As an independent food retailer, it's easy to be gloomy in these challenging times.
The industrialisation of food means so many people are completely disconnected from where their food comes from. The power of the supermarkets means many small suppliers and farmers, here and overseas, are being compromised every day. And then there's the ongoing land grab of the multiples aimed at squeezing out us independents. Yes; there are plenty of reasons to be gloomy.
I've just returned from a few days team building in Embercombe, a sustainability development centre in Devon. With my colleagues, our task was to produce a feast for 30 people almost entirely sourced from the land we were on.
We skinned, butchered, stewed and honoured a wonderful wild deer (someone else did the shooting), harvested fresh vegetables, foraged wild sorrel, nettles and berries, pressed our own apple juice and bottled lovely homemade cider. This joyful experience was so far removed from buying pre-packaged food in a supermarket or heading to McDonald's.
"What's this got to do with supermarkets?" I hear you ask. Well, everything. As retailers we have the opportunity to offer our customers a different approach to food. There's growing interest in local food not only does it have a much lower carbon footprint than the mass-produced alternative but it tastes much better, allows shoppers to feel more connected to their food and aids a healthier diet.
Who would want to go back to eating apples shipped from the other side of the world or products loaded with E numbers, when they've had fresh produce from around the corner?
The good news is the big supermarkets' business model just can't cope with local and can't really engage with local communities. My advice today is to drive home this advantage and foster the growing interest in local communities.
In Crouch End and Belsize Park, where my stores are located, we have communities that care about society and issues beyond themselves and major on local food. Local producers will love the chance to share their passions with your customers. Feature, taste, sample and enthuse about their products and your customers will respond.
Speak to your community ask how you can truly engage with them. Find local organisations that share your passions. Think long and hard about your carbon footprint and how much you put into landfill, cut down on carrier bags and find ways of using your food 'surplus' (we don't call it waste!) to feed those less fortunate than ourselves. Finally look at energy usage you'd be amazed at how easy it is to reduce this, and it has the added benefit of saving you money.
Our Food from the Sky project (the world's first supermarket to grow vegetables and herbs on its roof) beautifully encompasses all of this. The community is involved in the running of the garden, we are connecting people with food, educating and inspiring, while selling quality local produce. Of course this gives independent retailers like me a competitive advantage over the multiples, but I have an appeal for everyone in the business retailers and suppliers, large and small.
We all need to change. There is no doubt our society would be a much better place if we all stood back and reflected on some of the madness we have all helped create. I am very optimistic about the future and believe there is a different way to go about retailing food and that our customers will respond if we give them the opportunity. All we need is some fresh thinking.
Andrew Thornton was named the 2010 Sustainable Retailer of the Year by the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management. He runs two Budgens stores, in Belsize Park and Crouch End.
How much of your stock is locally sourced?
10% or less: 64%
Would you like to stock more local produce?
How important is the carbon footprint of food to your customers?
Very important: 8%
Quite important: 29%
Limited significance: 35%
Not significant but more are asking: 7%
Not at all: 21%
Musgrave has reported bumper Christmas orders from Londis retailers this year. How does your ordering compare to last Christmas?
I have ordered more: 15%
The same: 68%
I have ordered less: 17%
Propertyof the week
What: Newsagent and convenience store with accommodation
Where: Linton, CambridgeshireHow much: Offers over £99,500 (annual rent £10,500)
There's a deal to be had in the Cambridgeshire village of Linton. Sweet Talk News is a well-established business on the village's High Street.
The store delivers newspapers to more than 280 homes a week and boasts National Lottery and Payzone capability, as well as stocking a wide range of alcohol, tobacco, dairy products, greetings cards and magazines.
"The property includes a modest flat on the first floor and is for sale after over four years," says Christie & Co's Mark Page.
For more information contact him via the Christie & Co Ipswich office on 01473 256588.
New in my store
Name: Alkesh Gadher
Name of store: Best-One, Isleworth
Main suppliers: Best-One Direct, Bestway C&C
Where do you get new products from? Via the Best-One Direct website ordering service, which I like very much. We also order from supplier reps who call into the store.
What new products have you started stocking recently? Milkybar Raisin & Biscuit and Twix Fino.
How did you find out about them? We were offered these via a rep visit and he incentivised us by including some free stock.
Is any one product selling particularly well. Why? The new Milkybar has shown great growth because it's now being advertised on television. Twix Fino is doing well due to the availability and location of dump bins, which are carefully placed around the store. Other products selling very well are the Best-In own-label soft drinks this is due to the highly competitive price and the fact we're very close to schools and colleges.
Have you delisted any products recently? Flavoured water and certain ranges of crisps, like Discos and Wheat Crunchies. These were taking up valuable shelf space, which we need for faster-moving lines.
Are there any other products you've got your eye on? The new range of Peter's Pies has started to sell well recently and I will increase the range of these when all the schools are back and the potential is at full steam. I am keen to keep an eye out for new food-to-go lines as well.