British Food Fortnight can do for convenience stores what Harry Potter does for bookshops, says organiser Alexia Robinson. And she has the figures to prove it. Last year participating retailers saw up to 30% growth in sales with an average increase of £1,000 in takings during the fortnight.
Now in its fifth year, British Food Fortnight 2006 is expected to generate even more take-up from retailers, local suppliers and customers. Running from September 23 to October 8, British Food Fortnight is the biggest national celebration of the diverse range of food produced in the UK. Budgens, Londis and a number of independents, delicatessens and farm shops are all getting involved to promote regional food and drink.
local angle
Retailers are being encouraged to create or build on existing relationships with regional suppliers to tap into the growing consumer interest in local produce. According to grocery industry body IGD, 65% - almost two-thirds - of British consumers are now buying locally produced foods and 40% would like to buy more than they do now.
As Robinson says: "The consumer is no longer purely impressed by price - they are impressed with quality, freshness, seasonality, regional distinctiveness and taste. The retailers who capitalise on this will make money. It's as simple as that."
And it's not just during the fortnight itself that sales of local produce increase. Of participating stores in 2004, 80% of new lines have been retained. Robinson explains: "What the event has shown is that where retailers are bold enough to take on and promote a new product for the fortnight, the response has been so good that they have not only retained that product but have taken on new lines. What we are seeing is long-term partnerships being built up between small shops and small suppliers and in some cases new supply chains being built from scratch."
One of the messages that Robinson wants to get across about British Food Fortnight is that it is in independent retailers' commercial interest to get involved. "It's a real opportunity to challenge the multiples by standing up and capitalising on offering something different," she says.
British Food Fortnight is an opportunity for independent retailers to tap into a national advertising campaign beyond what they could afford to do in terms of local advertising. Media coverage has reached more than 250 million people and has included coverage in every national newspaper, headlines on the BBC website and even a storyline on Radio 4's The Archers.
big impact
Budgens is now in its third year of sponsoring the event, and this year all Budgens stores will be participating and at least half of the 2,200 Londis stores are expected to get involved.
Last year Adam Vincent from Budgens in Stoke-sub-Hamdon promoted the event heavily in his local press and used a 4m x 4m Union Jack display for a local range that included apples, meat and eggs. Local honey was displayed on an old beehive. This year he plans to install a plasma screen TV where children will be able to play a 'Shoot the Fox' computer game.
Adam uses British Food Fortnight to educate his customers about some of the products available locally. "We invited our local meat supplier to come to the store for a day and talk about his products," he says. "Once customers could speak to him, nothing was clearer than that he cared a great deal about both his product and his animals."
A knock-on effect was increased sales across that producer's range, and since participating in British Food Fortnight last year Budgens Stoke-sub-Hamdon's range of local produce has increased fourfold.
"The great thing about sourcing locally is that you can set up your own terms, which can be a definite money-spinner," Adam says. "And once you stock the main part of a meal such as meat, you find customers are more likely to want to buy local vegetables. They may then want to buy a dessert from our local puddings and pie company, and perhaps try a locally produced cider or wine. It can snowball, and British Food Fortnight can dramatically affect sales."
It's also the second year that Sue Bodell and her husband have promoted the event. In 2005 they erected a marquee outside their Londis shop in Bow, Devon, and plan to do the same this month. A number of different suppliers came in for a day to give out samples to customers. She says: "We arranged special offers with suppliers and gave away a goodie bag containing a local apple, a chunk of cheese and some local sausages to the first 150 customers."
This year Sue has advertised in her local paper and contacted the local radio station, which will be broadcasting from the shop during the day. Sue also hopes to set up 20 tables of produce ranging from milk and ice cream to meat and pasties.
While Budgens and Londis retailers have the huge support of MBL behind them, independent stores are also embracing the event. John Maxwell-Jones' village shop in Goudhurst, Kent, has been supporting British Food Fortnight since its inception. Throughout the year he sells 300 products from 20 local suppliers, which accounts for about 10% of his total range. For this year's event he expects to showcase a number of local beers.
special attention
Alongside holding tastings for ranges of local wines, beers, chutneys and cheese, Maxwell-Jones sources products from further afield. He plans to visit the Speciality and Fine Food Fair in London's Olympia this month to look for new products to introduce during British Food Fortnight.
Meanwhile, the La Hogue farm shop in Chippenham, Suffolk, saw sales increase 20-30% during the British Food Fortnight in 2005. Although owner Steve Reeks will promote the event every day through the fortnight, he plans to organise special events for each of the three weekends the event covers.
Last year he organised a mini local suppliers' market. "One of the producers brought along a cow called Madge and held tastings of local cheeses outside the shop," he says.
One weekend was advertised as Sausage Saturday and Sunday. Local butchers created new varieties of sausages specially for the event and held tasting sessions for customers.
British Food Fortnight also encourages retailers to partner up with local restaurants and last year Steve organised a Suffolk supper evening, using his locally produced ingredients. The restaurant he linked up with had a full house for the night.
But although rural stores may have a wealth of local suppliers, can city retailers get involved? Londis brand manager Loretta Freeman says that although more rural stores had been previously involved in the event, there is still scope for inner-city stores. "Atul Sodha in Harefield, Middlesex, is an example of what you can achieve," she says. "He sources ice cream from a farm that is also based within the M25 and last year organised free tastings with the farmer that produces the range."
Atul sold more ice cream that September than he did over the entire summer and saw total sales increase £900 a week during British Food Fortnight. He originally planned to promote just ice cream but sales went so well that he introduced British apple pies and takings increased further. He hopes this year will be even more profitable now that Londis is sponsoring the event.
Given the success of the past four years, British Food Fortnight 2006 looks set to be even bigger and better. And if stock flies off shelves at the rate of the latest Harry Potter, then retailers have nothing to lose.

How to get involved

• Increase your stock of regional food and drink and plan a display
• Run special promotions of locally sourced food and drinks
• Encourage local suppliers to come into the store and help with tastings
• Decorate your store with bunting and use the BFF posters to add awareness
• Tell your local newspaper and radio station what you are doing. Write a press release describing your promotion/activity and consider donating a special reader offer
• Develop links with your local school or playgroup and provide food for a picnic or lunch
• Speak to your local pub, restaurant and hotel about them putting regional food on their menu
• Tell British Food Fortnight what you are organising.

Hats off to BFF

The theme of this year's fortnight is 'Are you cooking it?' with a special focus on educating children about local produce. The organisers have sent 26,000 schools in England and Wales information on how to incorporate cookery and food-related topics into their curriculum.
Retailers are encouraged to contact their local school and offer children the opportunity to try locally produced food and drink. Robinson says this can also help to encourage parents to shop
in your store.
To tie in with the event, MBL has launched a chef's hat competition to encourage retailers to work with their local school. Retailers will receive two posters to advertise the competition at the school and store, and 200 chef's hats for the children to colour in. They will also receive three cookery books and aprons to use as prizes.
Londis brand manager Loretta Freeman says: "Many of our stores are involved in the local community they serve and so have been keen to contact the local school, youth or church group to get them onboard. We then encourage them to show pictures of the winners and the winning hats in their store."