a reason to come here, because we’re not in a convenient location for anyone apart from our local village. Everyone who visits us has had to go out of their way to get here. But they have the experience of seeing the animals that produce their milk, and going next door to buy it and I think they love that. It feels quite wholesome. There’s no food miles, they know what they’re getting is fresh. It was definitely the right move for us.”

While many readers will be familiar with milk vending machines, have you heard of food lockers?

Upper Dysart Larder in Scotland was so blown away by the technology that the business created an entire vending locker farm shop. The family-run company, known for its uniquely produced, vacuum sealed mashed potato, was looking for a way to sell direct to the public, having successfully set up distribution of its products across the UK.

“We wanted to have animals outside, and to have kids learning about where food comes from too,” says Jessica Squires. “I went on a rural leadership course a few years ago, and at the time we were planning this massive farm shop. I met someone there whose family have Thorneybank Farm Shop, where there is locker vending. It was so interesting. I’d never heard of it before. When Covid happened we thought, ‘why would you want to open a shop and café at the moment with all the rules?’. Using lockers instead could work.”

The family haven’t looked back, and have extended and expanded their locker vending system to offer a wide range of products – from their own mashed potato, to cheeseboards – with each item housed in its own individually accessed, glass-fronted box.

Explaining how the system works, Jessica says, “It’s like an iPad on a screen. Customers look around in the lockers, go through the categories on the screen, can flick through all the products and find out more, including allergy information and the price, and pick what they want. Then they pay by cash or card. A new update is that all the lockers go dark after that, and the lockers you’ve picked light up. You go around, pick up the bits you’ve bought and away you go. It’s so easy to use.”

A huge benefit of this system is that it’s pretty much shoplifting-safe. As just a single item is placed in each locker, customers can only take what they have paid for, and the doors won’t open unless a payment has been made. “We do have cameras in there,” says Jessica, “but they’re purely to see if anyone is trying to break in, or also to see if someone needs help.”

What can be put in the lockers is incredibly flexible. Bestsellers at Upper Dysart Larder include the mash, soups, local bread and pastries and traybakes.

For Jessica, the outlay has been more than worth it. “If you make some form of your own produce and want to sell to the public, this is a great way to do it. It was a lot, in terms of investment, but it has definitely benefitted us in getting our name out there with the mash, and it’s also been nice to communicate with the public in a different way.”

‘Be cautious and vending works well’

Collett’s Farm in Essex is a prime example of vending working hand-in-hand with traditional farming, alleviating the burden on a small workforce.

Tim and wife Sophie are tenants of 120 acres of, predominantly, dairy farm, with the business having expanded with the growing popularity of raw milk. “Sophie was getting fed up of bottling milk,” says Tim, who reveals they were faced with either spending money on a mechanical bottling process, or a vending machine. They went with the latter, selling glass and plastic bottles for customers to top up themselves, or allowing them to fill up with their own clean bottles from home.

Unlike some others, Collett’s Farm continues to operate on an honesty system, with visitors taking what they need, and leaving cash, or paying via a tablet.

This system is, Tim admits, open to abuse. “We do have a bit of an issue. Not that people don’t pay, but that they pay a lesser amount. When we started, we found people were buying two 1lt bottles of milk. The trouble is, the 2lt bottle costs us more and we were losing out by them using a lot of 1lt bottles. We increased the price of a 1lt bottle to stop that and most people have a 2lt bottle now. But we do find people taking two 1lt and trying to charge themselves for 2lts. Also, people will bring their dirty glass bottles and leave them here, taking our clean ones. 

Another unexpected downside is that, while Tim and Sophie expected to see most milk purchased in glass bottles, or customers bringing their own, what actually happened is sales of plastic bottles took off. 

This, he says, is likely due to the fact many customers travel some distance to visit the farm, buying large quantities, which can be frozen in plastic. “We recently had someone drive an hour and a half to get here. There are people buying 50lts at a time. It’s because there isn’t anyone else selling raw milk locally.”

Despite the challenges, Tim says introducing milk vending machines has been a wholly positive experience, saving them time.

“It’s definitely been worthwhile. The novelty factor has driven sales. They’ve been growing every year. Often we can sell 150lts in a day. Having the machine has, I think, driven people to actually make the effort to come and see us a bit more. And while they’re here they might buy a pack of sausages or a joint of beef at the same time, which is good.”


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