Few people could forget the sweetness of a strawberry picked from the local pick-your-own and popped straight in your mouth. Surely it's that they haven't been flown half way around the world before they reach our lips, or that they haven't travelled the length of the country before they hit the shelves that makes them taste so great.
With food miles becoming the latest buzzwords in ethical retailing, even some of the supermarkets are jumping on the bandwagon. However, it's c-stores that are best placed to cash in on the growing demand for locally sourced foods.
The Seward family, who runs a Spar store in Bampton, Devon, joined forces with the Women's Institute (WI) to search for the county's finest local produce to be trialled in their store as part of a community research project called Living Local. The project was launched to discover how Bampton sources its food and the pivotal role local stores play in village life.
The initiative ran from August 2006 to February 2007 and with all the local PR Spar Bampton received, total store sales rocketed by 16% during the course of the project - and local produce sales soared, too. Sales of Exmoor honey went up by 83%, Styles ice cream - also from Exmoor - increased by 361%, and West Hill Farm organic milk products from Ilfracombe went up by 87%.
The Sewards were approached to take part in the project when the West Country's Spar wholesaler Appleby Westward named Spar Bampton as a big supporter of local producers. Caroline Seward, who runs the store with husband Brian, son Roger and daughter-in-law Dawn, says: "People are being more selective and have become more and more aware of local products in the past three years. We were enjoying the trade in local produce and so it was thought we would be ideal to work with the WI.
"They wanted a modern c-store in a rural location with a thriving community. All we had to do was keep stacking the shelves, keep the labelling right, answer any questions and have our sales monitored. We came out with fantastic figures and it was clear that people wanted to buy local foods in their local store."
Mintel's Ethical and Green Retailing report, published in June 2007, confirms consumers' greater interest in locally produced food. The report reveals that 41% of consumers believe producers and supermarkets should provide more details about food miles on the products they sell. And one in five (19%) of Brits now try to avoid products with high food miles by looking at where the products were grown.
More than half (54%) of British consumers feel there is not enough locally produced food available in the store where they regularly shop, and a similar number (53%) believe that retailers need to do more to develop and promote UK production to reduce global sourcing.
Neil Mason, senior retail analyst at Mintel, says: "Food miles are now high on the consumer agenda. People are becoming increasingly aware of just how far their food has had to travel. Many are also clearly frustrated by the fact that we are not making more of the produce that is grown on British soil. Frustration tends to run high when products that could be grown right here in the UK, have been flown in from the other side of the world, taking their toll on the environment."
Spar Bampton sells more than 200 local lines across most product categories, but its top performers are Exmoor honey and West Hill Farm dairy products. "We order 150 litres of organic milk from West Hill Farm every Thursday and a slightly smaller amount on a Tuesday," says Caroline. "The owners really look out for us. If they have a new product, the delivery driver will save one for us to trial. I've also been down to the farm to fetch more supplies at short notice. We feel looked after and the products are fantastic. Customers say that the milk is the best tasting organic milk they've tried, and their chocolate sauce has won Taste of the West Awards."
To generate further interest in their local ranges, Spar Bampton has produced a recipe book of meals made from local products. "I was thinking about what we could do to get people more interested in the store and the local products and how to raise money for Spar's charity, the NSPCC. I was mulling it over and thinking about how everyone wants an evening meal ready now and wondered what the staff do, because we always seem to be moaning about what's for tea at the same time. The girls said they'd each give me a recipe - it had to be something quick and easy and made from local products or organic ingredients. Lots of customers gave us recipes and Spar printed 500, which we've been selling for £5 each. We've already handed over £900 for the NSPCC."
For Sid Ali, who runs a Nisa Local store in Mintlaw, Aberdeenshire, local sourcing is largely about getting a point of difference from the supermarkets. He's been selling local products for 20 years, and in the past five years, sales have risen by about 300%. Local products make up 15% of his total store sales now, and even more in the summer when he can source strawberries. "Because of the negative influence supermarkets have had on local farmers, more and more farmers are willing to supply small stores," says Sid. "They've realised it's better to sell smaller quantities at better prices."
Sid sources bakery products from six local craft bakers. "They can supply me with an infinite number of lines, unlike the supermarkets who sell only a small range. The likes of Tesco and Asda would be very envious of the broad range I can sell. They may have their in-store bakeries, but there's no innovation. I have access to 1,000 different products. I stock the best sellers plus some different ones, which I rotate, and they go fantastic. The bakery is one of the hero sections that a lot of people come in for and we have exclusive agreements with the bakers, which gives me a unique selling point that we trade on very well."
a cut above
Fresh meat comes from the local butcher. "He has a shop in the next village but also supplies me with raw and cooked meats and his very famous coleslaw. During last year's hot summer, I sold 150 tubs in one day. Not bad for a 1,500sq ft store in a village with a population of 2,500."
Sid believes recent health scares have played a part in the growing popularity of local meat. "Things like foot and mouth and avian flu mean people are more aware of where their meat comes from, and more conscious about what they put in their baskets. If it's local, people know where it's come from and they're quite happy to pay a little more if it's dearer. The taste, quality and traceability is better. But you can't premium price for the sake of it. Customers are not stupid; they know when they should pay more and when they shouldn't."
Sid also gets strawberries and raspberries from a local farmer.