‘Haven’t sold a bag of flour in weeks’ - shoppers go back to supermarkets after traders’ lockdown rush

Green grocers and butchers are preparing for a second surge in demand if Covid-19 rules are tightened, after many shoppers returned to supermarkets when lockdown eased.

As supermarket shelves emptied and delivery slots ran low during the first phase of lockdown, communities turned to local shops, fishmongers and bakers to keep their cupboards full.

It sparked a nationwide push to shop local, and saw owners take on extra staff and work around the clock to meet demand.

But as the rush - and lockdown - eased, many saw their new customers return to old habits and the convenience of the supermarket.

As new cases continue to increase, local producers say they may soon be faced with a second rush.

Richard Ewin, at the Attleborough-based Norfolk Veg Box, which delivers locally-grown produce around the county, said demand in spring and difficulties with importing from Europe had made it an “absolutely intense” time.

“In 72 hours we took a month’s worth of orders,” he said. “I was surviving on about three or four hours of sleep.”

In many ways, it was positive, he said - the rush kept the business going, put them well ahead on where they would usually be and turned a decent proportion of new customers into regular buyers.

But the combination of Eat Out to Help Out, people growing their own vegetables in summer and the return to normality had seen that demand drop off - until recently.

He said: “It has evened out but we are starting to see people who we haven’t seen come back. We are starting to see the first signs of that and looking at our orders we’re starting to see an increase.

“[During lockdown] everybody pulled out all the stops to help people and get food to people. There is sometimes a short-term memory of what people did to help others.

“We are very grateful for it, though, and we are certainly immensely busier than we were before lockdown.”

With fewer people on furlough, Mr Ewin said he feared a second rush would be more challenging to manage, but said he now had a waiting list to manage expectations.

Mark Kacary, owner of Hunstanton’s Norfolk Deli, said their location - and popularity of getaways in the UK - had left them “exceptionally busy”, with a record September so far.

But he said many of those they had served, or delivered to, in lockdown had now returned to supermarkets, which he said were often the first port of call.

“If we were to look back through our computerised system it would be some time ago that we sold a bag of flour,” he said. “We would be talking about weeks, if not a couple of months. Yet during lockdown people were coming into the store asking for different types.

“There’s a handful of people we recognise who we delivered to. The majority of people we haven’t seen for dust. Whether or not we will see them again I don’t know - the supermarkets will have learnt their lessons.”

Often, he said, independent shops were viewed as a “last resort”, but he added he understood the convenience of supermarkets.

“In many ways it doesn’t bother us that much, as no-one can compare us to a supermarket,” he said. “If a product is in a supermarket we will typically not stock it. Our niche is that 70pc to 80pc of what we sell is made in Norfolk.”

He said their online sales during lockdown had been their main trade driver.

Elsewhere, at Richard Gill traditional butchers in Downham Market, Mr Gill said the first surge had left him “on his knees”.

“It was absolutely crazy,” he said. “But then people had more time. The lifestyle now is so much busier - it’s all about one-stop shops, get in and get out as quickly as you can.

“I’m still fairly busy compared to what I was before lockdown. I’ve kept a few customers, and I am expecting an influx of people if we get locked down again.

“It was a case of trying to get through last time, but I felt it at the end when it started to ease up.”

And Gary Howard, at Howard and Son fishmongers in Norwich, the oldest established fishmongers in the city, said the closure of restaurants - their usual customer - had forced a rethink of the business and a new focus on retail.

“It was hard, but at the end of the day it was helping save the business,” he said. “But you knew that was not going to be sustainable, although lots of people were swearing an allegiance to buying local.

“Trade has fallen off quite a bit, but we have maintained a better retail offer than we had pre-lockdown. We have kept some customers, although obviously we’d have love to have kept more.”

He said many customers during lockdown had been surprised at the cost of independent traders - saying, particularly considering the quality, the price was not much more than they’d pay in the supermarket.

Article by Proudly Norfolk Champion Lauren Cope.

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