Posted: 18/06/2020

Farm retailers hope new shopping habits will stick

Farm retailers nationwide are hopeful that shopping habits forged as a reaction to coronavirus will last long beyond the pandemic, following an unprecedented surge in new customers.

Providing reliable access to abundant fresh seasonal produce, sourced with low food miles directly from local family-run farms at fair prices, the country’s huge network of independent farm shops has become a more attractive option to shoppers than ever before, according to research by the Farm Retail Association (FRA).

Some 92 per cent of farm retailers surveyed by the FRA reported a “significant” rise in new customers since lockdown rules began in March. Quick to adapt from the very start, farm shops have offered continually replenished shelves to establish themselves as quality local alternatives to under-pressure supermarkets.

Crucially, farm shops provide calm environments with easy to follow social distancing measures that allow shoppers to feel safe, whilst communities are also benefitting from a raft of new services that were not available before.  

Some 79 per cent of farm retailers polled by the FRA said they had introduced a click and collect service because of coronavirus, including in the form of completely contactless drive-thrus. Another 67 per cent said they had introduced home deliveries.

As a result, farm shops across the UK have processed an estimated 1.4 million-plus orders for home delivery or collection since the government’s lockdown measures began.

Such ingenuity means farm shops are protecting hundreds of jobs and income for thousands of farmer suppliers in otherwise tough economic circumstances. By adding new services for customers, some 73 per cent of farm retailers said they have either hired extra staff or furloughed fewer employees than they expected to.

The FRA’s Large Farm Shop of the Year, Strawberry Fields in Lifton, Devon, is a national exemplar of how quick-thinking farm retailers have effectively remodelled their businesses in a very short space of time.

To offset the damaging closure of Strawberry Fields’ popular restaurant, a first foray into online retail has led to the successful launch of click and collect and a seven-days-a-week delivery service.

New product lines such as washing powder and toilet rolls have been added to staple food and drink offerings, such as beef from the family farm’s herd of Ruby Red Devon cattle, homegrown fruit and veg, and bread freshly baked on-site.

Laura Mounce, manager of Strawberry Fields Farm Shop, said: “We have worked hard to adapt quickly to ensure our customers continue to have access to quality, fresh locally-produced food without disruption.

“The feedback we have received from new and returning customers has been hugely rewarding and gives me enormous hope that they will keep shopping with us, long after the coronavirus pandemic ends.”

Rob Copley, chairman of the FRA, acknowledges that the challenge for farm shops as life slowly returns to some form of normality over the coming months, is to ensure that customers keep coming back. However, he is adamant that farm shops are well worth such lasting loyalty. 

Mr Copley, who owns Farmer Copleys Farm Shop in Pontefract, said: “The last couple of months have clearly shown that farm retailers can react nimbly to customer demands because of their size, independence and direct relationships with local farmers.

“They have also shown that they are proactive, supportive members of their local communities. We have members who prepare and deliver ready meals to local community groups that support the most vulnerable members of society. Others are donating produce to local school hubs, frontline NHS staff and other key workers.

“As well as going above and beyond in this time of crisis, farm retailers are helping to keep the nation fed, offering easy access to fresh, nutritious and affordable British food. They are demonstrating that they are both caring neighbours and viable alternatives to the supermarkets, boasting shorter supply chains with lower carbon footprints.

“Run by local families for local families, supporting local farmers and local jobs, farm shops are at the beating heart of communities across the country. We just hope customers keep coming back to support them and local farmers for years to come.”

Farm retailers play a crucial role in the rural economy, providing welcome support for thousands of independent suppliers, from family farms to artisan makers.

The FRA estimates that the UK’s network of farm shops has a combined turnover of more than £1.5bn, including sales from farm shop cafés.

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