There's no doubt that when it comes to food, and local produce in particular, the French are the crème de la crème. And with lots of holidaymakers returning from the Continent at this time of year, they could be inspired to seek more home-grown stuff on the shelves of their local store.

So, in the interests of research, C-Store travelled to Normandy to speak to retailers and suppliers of independently owned E Leclerc stores to get their advice on local sourcing and to gain an insight into French marketing techniques.

At Leclerc Caen, local goods make up 25% of the store's total and help the business to engage with its customers. "It's important to have local products because your customers need to identify with their own area," claims deputy general manager Jean-Luc Binard.

In fact, people can feel so connected to their surroundings that if a store isn't stocking local products, it can lead to bad feeling. "You can really disappoint people if they don't find a product they are looking for," notes Stephane Plessis, European export manager for dairy supplier Isigny Sainte-Mère.

Nicholas Julienne, counter service manager at Leclerc Carentan, has plenty of experience in the field and sources cheese on behalf of all Leclerc stores in the area. "You can find local suppliers both by word of mouth and at your local market. And they often have a flexibility that larger firms don't, such as delivering at short notice."

It can also be advantageous in terms of profit, notes Olivier Bonbon, area manager at Isigny. "Selling local produce is a way of having a slightly higher margin. National brands are very strict, whereas with local produce you have more flexibility."

But despite the numerous benefits, retailers also need to be aware of the risks involved, warns Binard. "You have to be cautious when taking on a local producer because some of the smaller firms are new to supplying stores," he says. "It can be great for your image from the point of view of supporting the local community, but it can also do huge damage to your reputation if the company is unable to cope with high volumes without sacrificing quality."

To avoid this, Binard recommends scheduling regular product testing. "It's a good idea to put someone at the store in charge of quality control so that they can carry out regular checks," he advises.

Frederic Laisney, who is also deputy general manager at Leclerc Caen, notes that French retailers tend to be far more relaxed than their UK counterparts when dealing with local suppliers. "We are more flexible with local suppliers and we give them time to adapt," he claims. "For example, one Leclerc store took on a local crêpe firm and at the beginning it was difficult for them to supply the right amount of product. But over time they adjusted and they now have a strong relationship with the original store, as well as another 24 Leclerc stores."

Julienne advises allowing a trial period to give local suppliers a fair chance. "Sometimes at the beginning you have an adaptation period of one or two months where you expect some shortages," he claims. "Customers tend to be quite understanding if there is a shortage because it's a small supplier."

However, he makes clear that most of the time there are no major issues. "I'd say 95% of the time there are no product shortages with local suppliers it's about getting them to put all their cards on the table at the start so that you know what you are working with."

Communication strategies

Another important element is marketing local produce. "In the UK, brochures are mainly based on discount promotions, whereas here we have themes, such as local produce," says Plessis. "In Normandy every retailer sends out at least one leaflet on local produce, some even link it to local events such as La fête de la Normandie."

Leclerc Caen has gone one step further and made a direct connection between the product and the animal from which it was sourced. In the run-up to Easter, the head butcher chooses a cow for slaughter. He is photographed next to the cow, which is then slaughtered and prepared for the meat counter. The photo is used on in-store posters at the meat counter to illustrate excellent traceability.

"The poster even tells customers which farm the cow was from, to give them as much confidence in our food as possible," says Binard.

He concedes that UK customers are "a little afraid of thinking about where meat comes from", but that British retailers could still adopt a similar approach with linking a dairy cow to cheese production.

So why not take a lead from the French and get in touch with a few of your local suppliers to see if you, too, can add a little 'je ne sais quoi' to your store.
Knowledge is power
Another area in which UK retailers can learn from the French is product knowledge. "UK stores have a sound knowledge of the store in general, but their basic knowledge of meat and fish is poor," says Binard. "On my trips to English stores staff at the fish counter were able to tell me little about the product where it is from or how to prepare it." Julienne concurs: "Often, UK shop staff know nothing about what they're selling, whereas French staff are actually taught about provenance." Bonbon suggests that an easy way to get staff clued up is by encouraging them to see how the product is made. "I encourage staff from food stores to visit the Isigny Sainte-Mère factory and see how the product is manufactured," he claims. This rings particularly true for the company's AOC Camembert. To the untrained eye it may look like any other cheese, but a factory tour teaches retailers that it has been made using a special technique. The product is then stored for at least two weeks after packaging to ensure it reaches optimum maturation. "When armed with this knowledge, retail staff can give consumers a richer understanding of what makes the product unique," agrees Plessis. "Obviously, this isn't possible for every product, but a quick call to the supplier can teach you the basics."