Traditional greengrocers have a chance to take high streets back to the future

Brion Dunmore

Over the past 20 years, we have lost several thousand greengrocers from British high streets, largely to be replaced by cloned retail convenience stores. Yes, the more discerning amongst us may visit a local farmers market to get what we believe is the freshest veg or an inner-city health store to pick up their organic, pre-sliced and packaged avocado. Ultimately though, the steep decline in traditional greengrocers and reduced consumer choice means we are inevitably being forced to pay a little more for our fruit and veg by the usual (supermarket) suspects.

The slow decline in the ‘British high-street’ could be put down to the increased buying power of supermarkets, the rising cost of running an independent store or many other things. But interestingly, campaign groups still argue that despite the high profile ‘price wars’ between supermarkets, shoppers can expect to pay less for their grocery basket at the majority of independent stores in the UK. 

One trend-bucker on our identikit high streets is Midlands-based greengrocer, Joe Richards Ltd, which I visited earlier this month. The company lays claim to being one of the bigger independent greengrocers in Britain. On a high-street that’s also home to a Waitrose and Morrisons, Mark Cox of Joe Richards Ltd told me “we are not trying to compete with supermarkets, we trade off the back of them”.  Whilst the margin-driven supermarkets are seemingly focused on longevity and appearance, Joe Richards Ltd relies on its fast-moving supply chain and personal relationships with local consumers to determine exactly what their customers want to see in store. 

The supermarket monopolisation of food retail outlets isn’t the only issue with wiping out the independent greengrocers. There is also a monopsony at play here, diminishing the choice producers have over the buyers of their produce and making room for imbalanced buyer power with some pretty ruthless business terms.

A win-win

Joe Richards Ltd has an interesting back-story too. Following the sudden passing of its eponymous founder Joe Richards last year, his impressive greengrocery business was partly-acquired by George Perry Ltd, one of the oldest wholesale companies in British fresh produce, with trade dating back to the 1870s. The direct relationship between Joe Richards retail and George Perry wholesale has allowed both of the companies to have complete control and transparency over their supply chain, greater efficiency and manageable business terms, which ultimately, allows them to better serve their customers at a mutually beneficial cost. 

When entering a Joe Richards greengrocer in August, you can expect to see British strawberries from nearby Tamworth, hand-picked the day before for ripeness – and a very low volume of prepacked fruit and veg. The absence of packaged produce can be put down to sensory marketing: “Our customers want to choose their own produce,” Mark Cox explains. “They value our high quality and enjoy the experience of picking out great produce based on sight, smell, touch and taste” The major supermarkets may often claim that’s how they work too – but it’s far harder to achieve on their scale and with their costs structures. This greengrocer has been supporting the local community by offering free fruit and veg in store to kids since 2015 – Tesco has followed suit recently, of course – and announced recently on social media its “aim to encourage and educate children to eat healthier.” It is also on-trend with offering ‘wonky veg boxes’ to eliminate waste and are active in sponsoring local athletes by providing them with bananas as part of their sport nutrition plans. 

Do our convenience demands as consumers match our social demands as members of a community?

If more can be as proactive as this, then bring back the traditional greengrocers I say! While some chain convenience stores do get involved in local community initiatives, the flexibility and inclination to be a real part of what’s happening around them isn’t easy. To have a local name and truly local business attached can mean so much more. Communities are upheld by a myriad of daily meetings, from learning about seasonality from your local greengrocer to swapping details of good local tradesmen in the pub. Small businesses fuel a local community and provide an area with social capital. 

The pounds spent with independent businesses tend to stay in the community, providing work for local tradesmen, accountants and marketers. 

Although it may seem rational to do a local shop at a big store or online because of perceived lower prices and speedier processes, the closing rate of small growers unable to survive on supermarket terms is catching up with that for small greengrocers. 

In my view, supporting your local community must still cost less than putting up with the dual threats of monopoly and monopsony in terms of both cost and time? With delivery drones on the horizon and e-commerce on the rise, it is going to be entertaining to watch how the ‘local’ supermarket c-stores adapt their approach to retain their relevance in the months and years ahead.



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