Independent and family-owned retailer Dike & Son continues to win awards thanks to its fresh, local and seasonal approach. The Dorset firm also claims to have become the first independent retailer to offer online grocery shopping. Produce Business UK speaks with company director Adam Vincent to find out what sets the supermarket apart in a market increasingly challenged by intense and intrusive competition
“We’re passionate,” are the first words expressed by Vincent, who works alongside managing director and fifth-generation retailer Andy Dike. “We are also risk-takers in the sense that if we decide to do something this afternoon, we can. We don’t have lots of different layers of management, which makes it interesting from a retailing point of view.”
Vincent points to the example of a recent opportunity with Spanish produce which came about by chance following the sale of an in-store juicer that had been replaced. Vincent sold the machine to the owner of a small fruit and veg shop in Newbury, Berkshire. The owner’s wife is Spanish and the shop specialises in Spanish produce which the owner imports himself in his van.
“The grocer told me that he’s only filling half of his van at the moment and I saw an opportunity,” Vincent remarks. “That grocer is now delivering a third of a van of Spanish goods to Dike & Son each month. He’s doing some rustic Spanish pick ‘n’ mix boxes, with items like Spanish juicing oranges. The produce won’t necessarily be perfectly clean and it won’t be what our customers usually buy. But it will be in our stores 12 hours after being bought in Spain, and that is exciting!”
Dike & Son was founded with that same enterprising spirit in 1851; as a grocery shop and bake house. Today, the company operates across two sites – its flagship 23,000ft2 supermarket in Stalbridge, which opened in November 2007, and one other small store. The prizes it has picked up include the Independent Retailer of the Year category at the 2014 Retail Industry Awards.
“It was the dream of the late William Dike (Andy’s dad),” Vincent explains. “He wanted a purpose-built store for his beloved customers, whom he knew by name. William got planning permission for the store and 27 houses on the same site, which he sold to pay for the bricks and mortar of the shop. The stock was funded via a bank loan.”
Vincent says the role of the staff now is to “improve the business” and “leave it in a better position for the next generation”. “It’s not really a job – it’s a lifestyle,” he muses. “We have a very good and experienced team, and we’re all motivated to do our best. The girls who work in the produce department are all ‘in the know’. One is experienced in life, one is a trained chef, another has raised a family and cooked all her life, and the younger member is into social media so she follows the latest trends and comes up with new ideas. We all think on our feet. Senior management also has a physical presence on the shop floor. All that makes a real difference.”
Indeed, Vincent adds that it’s the team at Stalbridge that really makes the store a success. “Lots of customers say it would be lovely to have another store near them, but we couldn’t replicate the team that we have here,” he points out. “Around 25 members of our team of 75 at Stalbridge have been here for 15-16 years. The longest-serving member has been with us for over 46 years!”
In business for 150-odd years and fiercely proud, Vincent says Dike & Son is now finding it has to “do things differently” and operate “a lot slicker” than before to stay on an even keel. But because of its size, the team “lives it, breathes it and can react a lot quicker”.
In April, Dike & Son launched a full online shopping service that currently features 151 lines of fresh produce. “We’d been working on it for a couple of years and it was a big decision,” Vincent admits. “A lot of the big independents won’t even consider it, and although the chance of a big supermarket landing on our doorstep is remote, that is really what is happening with online shopping.”
In-store, the physical supermarket at Stalbridge is big on fresh and, as such, features a butchers, fishmonger, bakery and hot food counter, in addition to the usual grocery and alcohol offer. There is also a café but the difference is in the aisles, according to Vincent.
“The aisles are nice and wide so our customers can have a chat,” he notes. “We have a running joke that you can’t just pop into Dike & Son – you always end up meeting a friend or sampling something in the store so you spend half an hour at least here.”
At the front of the store, the fresh produce department stands proud; illuminated by ambient lighting, and featuring full-height chillers, islands and low-level walls. The backdrop and shelving are sprayed black, while the containers are mainly black and some are green.
“We also have some wicker baskets which makes it look like a market,” Vincent adds. “The shelves display farmhouse-style black and white pricing labels too. Produce is one of the first things people pick up, so it’s a good opportunity to create impulse buying when people walk into the store.”
While Dike & Son features all the counters you’d find at a traditional supermarket, Vincent says the firm’s local and small suppliers are what truly set the retailer apart. “Our unique point of difference is all of our local and small suppliers,” he explains. “We stock loads of local produce and we pull out all the stops to support them, even if they’ve only got one line with us.”
The firm has even gone as small scale as buying 70kg of cherries from a local grower. “We take produce as long as it’s good,” he points out. “That’s healthy for business as those growers will remember our support. It’s easy to offend local farmers and local people, so when you live and breathe in the same area you have to handle things delicately at times.”
Unsurprisingly, sourcing at Dike & Son follows the seasons as well as the trends. Around 80-90% of its fresh produce range consists of the typical items, while a small percentage comprises speciality products. Thanks to its nimble set-up, the company also adds new lines all the time. “Today, for instance, we’ve introduced seasonal runner beans and some pak choi,” explains Vincent.
