The great British public is reacting against the uniformity of global supply and supporting hard pressed regional suppliers with a new found enthusiasm for the distinctiveness of local produce. The supermarkets are wising up to the trend, as Lisa Moorereports Globalisation may be on the fast track, but meeting it head on are shoppers refusing to be browbeaten into accepting what they’re given.
Food scares, the woes of our farmers and Rip-off Britain stories have not only increased the popularity of organic food, but have also given rise to an unprecedented desire to know’ where our food comes from. There has been an upsurge of partisan support for local producers. Even the smallest players who five years ago might not have got a look in at the superstore are finding a warm welcome from the multiples willing to oblige this latest, and growing, consumer demand.
Supermarkets are starting to scour the country for regional brands and produce in their bid to not only differentiate themselves, but also pull in patriotic shoppers who might otherwise take their money elsewhere. It’s not for altruistic reasons they’re splicing into smooth running centralised distribution systems a couple of suppliers of goats cheese and a tub of organic ice cream. Martin Hayward, director of consumer consultancy at the Henley Centre, says: “There is something of a communal yearning going on with people starting to hanker for a sense of community the world today does not offer. We don’t know who our neighbours are so this demand for more local products is a counter to the globalisation going on in the rest of our lives it gives us a better sense of identity. “Even though we’re meant to be part of a much bigger Europe, suddenly we have a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. We call it regional renaissance a reawakening of our understanding of our regions and our roots.”
Jane Curran, food editor of Sainsbury’s The Magazine, also grows organic apples in Kent, and agrees there is a groundswell in demand for locally produced foods. “There’s also something of the Buy British campaign that we saw in the 1970s. Shoppers, particularly those in rural areas, see the terrible straits farmers are in and this has made them more xenophobic,” she says.
There are of course limitations to the shoppers’ love affair with all things “local”. And for all the likes of the green groups’ campaign to reduce food miles, there is little evidence this consumer trend is rooted in concern about the impact on the environment of transportation. And while a Glaswegian shopper may swear he buys Scottish strawberries above those from anywhere else in the world, if he wants a fresh strawberry gateau in December, he expects the supermarket to supply it. We are a nation of spoilt shoppers, used to getting what we want. And, realistically, we are unlikely to return to being a nation of seasonal eaters.
And while an increasing proportion of shoppers may be willing to pay premium prices for local specialities, they are less likely to pay more simply to support local producers against cheaper imports. Pricing will be a key issue in how far this goes.
And neither will shoppers accept anything less than the visually “perfect” unlike the organic shopper. A couple of years ago Cornish cauliflowers suffered a poor season. To accommodate the Cornish farmers, Tesco relaxed its usual pristine white cauliflower specification. French vegetables, which had not endured the rigours of the British weather, sold out while the Cornish cauliflowers had to be thrown out.
Yet the growing number of farmers’ markets show local sourcing isn’t a “here today, gone tomorrow” trend. Tesco has had a team bringing small suppliers into the fold for more than a year. Spokesman David Sawday says: “We’ve just launched 400 lines of Welsh products, for instance. We also sell Pembrokeshire potatoes in Pembrokeshire and Kent fruit in Kent. “People want to support businesses around them. They also like to think there’s a certain freshness of delivery because they perceive products are being brought direct to them.” Tesco displays huge pictures of farmers and producers next to their meat and produce.
It’s been a challenge bringing logistics to the point where the operation can support small suppliers. Centralised distribution has yielded huge benefits in terms of quality control and standardisation of prices not possible with direct-to-store deliveries. Sawday says: “We didn’t have the quality control locally but we’ve almost come full circle in that now we have the disciplines in place so we can take certain products off line and deliver them locally without losing quality.”
Somerfield and Sainsbury’s have recently appointed “local” tsars to help small suppliers, and to remind buyers there is life beyond Mars. Somerfield as part of a joint project with Food from Britain has pledged to stock more than 1,800 speciality items in the next 12 months from around 300 small to medium sized regional producers. Peter Neuman heads the project. “My job is about developing links between stores and suppliers. I will be able to look at products we would never normally sell, but which have great potential or it could be a fledgling company without infrastructure,” he says. He points to Westaway sausages sold in 18 south west Somerfield outlets. It’s a small, but awardwinning range recommended by shoppers. “Local companies are on a 28 day invoicing system, which proves we understand about cashflow. We nurture them and hold their hands through the first invoice clearances so they know what to expect.”
Like Tesco, Somerfield also realises that the biggest single headache for small suppliers is logistics costs. “We tell suppliers that if they usually deliver to a town on a given day then that is also the day Somerfield will get its order. It’s not like in the old days when the rule was if you can’t deliver when we want it forget it’,” he says.
Sainsbury’s Phil Barnes is concentrating on putting more locally produced foods into Scottish and Northern Ireland stores. “There’s now a wider acceptance by Sainsbury’s that customers have different tastes.” And he concedes stocking some small lines can at first be something of a PR exercise or customer service. But Barnes stresses Sainsbury’s won’t consider any product just because it is made by a small or local producer. It must have a point of difference something chutneys or flavoured olive oil might lack, but something a regional honey made in a traditional way may possess.
Sainsbury’s is identifying areas where consumers have a strong affinity with their county. It is also gleaning information from manufacturers about what shoppers want. “There are a lot of good ideas out there but the difficulty is finding a way to bring them back to stores,” says Barnes. The 1990s may have started with supermarkets proffering a take it or leave it attitude. However, as GM free food and organics have shown, shoppers really do vote with their purse strings. While this latest development my still be at the fringes, and something of a PR offensive by the multiples, shoppers may well get used to a little bit of local goodness. And want more. The implications for pricing policies, supply partnerships and logistics are enormous.