THE way we buy our food has changed beyond all recognition in recent decades.
Sheffield, along with almost everywhere else in the UK, has seen major expansion by the supermarket giants and that trend shows little sign of slowing.
Tesco wants to build at Crystal Peaks, Asda has unveiled plans for a 45,000 sq ft store at Drakehouse and is already building at Parson Cross.
A council decision is awaited on a proposed major expansion of the Tesco off Abbeydale Road, while Sainsbury’s was refused permission to expand its Archer Road store.
Dealing with competition on that scale is never going to be easy but Stocksbridge-based Karen Close is in no mood to throw in the towel.
In fact she has joined a pioneering scheme by the farm food sector which aims to take on the supermarkets at their own game.
Karen runs Avid Organics, an organic fruit and vegetable delivery business, from her home in Stocksbridge and is one of the founding members of a new nationwide scheme called Ice.
Six of the country’s largest farm food shops, plus many smaller outfits such as Avid, have come together for the first time under a new rewards scheme which allows consumers to buy their products online, in-store or via phone as well as offering a generous reward incentive which competes with similar schemes offered by the major retailers.
The farm shops which have joined believe this could be the start of activity which revolutionises the sector and are calling on other farm shops, food delivery companies and artisan food producers to join them.
Karen, 38, who used to run an organic café at Holmfirth, moved into the box delivery business just as the recession hit and could hardly have faced a tougher start.
“I lost 50% of my customers overnight,’’ she said. “I had to lose my staff and in the first week, after investing a lot of money, I think I took less than £200.’’
But Karen’s commitment to her business remains unshakeable.
She said: “I just believe in what I am doing. My business is about my customers and I know every one of them. That means they tell us what they want and we get the best quality that is out there.
“The produce we sell is almost all from local farms, although obviously at certain times of the year we have to source things like peppers from France or Spain.’’
Karen runs the business alone (apart from help from two-year-old daughter Eloise) but has recently taken on her father-in-law to help with the deliveries.
As well as fruit and vegetables, Avid also sells bread, eggs, cheese, organic whole foods, earth-friendly cleaning products and organic beer and wine, plus home-made organic ready meals.
She is optimistic about the Ice project and said: “From talking to customers I know they would like to support local businesses. But when the supermarkets have rewards schemes and special offers, it makes it very difficult, especially when times are tough.
“Hopefully this will help to even things up and give us a real chance to compete.’’
Paul Castle, Chief Operating Officer of Farrington’s, one of the UK’s largest farm shops, says: “This is about all the ‘little guy’ farm shops co-ordinating together for the first time and could have a massive effect on consumers as they will now be rewarded on a national level. None of us could ever do this alone.
“We know there is a huge public appetite for farm fresh food and by coming together in the Ice loyalty programme we can begin to persuade significant numbers of consumers to buy their food direct from their local farm shop.
“There is clearly a hunt for value among consumers and for me, and growing numbers of other people, buying local seasonal foods direct from the farm shop represents enormous value in price, buying experience and eating experience.
“Ice, with its generous rewards system, adds yet another layer to what we can offer and is going to revolutionise the number of consumers who can access farm fresh food.
“Moreover, supermarkets are generally affected by the VAT hike and rising fuel prices more than us because we have such low transport costs and because the majority of our foods are zero-VAT rated. So shopping with us is far less likely to result in you buying expensive VAT-able items also on sale in bigger outlets.”
Jude Thorne, CEO of The Ice Organisation, says: “We’re right behind the farm shops and have a real sense of the momentum growing as consumers seek ever greater value for themselves and act on their undoubted desire to spend with local suppliers rather than global behemoths.
“For the first time for many of these farm shops, customers will receive great value rewards for use against future purchases; in these still tough times this value can’t be ignored.
“Ice is primarily about rewarding people for making more sustainable choices and we offer sustainable shopping across a range of sectors including travel, clothing and utilities.
“In terms of food, however, there is little doubt farm shops offer all consumers who want to buy locally produced food better value and taste with fewer food miles.”
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