Compare many of our streets with themselves 50 years ago, and you might notice something’s gone missing. That something is retail, with neighbourhood grocery shops fewer and further between than they once were.
Supermarkets have reshaped the way we buy food. Time-strapped punters look to them for smashing out a quick shop at minimum cost between finishing work and cooking dinner. Hey, convenience is great – we have lives to live. Thing is, our shopping habits can have more of an impact on said lives than we might realise.
Chris Edwards is founder of Good 60, an online platform for local, independent retailers to sell their food and drink. He’s driven by the idea that money spent in small businesses is 60-percent more beneficial to the local community then if it were spent at a supermarket.
It’s about “driving money back into your local community, which will help our streets in Bristol and Bath remain diverse and independent,” he says. “I’ve lived near Bristol’s Gloucester Road all my life and, after a bit of a decline, I’ve seen a new surge in support for its independent retailers. I think locals have seen what can happen to high streets when shoppers are lured to out-of-town veg box schemes and supermarkets.”
The way that we shop is constantly evolving – life doesn’t follow the familiar routine that it once did. As a result, the weekly ‘big shop’, for example, seems to be in decline.
“Shopping has become little and often,” says Rob Hagen, owner of Brockley Stores. “Lots of people are now coming in to buy food for later on the same day.”
Perhaps that’s partly to do with people being more adventurous in the kitchen, trying new recipes and generally mixing up dinnertime. Peter Molesworth, of Molesworth’s of Henleaze butchers, has certainly noticed that people are doing smaller, daily purchasing of ingredients for specific dishes – something that indie stores can often accommodate better than bigger ones: “They come to us as we can provide what the supermarket doesn’t sell, or in quantities they don’t sell.”
Above all the other needs shaping our shopping habits, though, is perhaps that of convenience. Rich Osborn founded online retailer Fresh Range to help tackle this; the site makes it possible to shop from multiple high street grocery stores in one fell swoop – even while you’re on the move.
“People want to do their food shopping when they have a spare moment,” he says. “More and more customers are moving to the online channel as a part of their overall weekly grocery shopping. The percentage of our customers ordering on mobile has doubled in the past two years; more order on mobile than any other device.”
Food on-the-go just got a whole new meaning, hey?
As well as personal circumstance, there are also plenty of outside influences that have a bearing on our shopping habits – just like that estimated 40-percent tariff on imported food, post-Brexit, that you may have read about recently. Indeed, it was a similarly scary but very different headline that, 18 years ago, changed the custom of many indie retailers – including Allington Farm Shop.
“During the foot and mouth crisis, the farm shop suffered a dramatic decline and the family considered closing the shop,” says Naomi Reynolds. “However, once the crisis passed the public really began to take more of an interest in where their food was coming from and the family began to see a growing demand for the produce they were selling.”
Fast forward to 2019, and this kind of assurance of the provenance of our food is something more of us expect – and to a greater degree. It’s a result not only of crises like the one of 2001, but also the exposure of animal welfare issues and recognition of the effect food production has on the planet. People are taking responsibility for the food they choose to buy and the systems they vote for with their grocery money.
Better Food is a Bristol-based group of ethically led grocery shops, and has found a similar shift in consumers’ interests.
“There has been a huge tidal change towards shopping for a sustainable lifestyle, and this very much includes organic, as people are discovering how closely our health, the land and our communities are connected,” says their Laura Elliot.
So, shoppers are more ethically minded – great stuff. But these demands can conflict, creating new challenges.
“People are a lot more concerned by organics, provenance and being plastic-free,” says Hugo Sapsed of Hugo’s greengrocer. “However, these trends can often negate each other; the product might be ‘naked’ [non-shrink wrapped] but from Peru; it might be organic but wrapped in plastic. So, it’s important to find a middle ground.
And the challenges for small food retailers don’t stop there, either. From running costs to lack of parking, modern life throws many a spanner in the works. Take the desperately low prices those retail giants instate; Peter Molesworth finds that it can be tempting for customers to compare prices at indie outlets with those at the supermarket – although, as they might not realise, “it’s just not like-for-like quality.”
Then there’s the task of making sure you’re accommodating the needs of as wide an audience as possible, to get your punters coming back time after time.
“A big challenge – but one of the most fun things about being in independent food retail – is keeping up with the changing shopping habits of all your customers,” says Rob Hagen. “We cater for people from many backgrounds, so you can’t take a one-size- fits-all approach. You need laser-like precision to decide what to change, what to keep, what to bring in.”
Doing this, though, can really cement a shop’s success. Mark Barry from the Deli at Sandy Park certainly thinks this constant tweaking is imperative to keeping a business healthy and shoppers happy. It’s all, ultimately, about customer service.
“It’s simple,” he says. “We get to know our customers and accommodate their requests and tastes – and that in turn helps shape our business. Even some local chains can vastly improve their customer interaction.”
Same Same but Different
There are plenty of things that our local indies can offer which retail giants just can’t. Take the freshness and traceability of their produce, for instance. Some farm shops, like Allington, are right next to the farm where the produce is grown and the animals are reared, and are often run by the farmers themselves. This means the produce is likely going to be fresher – making it better tasting and more nutritious. And, as it won’t have travelled far and probably has minimal packaging, it’s not half bad for Mother Earth, either.
Then there are the people: when those serving you are the ones that grew – or ordered, butchered or cooked – what you’re buying, they’re going to have some serious knowledge to tap into. Want to know how to cook a specific cut of meat? Where something is grown? What recipe you could use an ingredient in? Go on, try them. You’ll not only probably get some great tips, but also a wholly more enjoyable shopping trip out of it, too
“Local shops offer conversation most importantly,” says Hugo Sapsed. “There’s always a chat to be had. Sometimes when we sell a product, we need to tell someone about how to cook it, where it has come from or how it was grown. Other times you might discuss their day, how the family is and what they’re up to. I think this is such a special part of shopping on the high street, to have a personal connection with the shop owner – not with a robot.”
Indeed, Pete from Larkhall Butchers sites this as the most enjoyable thing about his work: “I think the joy of independent shopping is mostly in the personal touch. Getting to know our customers both inside and outside of work is a wonderful feeling.”
High (Street) Hopes
So, could things be looking up somewhat for traditional retail? It does seem like more and more high street-esque areas are springing up with a variety of specialist outlets – think Gloucester Road, Wapping Wharf and North Street in Bristol, and Larkhall in Bath.
“We have such a wide selection of shops in our vicinity that we are, in a way, like a one stop shop,” says Pete. “We draw people who want the convenience of getting everything in one place without having to brave the bustle (and parking nightmare) of Bath.”
Indeed, the more we use our small, local indie shops, the more of them there will be. Mark Barry really thinks shoppers are behind this movement too, noting that he’s seeing a “deliberate attempt to support independent local business.”
This kind of traditional shopping might well see our high streets healthy again.