The role of technology in fine food retail

11 August 2022, 08:02 AM
  • A carefully balanced blend of tradition and innovation is key to retail success in 2022, finds Ellen Manning
The role of technology in fine food retail

When it comes to fine food and drink, traditions are often key. Artisan products, made using methods that have been around for decades, sometimes centuries, sold in environments that often have a traditional feel to them, from farm shops to delis or specialist retailers offering the kind of knowledge and service that we often miss in big multiples.

But while fine food retail may be steeped in history and tradition, that doesn’t mean to say it hasn’t moved forward, particularly in recent years. We may still love the old-school feel of artisan food and drink, but in many ways how we shop for it has changed.

“For most food businesses who deal direct with the consumer or other businesses, the role of using technology has vastly changed,” says Terry Baker, head of marketing and sales at artisan sauce makers The Nowt Poncy Food Company.

“This change for us has allowed smarter working, ensuring we get the best engagement possible.” This kind of adoption of tech has touched every part of the sector, from artisan food producers who sell direct to customers themselves, or retailers who sell a range of those products, with innovation helping every part of the process, from finding and buying new products to storing them and keeping track of stock, as well as the actual job of selling to customers.

The value of speed
When it comes to artisan food and drink, the beauty lies in the traditional, handmade nature of the process behind it but that doesn’t mean that technology can’t help when used in the right way, says Michael Price, owner of award-winning Prices Spices and recently-launched charcuterie brand Cureights.

Price, who formerly worked at Aston Martin, has injected a tech element into his business, developing his own web apps that help organise and run it. The apps feature everything from stock intake to batch recipes showing evidence of full traceability and means he can create his products easily and accurately, as well as minimising the number of things he has to touch as he works.

“Our systems are simple and are based on simple free technology, HTML/CSS front end just like any website and coded with Javascript and simple databases,” he says. “The systems merely came about from wanting to save time and mistakes when doing things manually.

“Artisan food is still very much a touchy-feely kind of craft - one breed of pig is different to the next and a true artisan knows how to modify and tweak things despite having a full suite of automated processes. Having tools to help speed up and simplify the parts that can be is what is the key ie speeding up the process of time-consuming calculations and removing the need to introduce bad bacteria from touching objects that aren’t required.”

A new way to connect
Once products have been created, the next step of the process is selling them or getting them stocked by retailers. For decades, that process has revolved around relationships between producers and buyers or retailers, but harnessing technology is offering new ways to connect independent retailers and buyers with artisan food and drink brands.

One example is London-based Shelfnow, which was founded in 2019 and now represents more than 4,000 products from hundreds of artisan food and beverage brands across 12 European countries.

“I set up ShelfNow in 2019 with my co-founder Sajid Ghani to help specialist brands and independent retailers trade as directly as possible,” founder Philip Linardos tells Speciality Food.

“The traditional wholesale model is often too costly and inefficient for many smaller businesses and after many conversations with hundreds of SMEs, we became determined to make the process as smooth as possible for these producers and buyers.”

The service not only allows businesses to make savings, but also uses technology including machine learning to offer its own unique product recommendations, as well as blockchain to ensure supply chain transparency. “As our platform gathers more information on our buyers based on their previous purchases or what they browse, it provides highly tailored product recommendations for them,” adds Linardos.

“We manage all of the invoicing and payment for our partners so that they can focus on direct communication and building relationships with one another through the platform. We also make use of automation in different areas such as our customer care service which is able to respond very quickly to enquiries as a result of our technology.”

A vital tool
From a producer’s point of view, technology can help deal with the nitty-gritty of selling your product to buyers, either wholesale or directly to consumers. Flo Broughton, chief chocolate lady at Somerset-based Choc on Choc, has invested in technology to support various parts of the operation of the business, from production to stock-checking and processing orders.

“We have had our own production system made to manufacture. This allows us to allocate chocolates to a certain maker and packer for traceability and when that maker hands their list back in at the end of the week we scan a barcode at the top which auto-fills if complete and if not we make an adjustment.

