06 Jun 2019

Connecting your customers with the stories behind the produce is a sure-fire way to keep them coming back for more

Online sales are growing. In fact, new research from Mintel has shown that online grocery accounted for 7% of total grocery retail sales in 2018, and the forecast is that this figure will rise to 10% over the next five years. When it comes to bricks-and-mortar shops the customer experience is essential to ensuring that customers continue to come into your store to purchase, and a large part of that experience is education. Customers that choose to forgo shopping online will come to independent retailers, farm shops and delis because they are becoming not only more interested in quality produce, but also the farm-to-fork narrative. They are keen for transparency and to understand not only where their food comes from, but how it is made so that they can make an informed choice about how to spend their hard-earned cash. It’s therefore key that these food messages are clearly communicated, whether that be through face-to-face explanations, answering of questions or informative signage in-store.

For Emma Mosey, who owns Minskip Farm Shop with her husband Ben, educating their customers is part and parcel of their business. “We do feel there is a movement towards people caring about transparency in food and we feel we are perfectly placed to allay customers' concerns. We are young, entrepreneurial farmers who would like to change farming for the better, and that is what customers come to us for.

“As a grassroots farm shop, it is very important to us to educate our customers about where our produce comes from. As a producer of amazing eggs and vegetables ourselves, reconnecting with their food is a major reason our customers choose to shop with us over other retailers; they can see our hens ranging in their paddock and our vegetables growing from the car park. They expect to learn about food processes from us, and we love talking about it!”

If you sell your own produce allowing people the chance to explore and ask questions is a great way to get them involved - visitor tours could be a good way to start that conversation.

Specialist retailers are also in the unique position of being the link between producers and consumers. Svetlana Kukharchuk, founder of The Cheese Lady, says, “My shop specialises in farmhouse and artisan cheeses. These days, the words ‘farmhouse’ and ‘artisan’ are used a lot however, and even supermarkets carry products that claim to be of ‘farmhouse’ or ‘artisan’ origin. That is where we have to educate our customers about the differences and what those words mean to us (and therefore to them when they shop with us). I believe we are the crucial link between the farmhouse/artisan producers and the end consumers because both of those groups lack spare time: fine food producers are so busy concentrating on what they do best, their craft, that often they do not have the time to go and talk to their consumers, whereas consumers are also extremely busy and are daily bombarded with different sorts of information that can be contradicting.

“People buy into stories, be it cheese or other artisanally-made foods. They love to hear what makes a cheese unique”

“Therefore, it is important to have specialist retailers who have a strong vision and understanding of the fine food market, who stock a curated selection of fine foods, and who specialise in telling the stories of their produce and inspiring consumers to eat a varied diet consisting artisanally-made wholesome products.”

What exactly is it that customers want to know about the produce? Svetlana explains, “People buy into stories, be it cheese or other artisanally-made foods. They love to hear what makes a cheese unique; it makes people understand the flavours, the styles and oftentimes the reasons for premium pricing. People feel like they are being transported to another reality. I can always see people’s eyes light up when I tell them about the wonderful alpine flora that cows graze on for producing milk that goes into our mountain cheeses. The customers are right there with me in the Alps at that moment… they are wandering through the Alpine meadows with me and the cows, and of course it makes them want to take that cheese home with them.”

While talking to customers in store and engaging face-to-face is important, Emma from Minskip also advocates the use of social media. “We use social media and organic PR stories to share information, as well as talking about it in-store and on signage. Our campaign to re-home all our previous flock of free-range hens went viral in the local press on Facebook: we find there's a real desire for our customers to learn more about real farming,” she says.

Social media tips

The beauty of social media is that education can go beyond those customers right in front of you and can reach a whole raft of new potential visitors. People respond to strong imagery so ensure that any posts on instagram will catch the eye and then use the caption to talk about a relevant topic, whether that’s how your business is reducing plastics, the backstory behind the latest arrival to your cheese counter or an update on the hens that lay the eggs served in your café.

This article appeared in Speciality Food Magazine