Farm shops have always played a key role within their local communities. However, since the Covid-19 outbreak, they have formed a vital lifeline and a key hub for many, providing more than just the essentials.
Nick Hempleman, founder of The Sussex Produce Company, Steyning, notes that more people are opting to buy food from farm shops. “Consumers see it as a safe environment and we’ve managed to keep shelves stocked right through the pandemic.
“We’ve got 205 suppliers and 170 of them are based in Sussex. Even during the worst parts of the crisis, we had an availability of 97.6%.” The business has changed dramatically since the first lockdown was announced in March 2020. The restaurant was mothballed, and its staff instead focused on a new home-delivery service.
“The maths would have been blown to pieces if you’d done social distancing in the restaurant so we gave that space over to make the shop bigger, allowing us to stock more products, do social distancing even more responsibly, and use the kitchen for our delivery department,” explains Nick. Meanwhile, takings in the shop significantly increased, with customers spending more on food since the pandemic began, partly reflecting their reduced outlay on commuting fares, entertainment and holidays. “Home deliveries are expensive to do, but we’ve kept a lot of people, especially the elderly and vulnerable, supplied.”
Supporting the local community is a key aspect of Nick’s philosophy – the business has helped set up a local food bank, donated over £4,000 to it, and initiated a free fruit and vegetable box scheme. Farm shops, Nick says, have been able to adapt precisely because they are agile.
Small is nimble – and nimble is good because none of us have a crystal ball.
An evolving business model
This ability to respond quickly has also been important at Beadlam Grange Farmshop in North Yorkshire, according to Angela Rooke. Establishing a click and collect service that enables people to order online and introducing ‘takeaway food’ deliveries are just two of the ways this Helmsley operation has evolved since the crisis began.
“The staff have been great and flexed – we’ve all had to adapt in terms of our job roles,” says Angela. “People kept coming into the shop. They feel safe here, so turnover went through the roof compared to a year earlier. Our range has more than doubled, too."
We’re selling a few more basics, such as ketchup, as we’re trying to be slightly more of a ‘one-stop-shop’ to save people having to go to the supermarket. If you’d said to me a year ago, I’d have been selling toilet roll I’d have laughed at you!
It’s been a hugely busy and, at times, stressful year for everyone in the farm shop sector. “One of the biggest challenges has been making sure the staff feel safe in terms of the virus – but also that their jobs are secure,” says Angela. “Inevitably there’s been quite a lot of nervousness, but the furlough scheme has been a lifesaver. “Our customers are just so pleased about – and grateful for – what we’ve done. We’ve tried to go above and beyond what’s expected of us, and I think our new customers will remain loyal long into the future as a result.”
Another business which has seen sales “go through the roof” is Apley Farm Shop in Shropshire. It introduced a ‘phone and collect’ service and offered lockdown deliveries to elderly and vulnerable local residents.
“The deliveries really cemented our relationship with the community,” says Lord Hamilton. “It wasn’t a money spinner because we were doing it on a small scale and didn’t have the infrastructure already in place, but it felt the right thing to do.” The spike in sales reflects the trust people have in farm shops and how they feel more comfortable visiting them than bigger, impersonal retail outlets," adds Lord Hamilton.
“We’re in the countryside, so there’s plenty of space and parking. There’s no queues or congestion, and the higher turnover of fresh produce has meant it’s been even fresher than usual. Even after the first lockdown was lifted, sales stayed well up on the levels of a year previously.
“We’ll never try to compete on price with the supermarkets, because a lot of our products are discretionary and aspirational, but if the nation enters a bad recession, we’ll have to really concentrate on giving our regular customers value. They will still be prepared to pay a bit of a premium if they know an item is of superb quality.”
Along with quality, provenance, personal service and “telling the story” of the items on the shelves are key elements of this approach. According to Apley Farm Shop’s Marketing and Events Manager, Sophie Ritchings, social media has been an important way of doing this. “Consumers have needed information – and it’s a relatively easy way of communicating with them in real-time in this fast-changing world. We’ve used Facebook and Instagram more and will continue to do so.”
Posting content on social media – in tandem with sponsored Facebook posts and email newsletters – has been vital in keeping customers informed and developing relationships. “People also like to see what’s happening behind the scenes,” says Sophie. “They want to know the journey their food has taken and they trust retailers who give them an insight into this process.”
Back at The Sussex Produce Company, Nick Hempleman believes that farm shops that have positioned themselves well will be in a strong position when life does eventually return to normal – but maintaining the status quo is not an option.
“We used to hold events and worked with publishers to launch food books in the restaurant, but Covid made us review our whole business model. We’re now searching for a completely new premises – maybe a derelict barn that we could restore with a landlord to hold events in.
“When the crisis first broke, I said to the staff that I wanted to make sure that, when we look back on this, we could all be proud of ourselves. I wanted us to know that we’d kept local people fed and looked after, whether they were rich or poor, using the foodbank or coming into the shop and spending £200 – and that we’d done it with a smile. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to help people right now, you should.”