Four Champions discuss local produce and how they work with small suppliers

Simon Biddle, Biddles Convenience Store, Redditch, Worcestershire

Simon has been sourcing meat and bread from local suppliers for the past 15 years and believes that demand for local produce is rising as people become more aware of what they eat.

Conrad Davies, owner two Eurospar Stores and two smaller Spars, North West Wales

Conrad uses more than 70 local suppliers. His local meat sales rose 33% during the horsemeat scandal as consumer demand for products with guaranteed traceability grew.

Roli Ranger, Londis, Ascot, Berkshire

By displaying complementary items together, such as locally made curry sauce and locally sourced meat, Roli has been able to increase sales of his local produce even further. Tasting sessions help add sales, too.

David Knight, Budgens, Hassocks, West Sussex

He describes some aspects of sourcing local produce as a “nightmare”, but sales continue to flourish in his Sussex store. Local produce is growing faster than total sales, up 5-6% year on year, David reports.

How is your local produce performing?

Simon: Our fruit and veg has always been strong and it’s continuing to do well. In the past six weeks I’ve started using a local butcher, which has also been well received.

Conrad: Our local produce sales are definitely up.

Roli: It is going well. Sales of fresh food have definitely grown.

David: Our local produce is performing well. Overall, we’re seeing 5-6% growth on local products.

Is local sourcing growing in importance?

Simon: People are becoming more aware of what they eat.

Conrad: Yes, because people like to know what’s in their food. With products like our local pork, you can actually go and see the pigs in the fields.

Roli: When I did my initial research to find out what customers wanted from me, they all said that they missed the local baker, butcher and greengrocers, so I wanted to create that kind of atmosphere using local suppliers.

David: The recent scandals have reinforced the importance of where food comes from. Frozen processed meat sales have almost dried up completely here, but Cook meals have picked up most of the slack, and the rest of the business has gone to local meat.

Which locally-sourced categories sell best?

Simon: We’ve tried to provide local produce in all areas of our store and it all sells well.

Conrad: Meat and dairy are popular. Everyone loves local cheese, and cakes and bread also do well. Half of the bread sold is locally made. We’ve also just opened a fresh fish counter. One week in February it took £850.

Roli: The two that come to mind are fruit & veg and chicken. We also stock local honey, which people buy for its medicinal values.

David: Everything does well, but particularly local fruit and veg such as our Sussex apples.

Where do you find small suppliers?

Simon: I’ve used my local baker for the past 15 years and my cooked meat supplier for the same. My cooked meat supplier recommended a fresh meat supplier.

Conrad: We go to farmers’ markets and food fairs, and now people know that we source local produce, suppliers often come to us. More than 70 Welsh producers supply my stores.

Roli: I’ve been to the local farmers’ market and met small suppliers, and I’ve visited other shops in the area to see what they are stocking. If I see something I like then I try to find out whether I can stock it. Sometimes suppliers just walk into the store and introduce themselves.

David: We owe trade shows an awful lot. We picked up suppliers, such as Cocoa Loco in West Grinstead, at the Brighton Food Show. We also have suppliers visit us. Frozen yogurt firm Lick approached us after hearing we’d won the Convenience Retail Awards.

What are the advantages of stocking local produce?

Simon: People have more confidence in local produce and I’ve always been of the belief that the money should go to independent suppliers. I find them more flexible and if you run out of something they’ll do their best to help you out.

Conrad: It offers a point of difference that the multiples can’t, and gives us more margin and increased footfall.

Roli: People like to hear the story behind the product. They like that you are supporting a local company. The customer is benefitting from products they can’t get in the multiples and they know that they are supporting the local community by shopping with you.

David: The main advantage is product differentiation from rivals. For example, we have a lady who supplies sweet pea bouquets when they are in season. They are expensive, but we have customers waiting for them because you won’t see them elsewhere.

Are there any difficulties with stocking local produce?

Simon: There aren’t really any, even with product labelling. Traceability is such a big issue that suppliers are geared up for it.

Conrad: Some producers know nothing about retail, such as pack sizes, barcodes, product displays and so on, so you have to hold their hand. I just spend time with them and explain to them how it works. For example, a lady came in with some butter she’d made recently, but the pack size meant that it would be too expensive for us to stock, so I told her that if she reduced the packs by 25g it would make it the right price point for our store.

Roli: Sometimes you find that there isn’t a fast enough rate of sale. I stocked a goats’ milk cheesecake and had to stop stocking it because the shelf-life was short and there wasn’t enough demand.

David: It’s a complete nightmare! The health and safety element - how they’re set up and whether everything is legitimate - is really important. You need to consider things like whether they are sealing their jam lids properly to avoid botulism. We found an HR and auditing company to write up documentation for the supplier to comply with, which confirms they have a certificate of wholesale and a certificate of health, and that they have answered a number of technical questions. The next hurdle is sorting out whether the product is fit for purpose. We have a lovely cupcake supplier, but the products were so delicate that they got destroyed being picked up by the tongs in our bakery counter, so we couldn’t sell them.

How do you ensure a good relationship with local suppliers?

Simon: Just be straight and honest with them. The butcher and I meet face to face so it’s a friendly affair.

Conrad: As well as offering them packaging advice, I get suppliers to come in and sample their products. They also present to staff. It’s an opportunity for staff to provide feedback, but it also enables them to hear the product story. When they know how the product is made, they want to tell customers about it.

Roli: We run tasting sessions in-store, which have gone down really well. It shows the supplier that you are interested and helps to grow sales.

David: We take them through our guidelines, we manage their expectations, we show them how the store works, how many customers we have, how we expect their range to perform and so on. We also provide them with weekly sales data and customer feedback. Our fish supplier used to deliver on Saturdays, but customers wanted to have fish on Friday, so we convinced them to change their delivery time to Thursday and sales went up 30%.

What advice would you offer retailers who would like to get involved in local sourcing?

Simon: Do your homework - go around the local butchers and see what’s available.

Conrad: Do it slowly. Don’t think you can just put products on shelf and it’ll work - it won’t. You need to be involved and invite the supplier to your store to offer sampling sessions.

Roli: They could talk to other retailers and find out what’s worked in their stores. It’s an opportunity to offer something different and stand out. You want people to come to your store for a specific item, rather than just a distress purchase.

David: Go to your local farmers market and watch what people are leaning towards. Think about quick wins - products that you know will sell such as biscuits and cakes. The complexity of the operation is great, though - I can’t stress that enough.

How do you communicate the fact that items are locally produced?

Simon: Staff talk to customers about local produce. They’ll ask them how the products are and we get some great feedback. I also use ‘fresh’ and ‘local’ POS.

Conrad: A map on the wall pinpoints the locations of each Welsh supplier. Welsh items are flagged up with POS stating from how many miles away the product is sourced. Three years ago I launched a Welsh Food Fortnight in October, to follow on from British Food Fortnight. We’re hoping to get 20 stores involved this year.

Roli: We’ve made our own POS and have worked with Musgrave on shelf-edge labelling.

David: We use blackboards in-store to highlight local produce. We also organise a St George’s Day tasting and invite all our local suppliers to come and sample their products.