I wouldn’t last long if I got myself a job on a supermarket checkout. I would go totally against the retailer mantra of consumer choice and how the customer is king. My patronising patter with shoppers would go something like this;
Bip “You can still get this stuff delivered in glass bottles from a local farm you know.”
Bip “Good steaks. They do these in farm shops. Farm shops are, er, good.”
Bip “Hmmm. Danish. Now you didn’t want to be doing that. Let me introduce you to something called the Little Red Tractor….”
At this point an alarm would sound and some heavies would no doubt appear. I would be bundled out of a rear entrance and upended into a skip of food waste. I would never find out whether the customer had a loyalty card. My career as a supermarket operative would be very short-lived indeed.
I did have to wind my neck in a bit recently though when I made a sporadic visit to a local store. When buying some strawberries the other week at the height of Murray Mania, the only purchase option was that high-end food hall retailer famed for quality and a sense of Britishness, and favoured by middle England.
The strawberries were on special offer (which always makes a Yorkshireman feel better). However, nestling in a packet nearby, all washed and presented wonderfully were two baking potatoes weighing 600g with a price ticket of £1.59 stamped on them.
By my reckoning, that equates to £2650/t. Now that’s a big mark-up in anyone’s book, regardless of the cost of everything that happens past the farmyard. This left a nasty taste in my mouth and led to grumbly comments under my breath about how even Dick Turpin wore a mask.
Thinking about it later, however, I did start to ask whether it was so wrong? Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, even based on my views on the need to buy locally and support small producers, I don’t think it is.
Though it may pain us to admit it, this was a case of superb marketing, and judging by the stream of customers merrily filling their baskets, it was working too. The customers were supporting British farmers, and we should remember that regardless of the product, the public are largely on the farmer’s side.
The question of fairness in the supply chain shouldn’t lie in what the price differential is but in whether or not the supplier was happy with the arrangement and the price when he sold the product. As one farmer said to me recently, “everyone has got to earn a crust you know and that includes supermarkets. I just need to make sure that my bit of the crust is big enough.”
The emphasis on UK provenance that retailers are pushing leads to a feeling among consumers that they are doing what they should do in their food-buying decisions, and farmers can piggy-back onto this. Many already have very successfully, and there is scope for more of this in the future.
The finalists for the Local Food Farmer of the Year award highlighted here in FW recently show that anything is possible.
Let’s be honest, though. The system is far from perfect. And we all know what should be on the shopping list for the very near future for the benefit of suppliers, consumers and retailers alike. A retailer ombudsman with teeth, equitable long-term supply agreements that work for all and improved farmer understanding of good marketing.