Chris Bavin is well known in the UK wholesale markets, having worked in the fresh produce industry for more than a quarter of century, as a trader, a supplier and also a customer, while he ran an award-winning greengrocer. Now a successful BBC and Channel 4 presenter who has also published two cookery books, he has returned to his roots to set up a trade body representing independent greengrocers across the UK. Here, he explains the thinking behind the venture.
Chris ran a greengrocer called The Naked Grocer in Walton-on-Thames for almost a decade, so is in the perfect position to empathise with the rollercoaster an independent retailer rides while working on the country’s high streets.
“A report published in early December revealed that more than 10,000 stores have closed on the UK’s High Streets in the last three years,” he says. “That included all sorts of stores, of course, but it’s a stark figure and illustrates the problems that everyone is having. It’s terrifying; and as every retailer will tell you, it’s getting harder and harder. I want the industry to work together to help stop the rot and turn the tide in the opposite direction.”
It is estimated that there are around 3,000 greengrocers in Britain. With no dedicated representation or central voice, however, the exact figure is an unknown. As a result, most businesses work in isolation; invaluable cogs in their community’s wheel but relying on customers finding them rather than the other way round.
The first step on the journey for Chris is to compile a nationwide database of greengrocers – The Good Greengrocer Guide – which he admits is a herculean task in itself. The goal is to launch a website and social media tools with a ‘find your local greengrocer’ function to make it as simple as possible for the public to locate independent produce retailers, greengrocers, market stalls and farm shops.
He will use his extensive reach to use that period of data collection to engage the greengrocery trade and get widespread buy-in for his ambition and then aims to set up a trade association that runs marketing campaigns, secures collective discounts for members, and possibly one day enables regional and local doorstep deliveries via a centralised and joined-up distribution platform.
That dream is some way off. “I’m in the process of compiling the database and as I do it, it becomes ever more obvious why this is so necessary,” Chris says. “Lots of these businesses have no website and no social media presence and therefore no way to talk directly to customers and potential customers. If we can put together a Good Greengrocer Guide and use creative ways to point consumers in the direction of their local stores, we can fix that.
“I aim to create an association where we can consolidate all the information, bring all the members together, and then find ways of using the power of the group.
“The need is there, I’ve had that confirmed to me over and over. I think the support is going to be there too. Since I first announced what I aim to do, the response has been really positive; from the wholesale markets, the retailers, the household brands and others. The lethargic few, or the ‘wait and see brigade’ are there as always, but we can’t wait and see, this has to be done now.”
He emphasises that the time is right by pointing to a potentially long-term change in the country’s shopping habits. “Covid was a horrendous time but a whole new generation found their local independent retailers and greengrocers,” he said. “Post-pandemic, lots of people went back to their existing shopping habits, but it’s thought that around 20-30% of the sales increase was maintained. Let’s go at that again.
“People are feeling the pinch, people are tightening their purse strings, and this is a time when the independent fresh produce retail sector can show what it can do – and I think there will be a potential new audience for us again.”
What can traders do?
Focusing on New Covent Garden Market, he says there are two main things that traders can do. “First, they could talk to their independent retail customers about this initiative, fly the flag and promote the benefits. And second, they can get involved and support the association’s development. I’ll talk to anyone at any time if they want to discuss it further,” he explains.
“We’ve seen so many times that there is nowhere better than New Covent Garden when it comes to supporting good and worthy causes, rallying around and working together as a community. If we can nurture that sort of passion and commitment again, then we could really achieve something.”
This isn’t just a London thing; it’s a nationwide initiative, of course, and Chris adds that he would like to see wholesale markets up and down the country getting involved, hopefully working together where possible to strengthen the message.
“The catering trade has become more important over the years, but at every market, independent greengrocers and market stalls are still an integral part of the wholesale market community; if we want them to continue to succeed, we need to cherish them and help them to grow and I think wholesale markets should play a crucial part in that effort,” he says.
Let’s get together
As well as New Covent Garden supporting the initiative, Chris believes there’s potential for the wholesale markets to come together as a group and support it.
“I suppose it’s easier to communicate the vision to consumers, as the benefits of a robust greengrocery industry are very clear,” he says. “But from a B2B perspective, the benefits of this working would be large too. Not only will it be giving a voice to greengrocers and shining a light on the great things they do, we’ll be giving consumers and suppliers easier access to the independent retailer community through our guides.
“A strong independent retail sector can only make the wholesale markets stronger and that in turn adds power to the importers, distributors and growers, who require outlets for their produce. Every sector is linked and dependent on the sustainability of each other.”
There are obvious ways that wholesalers everywhere can add value right now. “It’s no easy task compiling a database of all independent retailers around the country by myself,” Chris says. “If wholesalers are able to reduce some of the legwork and promote what I’m doing then we’ll get things moving far more quickly. We will be providing a platform for people to find their local greengrocer and creating a collective presence and a buzz around a sector that just isn’t brilliant at creating that buzz for itself.”
While the project is still at in its embryonic stage, the vision is for the trade body to comprise a board of greengrocers and be funded by sponsorships from major fresh produce brands as well as a small membership fee from greengrocers (around £10 a month). The eventual aim, says Chris, is to create a marketing fund to promote greengrocers and then work as a collective to secure membership discounts on equipment such as till units, vans, shopping bags and so on.”
Few would deny that he’s onto something, but Chris needs help. Over to you, readers.
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