Showing Some Local Love: The Return to Village Grocers

Nov 11, 2020

With major food retailers unable to keep pace with consumer demands, customers turned to their local village grocers and found boutique retail a bonus.

The panic buying events of early 2020 left open a market demand that grocers and independent retailers have stepped up to fill. 

As the big chain supermarkets could not keep up with the demand of consumers’ appetite for flour, pasta, rice, and oddly enough, toilet paper — in stepped the independent retailers who were able to pivot quickly. 

Sophie O’Neill of Torello Farms, a farm-gate on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, noticed the shift. 

“During the first lockdown, we definitely saw more people make the decision to buy locally grown produce. Initially we did see some panic buying of our grass fed beef and lamb, free range eggs and locally grown flour, but this settled down after a few weeks,” says O’Neill. 

Leon Mugavin, Sole Director of Leaf Store, a village grocer with two locations in Metro Melbourne, also saw the “panic buying madness” in March. While customers were mindful of others when stocking up on pasta, flours, rices, legumes and canned goods, some were sternly told to only take what they need. 

“Potato, onion and carrot sales went crazy, anything that could last a while were on shopping lists,” says Mugavin. 

Torello Farm

New suppliers needed

With supply chains disrupted, the large supermarkets experienced delays in restocking shelves. 

Smaller businesses like Leaf were able to respond quickly. 

“Because we have great relationships with most of our wholesalers/distributors, we were able to get products back on the shelves very quickly. Most wholesalers/distributors were amazing in how they supported the businesses that supported them over the years,” says Mugavin. 

Mugavin also quickly secured a lease on a warehouse space to store staples he ordered by the pallet load. 

Health products in high demand 

Immunity boosting products were hot on customers shopping lists – a trend that retailers and distributors can continue to capitalise on as consumers become increasingly interested in staying healthy.

“I believe the trend we have seen from this pandemic is customers focusing more on their health and realising that they can cook well.” 

Products like ginger, turmeric and garlic have been selling very well at Leaf, as have ginger shots, medicinal mushroom powders, and smoothie blends. 

Shoppers equate boutique with safety

I think many people took comfort in supporting local farms and felt safe shopping in our shed over a shopping centre, even though our offering is only local – so, for example, at the moment we don’t have tomatoes and we will never be able to sell bananas and mangoes,” says O’Neill.

It is this safety and comfort that will lead discerning customers to choose local and boutique options for their shopping experience. 

With restaurants closed by restrictions until recently, this also meant that more people were cooking at home. Their willingness to try new things was a boon for less common produce and stock – opening up further opportunities for retailers and producers post pandemic.

Torello sold a “phenomenal” amount of Quince in March and April, as well as Tuerong Farm flour which helped feed the DIY sourdough trend. 

Mugavin noticed a similar trend at Leaf.

“We have sold fresh yuzu, bergamot, black sapote, bitter melon, pandan leaves, long melon at a significantly higher volume than ever before,” says Mugavin.

The Leaf Store team

Shopping local supports locals 

Consumers want to shop and support local businesses – a fact that retailers and distributors can capitalise on.

As O’Neil tells Fine Food Australia Torello and other farmers have fostered a localised system.

“As many farmers on the Mornington Peninsula predominantly supply restaurants, we have been able to support these producers during lockdown by selling their produce to our customers. We believe this is an excellent example of the power of our small farm gate and a healthy local food system.”

With the 5km rule implemented for a time in Melbourne, Torello saw increased shoppers in store, and adding home delivery offered convenience for customers.  

Leaf already had a well structured eCommerce section of their business and an established home delivery service. This has continued to be a bonus for the business during 2020. 

“Home deliveries have always been an important part of my businesses, and will continue to be, but my walk-in browsing customer has never been stronger,” says Mugavin. 

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