Posted: 01/04/2020

Home deliveries doing the business as indies battle on despite the outbreak

John Sinclair of Craigie’s and his daughter load another delivery into his car boot
Since the government has introduced more stringent measures to battle coronavirus, farm shops and delis have been adapting in several ways – with home deliveries proving especially useful for keeping sales ticking over.
FFD caught up with four retailers to see how they were managing in the face of unprecedented trading conditions.

One Scottish farm shop is embracing the opportunities of the new trading environment that the COVID-19 outbreak has sparked.

Craigie’s, based just outside Edinburgh, has been through a “rollercoaster” since the restrictions on movement and social contact were announced on 23rd March, but director John Sinclair said that the team had now “got things sussed”.

FFD caught up with Sinclair after the first week of the nationwide lockdown drew to a close. After initially fearing the worst he is now positive about the business’s outlook.

John Sinclair

“We’ve moved from customers coming in to now 90% of sales getting delivered to the customer. We’d never done any deliveries before – except at Christmas,” he said.

“About 5% are click and collect, where we’re dropping pre-paid orders out to customers car in the car park, and 5% in the shop.”

“When it kicked off, I was on holiday and I had a discussion about how we were going to cut labour costs, but the opposite has happened.”

“We took on a van driver last week and we’re taking on a couple more this week. All of our café staff, apart from three who are vulnerable that we’ve furloughed, have been transferred to the shop, and some of the school kids we’ve got have been given extra hours.”

The shop has picked up new customers through the crisis, said Sinclair, and for many Craigie’s is providing a much-needed service.

“I would imagine that 80% of the people making online orders are elderly, who we’re providing a real vital service for, and the other 20% are capable, so must be people following Boris’s advice to a T.”

Sinclair said business is up despite having to close the café and added: “I’m seeing our operation as being sustainable through the crisis, so long as we can keep trading. It’s not what I expected at all.”

“I just try and look at the positives – how can we come out of this better and stronger. I’ve always been a strong believer in focusing on the opportunities rather than dwelling on the negatives. If you do that, you’ll come out the right side.”

Sinclair said that bread sales had increased 10-fold since the outbreak – keeping the shop’s two bakers busy working separate 10-hour shifts, and that he has “sold more potatoes in the last week than in the previous six months”.

The low footfall in the shop has helped with social distancing and, apart from one case, all customers have played their part. “We’ve spaced the shop out by moving a lot of the fittings into the café area, placed some feet stickers on the floor to encourage social distancing, and got people to wash their hands on their way in at our outside wash stations.”

Despite the café’s closure, Sinclair said sales for the site were up 20%, compared to the same period last year.

Indie Füde in Northern Ireland has reduced its trading hours to four days a week and seen physical footfall drop by nearly two thirds, but it is making up for this by getting food out to its customers.

“The home deliveries have replaced the income from the shop so we have not lost anything,” said Johnny McDowell, co-owner of the deli, which is based in the town of Comber, just south-east of Belfast. “But we are also doing it for the benefit of the local community.”

He added that while a sale in the shop would typically have a 35% margin, deliveries were closer to 20%, partly because Indie Füde has waived delivery charges at the moment.

Johnny McDowell

The shop is open Wednesday to Saturday and it is sending out around 30 orders each day – or 120 per week – and it’s rising, with McDowell contemplating hiring more drivers.

“Hopefully this trade will increase more as people grow warier of the supermarkets,” he told FFD. “To be honest, this is an area that we wanted to get into anyway.”

At the moment Indie Füde is only offering “10% of the book” to customers ordering online, but McDowell wants to broaden the range of items on offer and make the process smoother for both staff and customers.

He is working with his web developers on an online form, which would link to inventory, and prove easier and more efficient than handling orders coming in on social media, email and phone.

While some destinations have proved challenging – “It’s very rural here. One house might be three miles down a country lane and hard to find on Google” – offering deliveries has improved Indie Füde’s reach into Belfast, which McDowell hopes will have a positive impact on sales and brand awareness.

 “At the moment we would usually be 75% foodservice and 25% retail but, obviously, we’ve closed off foodservice and had to turn into a full-time retailer,” said Sangita Tryner, who runs Delilah Fine Foods in Nottingham.

“The city is dead. It’s not a destination at the moment so we’ve had to go to the customer.

“Being a city-centre site, I have always wanted to do a ‘farm-shop-in-the-city’ thing but we’ve never had the time or the inclination to do it.”

Sangita Tryner

Now, however, Tryner is selling all of the basics: milk, eggs, fruit and vegetables and some fresh meat, alongside the artisan bread that the shop already carries.

With the majority of her staff furloughed, Tryner is keeping the shop open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and taking care of home deliveries together with her husband.

She is handling 20-25 delivery orders a day and a similar number of customers have been coming into the shop, but spending larger amounts than normal.

“The fact we’ve got the basics – many of which we wouldn’t normally have – means that the orders are coming in,” she said, adding that she is still committed to selling the more specialist products that Delilah is known for.

“Because it happened so fast, we still have a lot of fine food. And I already have the supply chain in place for Easter,” she added. “I’ve been selling Iberico ham in 100g packs and I’ve sold more of that than I usually do outside of Christmas.”

Tryner hopes to expand online deliveries into regular subscription services for products like coffee and wine and said she had sent 150 bottles of wine to various customers in London within the last week.

Her next move is to start promoting what Delilah offers more prominently on social media. Delilah has a range of frozen home-made pies ready to go and Tryner wants to increase the take-up of a drive-by collection service for those that place orders and can get out of the house. “Traffic wardens have disappeared so people can just pull up outside the shop.”

Tryner launched a Heat & Eat concept – based on popular dishes from the in-store menus – when the government first introduced measures to battle the spread of the coronavirus, but it didn’t take off. She wants to revive this idea as consumers settle into the situation

“People are going to get bored of cooking and their local takeaways. I’m going to revisit Heat & Eat in the next couple of months.”

Not all retailers have found that home delivery is the best solution for them, and a case in point is Farmer Copleys in Pontefract, West Yorkshire.

“We started a home delivery service, and we’ve now shut it down,” director Rob Copley told FFD. “We could not even cope with 30 orders a day. At least half of the deliveries were not to high-risk people and they were new, not existing customers.”

“I quickly realised that it was not for me. It’s not just about the money anymore, it’s about the moral thing. It felt like we were being busy fools to serve the wrong people.”

Robert Copley
Robert Copley

Copley said as many as five staff members were required to run the home-delivery service and inconsistency in availability of specific items meant that the process was very time-consuming.

Despite this, Copley said that the shop itself remained busy, with his butchery counter reporting 600% increases in sales compared to the same weeks last year and fresh produce was 500% up.

Alongside these two essential categories, Farmer Copleys’ customers have also been seeking out basics, like eggs and flour, while it has also started stocking toilet roll, baby wipes and even some bigger brands.

“A month ago you would not have seen McVitie’s Digestives in my shop, but people want them.”

Copley said that speciality items are currently less in demand, though.

“All my luxury and gift items are running at 20% of what they normally do,” he said. “People have been getting back to basics with their cooking – baking bread, making meat pies.”

Copley added that he expected people to return to treating themselves once the shock of lockdown had passed.

Although his café has shut down, with 70% of foodservice staff furloughed, Copley is putting the space into use by setting it up as a drive-through farm shop.

Read stories like this and more in the digital edition of Fine Food Digest here.

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