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‘It has been our saving grace’ - farm shops still reaping rewards from lockdown sales boom

PUBLISHED: 17:30 20 August 2020 | UPDATED: 07:48 25 August 2020

Robert and Becca Hirst in the family's farm shop at Ormesby, which was at risk of closing before a huge upsurge in demand during the lockdown changed its fortunes. Picture: Richard Hirst

Robert and Becca Hirst in the family's farm shop at Ormesby, which was at risk of closing before a huge upsurge in demand during the lockdown changed its fortunes. Picture: Richard Hirst

Richard Hirst

Farm shops which saw a huge upsurge in demand during the lockdown are still enjoying heightened sales from loyal new customers – with one owner saying the crisis actually saved his shop from closing.

Norfolk produce at the Goat Shed farm shop at Fielding Cottage in Honingham. Picture: BRITTANY WOODMANNorfolk produce at the Goat Shed farm shop at Fielding Cottage in Honingham. Picture: BRITTANY WOODMAN

The coronavirus pandemic sparked a boom for East Anglia’s farm retailers as shoppers sought out a reliable supply of locally-sourced food in safe environment.

Many of those businesses capitalised on the opportunity by launching online order systems and contactless deliveries while expanding their product lines to meet the needs of new customers.

The question which followed was whether this demand could be retained if shopping habits reverted to normal when restrictions eased.

But although the initial peaks have declined, farm shops said trade remains higher than pre-lockdown levels after customers discovered the value of short supply chains, personal service and high-quality farm produce.

Rebecca and Stuart Mayhew at Old Hall Farm in Woodton, where farm shop takings leapt five-fold during lockdown. Picture: Old Hall FarmRebecca and Stuart Mayhew at Old Hall Farm in Woodton, where farm shop takings leapt five-fold during lockdown. Picture: Old Hall Farm

Earlier this week, the EDP reported that takings at Fielding Cottage in Honingham, outside Norwich, are now 20-25 times higher than this time last year, giving owner Sam Steggles the confidence to invest in a £250,000 new shop and café building.

Other farm shops which have also reported a major change in fortunes as a result of the pandemic include the business run by the Hirst family at Ormesby, near Great Yarmouth.

Farm owner Richard Hirst said the shop was at risk of closure until the pandemic reignited the community’s appreciation for local food – and he said trade is still 500-600pc higher than before the lockdown.

“Before lockdown we were about to shut the shop because it wasn’t really working,” he said. “But now we are doing significantly better than we were at the beginning of March. We are getting a good stream of repeat custom from a loyal customer base, which is what we hoped would happen.

Charlotte and Oliver Gurney, owners of White House Farm in Sprowston. Picture : ANTONY KELLYCharlotte and Oliver Gurney, owners of White House Farm in Sprowston. Picture : ANTONY KELLY

“We were not able to open our fun park [Hirsty’s Family Fun Park near Hemsby] and the shop has made up for some of that lost margin. It has been our saving grace and I am fairly confident it will continue.”

Rebecca Mayhew is one of the owners of Old Hall Farm at Woodton, near Bungay, where farm shop takings leapt five-fold at the height of the lockdown – but they have now settled at two or tree times higher than before the crisis began.

She is confident the shop’s efforts to launch an online shop and a home delivery service, as well as stocking new products, would help them keep the customers won during lockdown.

“We got a lot of new customers and we seem to have kept about 60pc of them,” she said. “We are doing more deliveries and our online sales are still a lot higher than pre-lockdown.

The La Hogue Farm Shop near NewmarketThe La Hogue Farm Shop near Newmarket

“I feel very confident about the future because we have managed to forge stronger relationships with people. I think we are valued more by our customer than before, and they know that we value them.

“Their support during lockdown was brilliant and since then we have had people come back to the café who we delivered to during lockdown, and it was the first time they have been out in 20 weeks, because they knew we were going to look after them.

“I think one thing that has come out of Covid-19 is that sense of community and the reliance on small food chains and being able to get something locally rather than having something that has had to travel from another country.”

READ MORE: ‘It was as busy as the Christmas rush’ - how this farm shop adapted during lockdown

Charlotte Gurney, who runs the White House Farm shop and café in Sprowston, said she is still receiving a steady stream of orders for the “pick and pack” service launched during lockdown – and the data captured by the new online order system made it easier to keep in touch with customers, and see which were returning.

Robert and Becca Hirst in the family's farm shop at Ormesby, which was at risk of closing before a huge upsurge in demand during the lockdown changed its fortunes. Picture: Richard HirstRobert and Becca Hirst in the family's farm shop at Ormesby, which was at risk of closing before a huge upsurge in demand during the lockdown changed its fortunes. Picture: Richard Hirst

“We were picking 80-100 boxes a day when we were closed to the general public,” she said. “Now we are open again and I thought that ‘pick and pack’ service that we set up almost overnight would fall away quite quickly – but every single day we are still getting these orders coming through. There might be 10 of them on average weekday, and 25 or even 30 on a Saturday, which is still a good sign.

“During lockdown people placed orders online and they didn’t always get exactly what they wanted but they were encouraged or given things, especially by the butchery, that they might not have had previously. Because of that we had the good fortune that people really enjoyed it and they told us they couldn’t believe the quality of the meat. It was a revelation. It is just lovely to hear and it is really good for farming, farm shops and local trade.”

READ MORE: How can farm shops and food suppliers keep new customers won during lockdown?

Jo Reeks, one of the owners of the La Hogue farm shop near Newmarket, said takings quadrupled at the end of March, which was “a serious challenge, but a welcome one” after its café had to close.

Although that peak is now receding, she believes it will still settle at a higher level than it was before the crisis.

Rebecca and Stuart Mayhew at Old Hall Farm in Woodton, where farm shop takings leapt five-fold during lockdown. Picture: Old Hall FarmRebecca and Stuart Mayhew at Old Hall Farm in Woodton, where farm shop takings leapt five-fold during lockdown. Picture: Old Hall Farm

“We are still trading above the turnover we had before lockdown, but each week we see it shrinking back, and there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot we can do to stem the tide,” she said.

“I would say we are still maybe 15pc above where we were before. I would hope that we will retain a few new customers but we don’t expect it to be lots and lots. We have still got people doing their full shop here because they cannot face going anywhere else, and we are still doing a contactless ‘phone and collect’ service for people who are still shielding.

“I don’t know how long it will last, but I do think we will probably continue to do fractionally above where we were before lockdown.

“We have done alright. What everybody went through in March and early April was horrendous and we were very fortunate when you look at all these businesses who are still shut now.”

Jake Willgress, who runs Church Farm Shop in Hethersett, added: “I believe most farm shops were struggling before lockdown, with the ‘local’ shopping taking a back seat. But due to the nature of the beast, people didn’t have much choice and realised the quality, service and product is much better in the local farm shops. Knowing where your food is sourced is such a huge statement at the moment.

“I would like to think in the future, all those new customers will be regular customers and remember how many local shops helped us all out when we needed them.

“I personally believe the saying ‘use it or lose it’ has never been more touching. We have seen so many local businesses close and we do need to keep them up and running.

“For us personally, we were so lucky and very appreciative to have some amazing volunteers during the peak of Covid, without these amazing people we wouldn’t have been able to support so many vulnerable people.”


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