Small businesses urged to focus on personal service

Small businesses in the food sector should focus on offering a highly personalised service that draws on their superior knowledge of food if they are to compete with supermarkets, according to food policy specialist Tom Beeston.

Having established Farm W5, an organic farm shop in Ealing, west London, six years ago, Mr Beeston is well accustomed to competing with supermarkets.

Speaking at this week’s Speciality¬†& Fine Food Fair at London’s Kensington Olympia exhibition hall, Mr Beeston said small businesses should “advertise their personal service and dare to be different”.

He added: “The personal service we offer gives a shopping experience far beyond what supermarkets can offer and we promote ourselves on the back of it.”

As well as holding tasting sessions in his shop once a fortnight, Mr Beeston avoids stocking well-known brands which make it easier for shoppers to shop on price.

“We don’t sell Heinz tomato ketchup, we sell a locally produced home-made ketchup for 3.75 and it walks out of my shop because it’s different,” he said. “It allows me to make a margin and it’s not available in Tesco.”

But instead of despising supermarkets, small businesses should use them to their advantage, he said.

“The retailers spend a fortune on consumer research every year, so pay attention to what they do. It might seem sophisticated, but in reality it’s obvious stuff.” He urged small shopkeepers to use Tesco as a guide for shop layout.

He advised using customers to give feedback rather than spending a lot of money on consultants. “Every once in a while we close the shop for an afternoon, invite a small group of trusted and regular customers to attend an open discussion with staff and myself, and analyse several aspects of our business,” he said. “This is far more worthwhile.”

Mr Beeston also cited the growing interest in local food as an example of small shops being better placed than supermarkets to react quickly to changes in consumer tastes.

“Organic is yesterday’s story; today’s story is local food,” he said.