“We’d consider ourselves a modern greengrocer,” says head buyer Ian Crees. “Apart from the odd store that stocks local cheese or local milk, all we sell is fresh produce and flowers. It’s been a huge success.”
By the mid-1990s, Stokes had reached a peak of 85 stores, which fell back to 65 as it ditched underperforming outlets.
“Seven or eight years ago supermarkets began to hit us with cheap prices, which at the time we tried to compete with,” says Crees. “We started stocking short-dated supermarket lines, but it wasn’t working for us.”
This time around, lessons have been learnt. Two years ago, a major review of the business led to Stokes closing half its 65 stores and focusing the remaining 32 – based mainly in the south west – on selling quality, locally sourced fruit and veg. The new-look business is leaner, more contemporary and no longer in direct competition with the multiples, says Crees.
“We’re positioned somewhere between a farm shop and a supermarket. The service at store level is better than a Tesco or a Sainsbury’s. There’s also a larger variety of slower-selling products in our range. For example, we stock yams on a regular basis, we have pak choi, okra, star fruit, passion fruit and thai chillis. Many of the supermarkets in the south west tend to be quite old-fashioned, so they can’t devote the same space to fresh produce as us.”
Stokes prides itself on the freshness and seasonality of its produce. Deliveries arrive five times a week and promotional offers revolve around fruit and veg that is in season. A key strength of the business is that it keeps to a minimum the time it takes to get produce from farm to shelf, says Crees.
“We can phone a flower supplier at 6.30am, they won’t cut them until they get the call and they’ll be in store by 2pm. It’s something we pride ourselves on.” If he’s concerned about the credit crunch, he hides his fears well. “It has only been positive for us so far. People don’t want to fill up the car and drive out of town to do their shopping.”
Nevertheless, he admits the business missed its summer sales targets, blaming the inclement weather. Sales for September, however, were ahead of last year. The business currently generates weekly sales of about £250,000 across its 32 stores. Unsurprisingly, given Stokes’ history, new store openings are low on the agenda.
“We’re currently working on more concessions, opening fresh fruit and flower stalls at train stations,” says Crees. “We’re also close to striking a deal with Wyevale to sell produce through its garden centres.”
The retailer is also upping the ante in wholesale, supplying local independent stores from its head office in Bristol and local businesses straight from store. But the days of taking on the supermarkets are gone. For Stokes at least, size doesn’t matter.