Own Online sounds at first like a veg box scheme much like any other. Situated in a small outbuilding on an organic farm near Exeter, the company sources locally, doesn't use plastic bags and details the food miles of products on its website.
Unlike its box scheme contemporaries, however, Own Online claims to offer a full range of core grocery products, including wine, beer and spirits, toiletries and cleaning products. This allows consumers to do a full weekly shop - in theory, at least. Although the company has yet to turn a profit, it boasts 2,500 registered customers and is on target to break even in six months. "We are proving you can get almost everything you need locally," says Dave Stickland, who set up Own Online with business partner and ex-Sainsbury's store manager Keith Rawlinson (above left) four years ago. "We have an average spend of £70. Other box schemes I know of have an average spend of £10-£12, so we're breaking new ground."
The company tries to source as locally as possible. This means most goods sold are produced within Devon, with most of the rest from Cornwall and Dorset. Own Online's dedication to the West Country is not just about backing the local economy. "There's a whole load of issues wrapped up here," says Stickland. "There's organic, there's food miles, there's health - we try to be a one-stop solution for people who care about them. If the carrots are from Lincoln, we will put the food miles in, but we are making our utmost effort to get them as close to home as we can."
Stickland and Rawlinson hope their ethos will inspire retailers in other counties and they are in talks with potential franchisees across the UK. So far, there have been expressions of interest from people in London, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire keen to offer similar services in their region. Stickland would also like to branch out from the pure online model and open a store, but is wary of the current economic and retail climate. After a long period of growth, Own Online's sales have slowed since February, he admits.
Yet the pair remain optimistic and, pragmatically, have made the decision to take a temporary hit on margin to compete with the supermarkets and price-match on everyday items such as milk.
The lower costs associated with a local online model will help Own Online's success in the long run, believes Stickland. "The average supermarket has enormous overheads. I think people like ourselves and Ocado are the future." In that future, most groceries will be bought online and people will shop in specialists for extras, predicts Stickland. "If we can get the bulk of the non-entertaining shopping online, people can use the time saved to go to the specialist baker, say, and enjoy it."
It remains to be seen if shoppers will still favour specialist s during a recession. The consumer trends toward online shopping and buying local produce, however, look set to continue unabated. Own Online may well ride out the recession.