The retailer uses Bristol Fruit and Vegetable Market and predominantly a wholesaler there called A David. “They supply us with good quality produce all year round at fair prices – we don’t go for cheap, bottom of the market stuff,” says Vincent.
He adds that his number one requirement for fruits and vegetables is quality, followed closely by price. “It’s got to hold up to the rigours of being taken into storage, then going onto the shop floor before lasting a good four to five days in people’s homes,” he explains. “Price is probably a close second – that’s where the value aspect comes in. But you can’t have it all!”
In terms of local sourcing, Vincent says Dike & Son is “lucky” to have over 100 suppliers within a 25-30-mile radius of its supermarket in Dorset. “We’re in the southwest of the UK and right on the border of Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire,” he explains. “Somerset is just one mile from the shop, so we can trade under both flags really.
“Now is a really exciting time because we’re into summer and the local seasons,” Vincent continues. “Cornish potatoes are really exciting, the local apple season is really good and we get excellent strawberries from Cheddar [a village in neighbouring Somerset]. In May, we received 400g punnets at a really competitive price of £2 each. We’re making a very small margin but the quality, the smell and the feedback brings people into the store. We sell more products on top [of that] too, like local cream or local ice cream.”
In the past Dike & Son has also bought surplus stock from retailers including Marks & Spencer and, as a member of the 2,500-strong independent retailer group Nisa, Dike & Son also benefits from Nisa’s bulk buying power which helps it to compete on pricing with the multiples. “It means we can offer our customers very good deals on everyday groceries and some imported products,” Vincent points out.
What customers want
Dike & Son’s customers largely fit into two main categories – the older generation, which has more time on its hands as well as disposable income; and the younger generation, comprising mainly mums on more of a budget.
“Our customers are looking for value,” Vincent says. “But, for us, that isn’t dictated by price. They like to buy a 50p punnet of tomatoes but they are not happy if the quality isn’t there.
“We’re obviously worried about putting prices too high. We try to tap into seasonal products to make our margin by getting people to try and buy other things. We’ve had mini bananas and baby watermelons, which were a bit like greengages.
“Fruit and veg is a lot cheaper than a couple of years ago. All retailers compare themselves with their previous years’ performance, so that can be hard, especially when the team works really hard. But the difference is all in the margins.”
Merchandising for margins
Dike & Son regularly uses cross-promotions in its produce department to garner that all-important margin. In April when the UK enjoyed a spell of sunny weather, the tops of the produce chiller that feature local, new season strawberries, were stacked with cucumber, mint, lemonade and Pimms.
“As a retailer that’s brilliant because you can turn a £1.50 punnet of strawberries into a £20 basket,” Vincent states. “We’re also putting 400g punnets of Cheddar strawberries at each checkout. We often place produce stacked in crates right where you return your basket at the point of purchase.”
Vincent says this really makes a difference to sales. “We have 10 tills and three to four are consistently busy during the week so if we put produce by those tills we sell hundreds of pounds worth of extra produce,” he reveals. “We’ve also done it with crownless pineapples for 50p-£1 and tried seasonal asparagus and Hollandaise sauce but strawberries seem to work the best.”
With its passion for the local community Dike & Son is committed to encouraging more of its shoppers to put healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables in their baskets. To that end, the retailer encourages point-of-sale merchandising with guidelines for using lesser-well-known products like celeriac.
Through its wholesaler A David, it has offered recipes to lengthen the sales opportunities for shorter seasonal products like pumpkin, and the Stalbridge store also organises sampling of different products every two to three weeks to engage consumers.
“Some shoppers are really happy to try, while there are still quite a few who are stuck in their ways,” Vincent says. “We’ve done doughnut peaches which were different. We’ve had really good clementines with excellent flavour so when people try one, they buy three or four. It’s so simple, yet it’s in everyone’s best interest – both the retailer and the supplier.”
The retailer’s 2,500 likes on Facebook are testament to its appeal and following, as well as its ability to move with the times. “Facebook is a great way to advertise and engage with shoppers,” Vincent explains. “We also have a Twitter profile but that’s more about our suppliers, while Facebook seems to be more consumer-focused and responsive.”
Going forward, Dike & Son is concentrating, as always, on working to improve its offer. “We’re always looking at our ranges,” reveals Vincent. “We’d certainly we’d like to come up with new ways of communicating with our consumers and getting produce into their diets, whether that’s through lighting, pictures or something else.”
Vincent is always looking out for new sourcing opportunities, for all products and volumes. As such, if any grower or supplier is keen to work with Dike & Son, Vincent suggests they contact him directly by email. “I am more than happy to talk to any supplier,” he says.
If you’d like to work with Dike & Son, email Adam Vincent.
To learn more about the firm’s current suppliers, take a look at the list.