June 2, 2020
Look again at local stores
Despite the long queues outside every supermarket (or perhaps because of them) corner shops and independent grocers are reporting a 63% boost in trade since lockdown began. And that trend might just be the catalyst for a more fundamental shift in the retail food sector as these small businesses prove they are nimble enough to adapt to new market conditions by connecting local suppliers with a whole new customer base. As Lesley Riddoch shines a light on her local corner shop’s particularly entrepreneurial response to the Covid crisis, surely this could be happening right across the country.
IF you are what you eat, Scots need a wee conversation with ourselves. We eat too much processed food and too little of the outstanding top-quality fresh food we’ve traditionally exported across the world.
But the Covid lockdown has temporarily changed all of that, bringing long international supply chains to a grinding halt and opening up the tantalising possibility that local people can buy locally produced food.
Buying fish and shellfish at Scotland’s big fishing ports has been nigh-on impossible. But with continental markets mostly beyond reach now, some shellfish producers have reached out to local suppliers and, with a bit of work on all sides, that could become a permanent thing.
But actually, Scotland’s food revolution is already gathering pace elsewhere – in the fairly unlikely setting of our local corner shops.
According to the Association of Convenience Stores, the proportion of their members making deliveries has risen from 12% to 62% in a matter of weeks. This week, 600,000 food deliveries will be made across the UK by small corner stores and grocery shops.
Take mine – Wormit Spar, situated in a small coastal town in North Fife, overshadowed by Newport-on-Tay (sorry, it’s true) and Dundee.
It may seem surprising that wee corner stores could be thriving during lockdown, given nightly news reports of vast profits being made during lockdown by the Big Six supermarkets – eyewatering sums that bolster the belief amongst Scottish policy-makers (and therefore most of us) that big really is beautiful.
Look at the excitement when Tesco delivery slots finally become available. The news travels round rural WhatsApp groups here like wildfire, until the moment passes and slots are closed again.
Yet alternative food supply chains are building right under our noses, and with a little support from the Scottish Government and ourselves as customers, they could blossom into a more democratic food economy with lower food miles, fewer unnecessary journeys (for customers and delivery vans), improved quality and more cash and jobs kept in local communities.
OK, that’s a lot to claim – especially when the store that prompted this local food fantasy hasn’t advertised or even described its extended delivery and ordering services – that’s mostly because Wormit Spar hasn’t got a website.
It’s got something much better – customers. Talkative customers.
And it was good old-fashioned chat that started the transformation of Wormit Spar from an OK small corner shop into a bit of a local distribution/delivery hub and stockist of locally made produce.
Gordy Landsburgh, who owns the shop, has always done deliveries for a few regulars, but now goes out all day, twice a week, coinciding with the arrival of meat and bakery items from Stuart’s of Buckhaven. Nothing new there either, except that the Spar’s own regular delivery from this local company now also includes special items pre-ordered by Gordy’s customers which are then added on to his free delivery service.
Is there a price list? Well, no.
But if folk aren’t happy, items can come back with the next delivery. So far, not much has, and this word-of-mouth approach based on trust avoids the off-putting burden of constantly updating a website. Now Spar customers can access a far wider range of fresh food than Gordy can fit on his shelves, from further afield than they can currently travel, and his shop is a distribution hub for other high-quality, local food companies (who couldn’t otherwise reach these North Fife customers). Gordy’s also been stocking more fresh vegetables from the neighbouring Peacehill Farm, especially tatties, cauliflower and (soon) broccoli so fresh they’re slightly damp from the watering they had a few hours before harvest. If customers want to know what fruit and veg is in store, Gordy takes a photo and sends it over to their phone on WhatsApp. No, this kind of system wouldn’t work at scale. And that is its very beauty.
GORDY’S wishlist includes the idea of deliveries of Mellis cheese from St Andrews and distributing Jannettas artisan ice cream. It all depends on customer loyalty post-Covid lockdown.
If there’s a wholesale return to the big, anonymous weekly supermarket shops, Gordy’s extra deliveries might not survive. But if just a few customers make the switch towards planning, ordering and having a relationship with their local food supplier, then Wormit Spar, corner shops and our food economy more generally could be quietly transformed.
Lest Spar get alarmed, the vast bulk of Gordy’s stock still comes from its Dundee depot. But the co-operative of small retailers allows members to use local suppliers for fresh foods. And the combination of all these supplies certainly works in Wormit.
How did all these modest but powerful changes start? Not by a clever marketing strategy, but by local customers talking to Gordy about what they’d really like to find in his shop.
According to Pete Ritchie from the food policy group Nourish Scotland: “Local food’s all about talking to customers. There’s no need to talk to human beings in supermarkets. Social connection is what people have been missing in our pre-Covid food economy. Even behind a perspex screen, you can still see whether your local shop owner is actually interested in what you are having for tea. Not so long ago we’d assume a connection between local shops and local farms, now that needs to be rebuilt. The Scottish Government needs to make local food part of its green recovery – more jobs, more relationships, more trust to make sure all of us are able to buy local.”
How can Holyrood help? Indirectly they already have. Minimum alcohol pricing has boosted corner shop sales, because their supplies of booze are no longer any more expensive than the supermarkets, which used to loss-lead in a bid to get punters through the door. But there’s a chance for the Scottish Parliament to go further with the Scottish Agriculture Bill being debated right now, which will decide how Scotland deals with the imminent end of farm subsidy payments from the European Union.
The bill could include a new aim – to support farms and community groups who make more local food available. Not just because shorter food chains are better for the planet and Covid safety, but because the new, decentralised post-Covid economy must rapidly deliver a bigger bang for our bucks – and every £1 spent on local food has a multiplier effect of between two and six in local areas.
So the future could see a range of local food businesses working together with a social enterprise/non-profit making delivery business so that drops are kept to a minimum. But that will mean investing in local processing capacity – in many rural areas there’s nowhere to make skimmed milk powder or butter despite a surfeit of milk, and eventually local suppliers will need the smart software and logistics deployed by Amazon.
Will that come to pass? Will clever, knowing, personalised food delivery change the way we shop? One thing’s certain. The food revolution will not be centralised.