This Little Piggy

14th November 2014

Is this the future for food shopping?

Heather Harris investigates, and finds more ways of going to market than ever before

The average UK shopper (not sure if ‘average’ is in terms of height, hair colour, viewing habits, favourite pet…) now uses more than five retailers and three different channels to buy their monthly groceries, according to new research.

‘Channel’, in this case, is not referring to that fascinating corner of the retail world known as the QVC shopping channel, where Joan Collins and Marie Osmond flog their latest beauty cream designed presumably to make us resemble a septuagenarian English actress or a seventies American country pop singer. Instead it refers to the now endless list of ways customers have at their disposal to make a purchase – from hypermarket and high street shop to handheld mobile screen and tablet.

Clearly, I am not an average shopper. In the school holidays and at weekends, for example, feeding time at The Harrises is a continuous process involving a minimum of five visits to various retailers over a 24 hour period.

As teenagers pass through, grazing from a permanently open fridge and drinking from the Tropical Fruit Juice waterhole, there is simply not time to wait for online grocery orders to be delivered or hypermarkets to be navigated. I am, however, on first name terms with the local butcher, baker and – had wax been edible – would no doubt be calling the candlestick maker friend too.

And I am not alone, according to the research by marketing agency Shoppercentric. Seventy per cent of the 1,100 UK shoppers questioned said they had changed their food buying habits recently.

“When asked why, 54% said they wanted to get shopping over and done with. To achieve this they shopped locally, in smaller stores or markets,” says the company’s managing director Danielle Pinnington.

The growth of the ‘Farmer’s Market’ is an intriguing phenomenon. Over 750 have now sprouted up all over the country reaping the benefits of recent food scares. As one dedicated shopper tells me at our local fruit and veg stall, “I like to see the soil on my food and know that it’s been grown locally.”

Except that it might not have been. An investigation by a Daily Mail reporter dug deep into the background of market sellers and found that many travelled all around the country selling their wares.

‘This makes a mockery of the idea of supporting local producers,’ the Mail revealed, but with a far scarier headline. The newspaper also proved that some of the market sellers had links with local supermarkets and – shock – sold their produce on their shelves as well as trestle tables.
But the National Farmers Retail and Markets Association (FARMA) is not concerned. Their guidelines state that sellers should come from a 30 mile radius of the market, and their spokesman explains that many farmers start off selling at markets but then grow to the stage where their produce can also be stocked at other outlets such as supermarkets. “They continue to sell at farmers markets because they are loyal to their customers and they value the face to face contact.”

Loyalty is something which increasingly money can’t buy. The Shoppercentric study showed that 17% of Tesco shoppers reported that they spent more in other stores; 14% of those trudging the aisles in Sainsbury’s and Morrisons said the same.

As Ms Pinnington points out, “A change in shopper habits presents retailers with huge challenges. This apparent decline in loyalty indicates a need to move away from traditional tactics to encourage repeat business.”

The most obvious way is for supermarkets to improve their ‘online presence’. However, not all of us are happy to order our grocery shopping one mega bite at a time. One friend admits, “I always used to shop online but I got fed up with the ‘substitutions’ and in all honesty the novelty wore off.” Ironically, more and more customers are concerned with the excess of choice that comes with an online list. As another, perfectly computer-savvy, shopper tells me, “By the time I’ve scrolled down all the different things that come up when I type in Cheddar Cheese, I could have nipped down to my local shop and bought some!”

And, as social studies are constantly reporting, life is moving at a faster and faster pace. We are becoming so used to getting everything instantly that 24 hours is simply too long to wait for the delivery of a mushroom (and as for stuffing it…). Plus a quick trip to the High Street also brings with it ample opportunities for a skinny decaff latte, the coffee market being a rare example of a sectore where profits are rising faster than our heartbeat after a double espresso.

Channel 4 recently looked at ‘Supermarket Wars’ as part of their Dispatches season and also confirmed, “The sector is being battered by changing shopping habits as customers shun large-out-of-town stores in favour of smaller convenience stores.”

Out of the 400 new supermarkets that local authorities have approved for building in the last five years, 97 have been abandoned or stalled.

We no longer want to spend endless hours wandering aimlessly from one mile long aisle to the next, burning more calories than are contained in our supersize, industrial trolley. And then there’s the mind-numbing task of ‘loading and unloading’ (in our house a punishment worse than the ‘naughty step’ and ‘washing mouth out with soap’ combined).

The discount sector is, of course, the fastest expanding area in grocery retail, currently worth an estimated £10bn in annual sales and forecast to double in value to around £20bn in the next five years, according to analysts IGD. Even though Sainsbury’s is just getting in on the act, teaming up with Danish discounter Netto to open the first of 15 stores, the much-championed success and prospects of stores such as Aldi and Lidl is all relative. Yes, these are attracting customers away from other established supermarkets (why else would Sainsbury’s want to join the party?) but it is still not encouraging us back to ‘buying in bulk’ in one monthly shop.

Customers seem to want to have their cake and eat it. They are happy to whizz over to a discount store for loo roll and multi-buy packets of crisps but are equally likely to then go to M&S and pay a premium for top quality convenience foods or call in at the butcher for homemade sausages.

As the Daily Telegraph reported in the summer on Marks and Spencer’s financial results for the first quarter of this financial year, ‘Food sales were impressive when compared with the problems facing some of Britain’s established supermarket chains. M&S, which focuses on the higher end of the market, has grown its food business over the past four years.’ The trend continued in the second quarter: food at M&S doing well, clothing not so well. In fact, suggested John Humphrys, talking to Marks and Spencer’s chief executive Marc Bolland, on Radio 4’s Today programme, perhaps the chain should consider dropping everything except food and underwear.

Meanwhile, back with the homemade sausages, local butchers are also stringing together a succession of good sales performances. A report by insurance broker Simply Business found a quarter more independent food stores on our high streets than a year ago, with bakeries and fishmongers showing the biggest rise of 31% and 28% respectively.

The study also found a 25% increase in delicatessens and a 9% increase in butchers’ shops. Jason Stockwood, the company’s CEO, says that the surge in independent food merchants exemplifies “the nimble nature of small businesses.” Their success is often determined by “smartly tapping into growing trends at the right time.”

The craze for cupcakes is a perfect example. Rachael Halstead, who owns Rachael’s Kitchen which specialises in sending boxes of these sweet treats across the country, uses the same word: “Independent shops can be more nimble and responsive to customers than supermarkets,” she says. “For example a customer asked for a new flavour of cupcake – Eton Mess – and the next day we’d created it. There’s something to be said for being specialist for one thing. People have more of a connection with the brand.”

Jason couldn’t agree more (although thankfully didn’t use the word ‘nimble ‘ again) “We hope these independent food and drink stores will profit from consumers turning their backs on established supermarket chains in favour of their local providers who breathe new life into community high streets.”

So when it comes down to it – we are basically all a bit undecided when it comes to bringing home the bacon. This little piggy could go to the market and risk buying his brother from the local farm; he could trot off down to Aldi and buy a vacuum sealed 12 pack of streaky, nip down the High Street for a quick butcher’s on what’s on offer or head straight for a top end supermarket for a premium bit of pork. And if his sty happens to have broadband, he could be the little piggy that stayed at home and just logged on…

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