We want to shop better. We want to do our grocery buying better. As a family, we’ve been thinking about who we spend our money with and where and we’ve come to the conclusion that it is time, especially now that as a family we HAVE a little more time, to shop in a more thoughtful manner.There are lots of reasons for this and I’m keen to have people’s thoughts and ideas too.
We’re small business owners. We own a small business. We rely, absolutely rely, on people choosing to shop with us. We don’t have the massive cost savings and discounts that giants have at their disposal, we rely on people deciding that they will shop with us, will take the time to get to know our site, will choose to support us, will accept that a few pence more in one place or the other might occur. We exist, as an independent retailer, only by providing a different service to the multi-national, universe sized retailers who can hold postal services, couriers and distributors virtually to ransom, demanding products are stripped of their character to be sold at a certain price and that postal services deliver for virtually nothing just so that no one else gets the business instead.
Owning our shops we have to strike a balance between good prices, ones that won’t put people off and the kind of personal, wonderful service that make people glad they took the time to look at us, shop with us, put their card details in and trust us. We have to hope that knowing they can phone us up and we ABSOLUTELY WILL KNOW which Groovy Girl has shiny shoes, is enough for them. That knowing we will help them get exactly the right replacement toy will make them spend their money with us. That they’ll eschew the multi-nationals for a company that will take the time to get out all the dolls house people and work out which ones will suit a certain dolls house just right.
When it comes down to it though, the vast majority of people will shop, sometimes for more money and no service and less choice, with sites that are a household name and have the money to run a site which stores card details. (And the legal department to keep them afloat when it goes wrong). And the truth is – so do I. I’m as guilty as the next person of receiving the vast majority of my Xmas shopping from the goddess of online shopping.
In the run up to Christmas, Max and I spent sleepy evenings watching the Back In Time series about Shepton Mallet’s high street. And then recently we watched Panorama: What Price Cheap Food? The second made us us realise that this country is truly in danger of losing everything it loves about itself by becoming reliant on orange, green and blue and red stripped carrier bags. It wasn’t even the reality of the truly poor food that those massive farms produces, it was the sheer, relentless march of supermarkets, the dreadful map of the country that, until you are well into Wales, has barely a space between the dots that denote them. I’m so conditioned to supermarkets I practically feel anxious going in to independent shops – I’m conditioned to packaged and processed groceries in a manner than disgusts me.
And Shepton Mallet, that fascinating experiment that reintroduced the people of a virtually abandoned town centre to personal service and thoughtful shopping. In some respects I think independent online shops are almost the modern day equivalent of the Victorian shop – small enough to be personal, big enough to do things well. I like to think of us in that way; focused on good products and good service. But on the high street, I think people get nervous now in a shopping environment where someone might say “can I help you?” – I’m beginning to think the impersonal lack of service in a supermarket is exacerbating our Britishness.
The most astonishing thing about that programme, for us as business people, was that the towns people loved those individual shops, enjoyed the service, enjoyed the products – then moved away to the supermarket when it became available to them, complaining as they shopped there that it had killed the businesses they loved.
And I fear this is the fate, potentially, of all small business. The truth about that map of supermarkets is that every time they see a space between the dots, they are not just seeing an opportunity for expansion, they are also actively looking at where people shop in that locality and actively, intentionally, plotting to destroy those businesses. It is not really any different online; we, like countless others, are on a hit list somewhere. We watch our brands be bought up, one after another, by big business and we lose another toe hold. We can fight for some of it – but we lose every time. We rely on the odd, the very occasional, brand who chooses to say no, to keep our business.
So this year, Max and I decided that as well as talking the talk, we need to walk the walk as well. And it is hard. For example, I wanted to buy some workbooks today and the same basket was £10 less with a large online bookseller than it was with the actual maker of the books. There are some places in life where it is going to be tough to make those changes and some places where in all honesty, we can’t afford to. I can, I really can, choose to use independent websites more – and I’m going to.
We decided that we CAN afford to do it with food, partly because there is a genuine difference in quality there if we buy locally and partly because it involves personal, local relationships. And it is those things we want to do better. We want to support our local businesses, get to know they people who grow things and make things and support their endeavour to stay in business. I’ll be honest, we’re not doing this because we want to be organic, or even frugal, or crunchier than we were before. We just want to know some of the people we buy from – and make a difference to them the way our customers make a difference to us.
It’s harder than it ought to be. For a while now, we’ve been buying all our roast dinners and sausages from a local meat man and our potatoes and onions from a chap who turns up in the same, very close by, lay by. That isn’t so hard to do. But our local farm grows organically and totting up our weekly fresh veg purchases on their website, the cost was more than double the supermarket; we can’t afford that, despite wishing we could. So we’re still looking for a fruit and veg person. We’ve applied for an allotment but there is a year waiting list – and that is by the by any way, we’d like to cut on cost by growing our own, but that isn’t our primary goal and the allotment would be as much about education and family time as the food we grew.
We live within 6 miles of 3 supermarkets and there are now NO local butchers, bakeries or green grocers; they’ve all gone out of business. Our local Co-op doesn’t have a bakery and only sells sliced bread; Max has tried baking bread but says it isn’t really cost effective. I’d be interested to know if a bread making machine is more so?
In an ideal world I think we’d like to buy our fruit and veg, meat and bread locally – and so far we’ve had very limited success. We went to our main city farmers market but it was two meat men and a jam stall – there are 3 more we are going to try. We have a pick your own farm near by that has a certain amount of veg for sale, but it is only open in picking season. Our ordinary city market is unappealing, highly inaccessible and mostly non-food goods.
So, I’m curious, how easy is it to buy locally where you live? What does all this mean to you? Does what I’ve written have any resonance with you? Do you, honestly, have any suggestions?