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Inside Story: Independent food retail during Covid

In lockdown small, independent food stores no longer seemed like ‘nice little examples of how different food shopping could be’, but a vital community asset of which there simply wasn’t enough to go around, writes Danni Rochman

As the rest of the world shut up shop, the onset of lockdown was a very different experience in food retail. Food and how to get hold of it was suddenly the focus of everyone’s attention. Demand to access our stores and the products within rocketed. We – and many other small, independent food stores like us across Bristol – no longer seemed like ‘nice little examples of how different food shopping could be’, but a vital community asset of which there simply wasn’t enough to go around.

Indie supply chains fared better than the supermarkets in those early days; the reasons are more complex than I would dare to explore here, and entrenched in the transformation of our food system witnessed since the latter part of the last century. Essentially, though, indie supply chains are overwhelmingly short and local; our stock is less susceptible to disruption; the food we need to keep our stores open is right here on our doorstep already. That’s not to say we didn’t see our fair share of empty shelves: an increased need for food in the home, surges in popularity for baking, bulk cooking and growing, and changes to shopping patterns (no longer ‘little and often’ but ‘lots and as infrequently as possible’), all took time to adjust to.

“Independent food stores like us across Bristol – no longer seemed like ‘nice little examples of how different food shopping could be’, but a vital community asset of which there simply wasn’t enough to go around”

This new era of local shopping – if that’s truly what it is – seems to have brought with it not only a new cohort of customers, but also greater loyalty from existing local shoppers. Local food shops offer something that sprawling supermarkets can’t: immediate proximity, less daunting queues and crowds, staff that are recognisable and recognise you, and a reassuringly small but purposefully-chosen range. They feel safe. More than this though, lockdown has forced many of us to rethink our financial priorities. Uncertain income, a limiting of purchases only to that deemed essential, a greater emphasis on health, and increased awareness of the value of local supply – all of these have led people to place greater value on the food they buy. As more people choose to do the bulk of their food shopping in local indies, is this finally a recognition of ‘the true cost of food’ that is so often aspired to by industry insiders and sustainable food campaigners?

As the high street reopens and its bright lights begin to distract us from the wholesome life of lockdown, what can local, independent retail do to continue to remain a priority for the community? Cost is going to be a major factor and the toughest to mitigate. Indies can’t fight big chains on a level playing field, nor compete to offer prices that fit consumer expectations of cheap food. But they can play to their strengths and focus efforts on a high-quality core range that offers genuine value for money while also ensuring that their customers feel ‘seen’, both by offering a more attentive shopping experience, and by acknowledging the distinct needs of the community they serve. A better understanding of food – vague as it seems – is also vital; local food retailers tend to offer more unprocessed foods and more seasonal curiosities, so knowing how to use and make the most of these ingredients is the key to being able to afford good quality, local food. Retailers can work alongside city food campaigns to share this knowledge.

As reacting to crisis morphs to recovery, independent food retail will need space to thrive in as many domains as possible. My hope is that with careful attention given to the needs of their customers, old and new, indies can sustain and build on this resurgence of appreciation for local food; in turn, we’ll see more food retail in communities, online, and at fresh food markets, ensuring greater access to good food than has been possible for many decades.

Danni Rochman is community & policy officer at the Bristol, UK-based organic and ethical food retailer Better Food. This article forms part of a collection of articles curated by The Community Farm under the title Lessons from Lockdown.

Main image: Better Food’s St Werburghs store, one of its three Bristol outlets. Via Facebook. 

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