‘Don’t forget us’ – Farm shops appeal for customer loyalty as sales drop during second lockdown
- Credit: Hirst family
Farm shops which offered a vital supply line during the first lockdown have appealed for loyalty from food shoppers, saying: We were there when you needed us – now we need your support.
The early weeks of the coronavirus crisis sparked a boom for many of Norfolk’s farm retailers as people sought out a reliable supply of locally-sourced food while some supermarket shelves were emptied. Many capitalised on the opportunity by launching online order systems and expanding their product lines to meet the needs of new customers.
But they are reporting much lower takings during the second lockdown, with some customers having reverted to buying from supermarket chains which have since invested heavily in improving the capacity of their online order systems and delivery networks.
Without the continued loyalty of consumers, farm shops fear they could be unable to carry on employing local people and providing a valuable outlet for small independent food producers.
Robert Hirst runs the shop at his family’s farm at Ormesby, near Great Yarmouth, which had been at risk of closure until the pandemic revived takings, allowing it to recruit new staff and stock more locally-sourced food and drink.
“While the demand has been there we have been able to stock more local produce, particularly the fresh stuff that has got a short shelf life,” he said. “But we have seen a drop-back in this second lockdown. We had a good few days while the supermarkets were packed out but it has not continued into this week, which is a bit of a worry.
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“All farm shops have worked really hard to keep the shelves stocked. We are working hard to meet the consumer needs, but it is so easy for them to go back to the big retailers and forget about the guys who worked so hard when they needed us. In the difficult times, we were there because we were the only option. But now we have got to keep these customers coming.”
If the current four-week lockdown is lifted as planned, the Hirst family is hosting a Christmas Market at Mill Farm in Ormesby St Margaret on December 5-6 an 12-13, with 35 stallholders selling food and drink, festive decorations, gifts and Christmas trees.
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Mr Hirst added: “We have got Christmas coming and we are excited about that, but then we have January to fight through and there is a worry about what it could be like in the early part of the year.”
READ MORE: Celebrity chef teams up with turkey farmer to promote Norfolk foodCharlotte Gurney, who runs the White House Farm shop and café in Sprowston, has also seen a reduced footfall and a sharp decline in online orders for the “pick and pack” service launched during the first lockdown.
“There is no doubt that this second lockdown has taken a different tempo to the last,” she said. “Trails of queues outside our farm shop are a sight for the history books.
“At its height we worked all hours with suppliers and our tech team to try and accommodate demand, packing 80-100 boxes a day, whereas now the orders are a mere trickle at 10-20 a day. Admittedly we are still open this time around, but custom is definitely down on the previous lockdown.
“Second time around, the supermarkets have invested hugely, adjusting to their new online customer base, tweaked their slick supply chains to ensure they have the flour, tinned tomatoes and pasta that were so desperately needed in April.
“There is no doubt your local farm shop and community needs you in times of adversity as we fast approach Christmas. In return, they offer stability and a real sense of community in these lonely times.
“These employees worked hard to serve you in the hour of need – don’t forget them. I just ask people to support us now the way they did back in March.”
One farm shop owner who is very confident about the future is Sam Steggles, who invested £250,000 in a major new building at Fielding Cottage in Honingham, outside Norwich – an ambitious expansion made possible thanks to a massive sales surge during the first lockdown.
He said although sales were generally not quite as high this time around, he has continued to launch new products including a range of Christmas hampers in response to customer demand.
“We have built a loyal customer base for the shop and I am very confident that the people who are coming here every week will stay with us,” he said. “All we have done is talked to them and given them what they want. We have got very good quality produce and if you continue supplying that I believe the customers will stay loyal to it.”
The EDP has a launched a Shop Local campaign, asking consumers to spend their hard-earned cash with independent businesses and give Norfolk’s economy a boost in the run up to Christmas, in a bid to bolster our high streets and spark a wave of online spending with local retailers.