“This then feeds out a packing sheet for the packers so that they can correctly pack what has been made.” Alongside this, the company uses e-commerce platform Linnworks to integrate all of its online platforms, so all orders come into one place. The system checks the stock then shows staff which orders to process, and as that processing happens, each chocolate that is used is then deducted off the stock. “We now have full view of all stock on the systems and orders leaving and to whom. The system will tell us what box to pack the item in as well.”

Streamlining retail models
When it comes to communicating with the customer, the beauty of fine food and drink retail is often the personal touch that is lacking for consumers when they shop in large multiples.

That is unlikely to change, but it doesn’t mean that technology can’t help retailers to streamline their processes, freeing them up to spend more time with customers. It also is opening up new ways for products to be showcased in some settings.

For Debbie Gallacher, owner of Gallachers Wine Merchants in Rugby, Warwickshire, the use of WineEmatic dispensers allows them to offer tastings of wine for customers without opening whole bottles, as well as providing the opportunity to add the offering of a wine bar to its business model.

“We saw the WineEmatic in another wine merchants during our research prior to initially opening. It’s a great way for customers to try before they buy a full bottle and enables us to offer a small sample when we are recommending wines. An added benefit is that customers can have just a small glass instead of purchasing a full bottle when drinking in. Alternatively, they can use the sample option 25ml and have their own small wine tasting with friends. It keeps the wine fresher for longer, rather than having to open bottles that would go off after a couple of days. It is a major tech positive and a great addition to the wine merchants.”

In addition to this, they use various software and apps to manage stock and inventory, monitor pricing, and to process sales and invoices. “Obviously face-to-face sales are always better than online ordering,” adds Gallacher. “Zoom tastings have worked, but they take a lot of work and organisations and, like anything, all tech is great until the internet connection fails!”

A delicate balance
The general view seems clear. Technology is becoming increasingly important in the world of artisan food and drink, streamlining production, taking away the headache of paperwork when it comes to stock and inventory, and helping retailers and producers communicate with customers more easily than ever before. But while it is lightening the load in many ways, it’s not as simple as merely adopting as much tech as possible, says food, drink and independent retail expert Tanny Gill, who is director of cheese and retail at Clarks, and has noticed “tech anxiety” in the sector.

“Everyone feels they need tech in the business – the biggest challenge is individuals and management of the companies. If the adaptation of tech is not happening from the people who are going to use it it becomes very difficult – the whole tech journey becomes half-hearted and feels money spent the wrong way. All in all a lot of the artisan sector could benefit from tech in things like machinery, packaging, web, information sharing etc but often the costs are too high for small business to justify. A lot of them often end up spending time and effort in setting up systems and operations but could easily get caught out with lack of qualified manpower who can do both artisan work and tech.”

Long live the human touch
This human touch when it comes to artisan food is where its beauty lies, many agree, and tech simply can’t replace that. “As much as tech gives speed and precision to the result, a lot of artisan is about handmade, maturing, working with seasons. Tech cannot change this,” adds Gill.

For Michael Price, it’s about realising that there is a time and place for tech. “You can’t fully automate artisan food,” he says. “Traditional methods are what make our products tastier and create huge differences between those that are mass made and rushed by machines. In my view, using the word ‘artisan’ should be like the legalities on product labels surrounding a label on a jar of jam, or claiming a product has health benefits or is all natural.

“The same should apply for claiming to be artisan. Checks need putting in place to ensure there’s a skilled person trained in the art and not a huge stack of machinery that runs automated processes, then claiming it’s artisan on the jar. It not only deceives customers, but also detracts from the skill and passion of those of us that are hands-on and skilled in what we do.”

Broughton agrees. Tech may be invaluable for some aspects of her business, but for others it’s the traditional approach that makes it what it is. “Tech is very important to us for the stock and despatch part of the process so that it is slick and without errors. The process in which we make our chocolates is handmade and will always be that way – it’s part of the major USP of our designs and chocolates.” Her advice to other businesses? “Use tech where it’s required – don’t assume all aspects of your business need it.”

more like this
close stay up-to-date with our free newsletter | expert intel | tailored industry news | new-to-know trend analysis | sign up | speciality food daily briefing