‘We’re an alternative to supermarkets’

The categories, staff structure, suppliers, business type and location may have changed since The Real Food Store, in Exeter, Devon, was founded, but its central purpose has stayed the same.

Born from a campaign raising more than £150,000 in share capital, the community-owned The Real Food Store was designed to give the people of Exeter the same access to local produce as rural locations.

Store co-manager Rob Dickinson explains: “While Devon is a breadbasket county in terms of food production, it didn’t have an outlet in Exeter other than farmers’ markets. This was about setting up a more permanent route to market for their goods. From the beginning, it was important it was in the heart of the city.”

Since moving to the new site in Exeter Central railway station in July 2017, the store has adapted its ranging to meet the needs of commuters, students and residents, adding goods such as household and personal care lines, plant-based dairy alternatives and a wider confectionery offering, even when it means taking a pragmatic approach. 

“We were also established to offer people an alternative experience to the supermarkets and that informs our purchasing policy. That means stocking things like bananas and lemons despite them not being local because we understand they are important to give customers choice,” he says.

The site move coincided with the store promoting all staff to the same level. Dickinson adds: “It made me feel that my views and input were taken seriously. The greater trust and responsibility has benefitted staff morale. The diversity in the working day makes us more flexible to be able to cover for absences and I think it makes the team quite stable in terms of retention, but it’s not without its challenges.” 

He says the change added importance to the recruitment process needing to ensure new starters share a passion for the shop’s goals.

What I do well 

The store was the first in the city to install dispenser units. Advice from other shops, testing and analysis of packaged goods sales has made the 40 lines a standout part of the site. Dickinson explains that despite a lack of parking, little and often use, a stamp-based loyalty scheme and bring-your-own-container discounts were driving visit frequency and make sustainability affordable. 

The co-manager advises other stores to start with low-value, high-demand lines like cereals, rice, beans and lentils to reduce risk and encourage customers to make the leap. He says building up through household, dried fruits and nuts can give a complete offer without initially tying up capital. He warns to pay attention to shorter shelf lives on oilier lines like nuts and seeds, and that adding lines too similar to each other, such as rye flakes and oats, can cannibalise rather than improve sales.

Where my biggest profits come from

The Real Food Store Exeter bakery

The shop offers freshly-baked bread in the space most station-based stores would dedicate to tobacco or spirits. Dickinson says that the firm sale partnership with the local bakery was not just one of the strongest performing categories, but that the smell of freshly-baked bread close to the entrance brought customers in from the busy streets outside. “We get a lot of feedback from customers praising it for being different to what you’d normally find behind the counter near a train station,” he says.

Also front and centre is the store’s large fresh produce range. Utilising a mix of smaller and larger local suppliers to achieve near-daily deliveries, availability is maintained while reducing waste. The category also boasts comparable prices to those offered by major supermarkets for the same quality.

The challenges I face

The store previously worked in partnership with a café formed as part of the same community-owned company. However, strong competition and a challenging location caused it to close last September, taking with it efficiencies and goods relied on by the store. Produce near end of life was previously used in the café to reduce food waste – the policy has been replaced by 50% off bags of fresh goods, but the manager says more work was needed. 

Discussing the impact of the closure on the store’s on-the-go solution, Dickinson explains: “We were doing sandwiches until the café closed, so we’re working on finding an alternative supplier.” In areas such as this and key seasonal categories, the store’s developing food policy, which now targets goods on being local, plant-based, organic and plastic-free, has made it challenging to range former strong sellers such as Easter eggs and advent calendars.

What I’m doing next

The store’s food policy made Christmas confectionery a challenge, so they ran their own 24 days of Christmas promotion, announcing one offer on social media each day. Dickinson says it revealed the importance of marketing. “I’m sure a lot of shop owners can sympathise that when it comes to time shortages, it’s often marketing that is neglected,” he says, adding that the store hopes to change this by assigning more resources to it, including hiring a sign-writer to complete in-store displays, dedicating more time to online communication and hosting events to ensure that its values are understood by customers.

He says the move will prove successful with consumers as shopping habits continue to change. He forecasts: “We’ll see greater customer demand for zero-waste, plant-based alternatives. We’ve noticed that more people are now willing to try something new.” l


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