Often, as a Professor, you get to read some really interesting projects and dissertations. Ed Dargan, one of our MSc Internet Retailing students, has just completed his thesis on the role of technology to enhance food shopping in rural areas. Because of this I thought he was well placed to give us his views on the Digital High Street 2020 report. Along with the recent High Street Information sheet we sent out earlier in the week – it seems like traditional retail centres are being offered a new lease of life by technology. What does Ed think?
Ed Dargan, MSc Internet Retailing
The Digital High Street 2020 report identifies that the digital revolution has significantly impacted high streets by offering local consumers alternatives to transacting in a physical fashion. This is interesting because for my MSc dissertation (MMU Business School), I have just researched consumer and food producer/retailers attitudes towards the use of online food purchasing options. Although the area of study was limited to rural South Shropshire, the findings seem to be relevant.
Most of the consumers interviewed had bought online from the main supermarkets but had reverted to in-store shopping mainly due to the lack of reliable order delivery and inability to select the nature of food items, for example ready to eat bananas.
“Don’t get to choose what fruit and veg you have and you end up getting green bananas which you can’t eat that day as not ripe or they replace things you don’t want replacing – we tried it for convenience but would rather do our shopping whilst we’re out and about rather than pay for it to be delivered here”
Most supported the local shops, especially speciality shops such as the butcher and greengrocer because of the freshness, quality and trust in the produce. All valued the social interactions made whilst shopping whether with shop owners, stallholders at the farmers market or simply bumping into people they know.
“At the weekend we like to walk down the town and get our meat and have a look around – like to have a mooch”.
For most of the consumers, planning their food consumption on a weekly basis was important. Reasons given included saving money, reducing the amount of wasted food and eating more healthily. However, some were far more spontaneous enjoying making use of what was available in the local shops.
“Try and eat healthily so plan things so saves cost and reduces waste and did find we used to waste a lot of food. Spent far more on weekly shop and now we plan it’s much more efficient”
Trust in food produce was viewed as important and best established face-to-face with the producer or retailer as consumers valued the ability to sample food, talk to the retailer or producer, especially if unknown.
“We buy our meat locally as fussy about it”
The retailers and food producers reflected this finding in identifying that customer acquisition was best driven by direct interactions with consumers and not digital channels. For the food producers in particular, local markets and food fairs were the preferred venues for customer acquisition. Where websites existed, returning customers were the main users.
“My experience is, everyone buys it where they can see it, touch it and talk to someone and if you can get interest and discuss and start to talk about a particular producer and it’s history, then people engage and more interested in what they want to buy”
For the food producers and retailers interviewed, most of which were two person micro businesses where resources were already stretched. The idea of managing a shop, attending farmers markets and/or regional food shows, maintaining an ecommerce site, fulfilling online orders and serving customers in store was perceived as unachievable. Employing more staff was not viewed as an option due to lack of income and also a desire to not expand beyond being a family business. Many cited issues with business rates, landlord rents, a lack of collaboration between businesses and a lack of regional and local leadership.
“We don’t want to get bigger, we don’t want to be high volume so we focus on quality within a limited capacity – we’re a family run business”
From a digital perspective, the idea of having a town website where all the shops and local services can be viewed was received positively and thought to be useful for people new to a town in particular. However, most consumers stated a preference to buy in-store rather than online. Yet, the idea of a centralised click and collect point where consumers, particularly those that commute, could pick up their orders from various producers and retailers on the way home, was considered useful. Of course, the research is based in a rural community, and a small number of respondents (9) and so issues such as car journey length are prioritised.
However, comparing my findings with those of the Digital High Street 2020 report raises an important question. How do we ensure that small rural market towns are included in such a programme and not overlooked to the detriment of the local retailers and the rural economy?