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From supermarkets to farm shops - the evolution of Kent shopping habits

By Chris Britcher

It is sometimes worth reflecting on the fundamental shifts in our shopping habits over recent years and the impact that has had on our communities.

Once upon a time, all major supermarkets in Kent were in prime town centre sites. Then as congestion increased, demand peaked and parking charges took a hike, the big players opted for out-of-town sites.

Huge, sprawling stores popped up which took more than a leaf out of the hypermarkets so embraced by our continental cousins and offering everything from groceries to clothes, books and electronics.

Quex Barn in Birchington has become an attraction in itself
Quex Barn in Birchington has become an attraction in itself

But it seemed no sooner were our towns surrounded by a host of supermarket satellites, we changed the way we wanted to shop.

Rather than big weekly trips, we opted to walk to local shops and buy less but more frequently.

So suddenly all the big chains started charging back into our towns with smaller convenience stores.

Meanwhile, while this was happening, the awareness of the impact on the environment of food miles and a spate of health scares has left many wanting to know just where their food has come from. Crucially, too, we're prepared to pay for provenance and quality.

Andy Austen from award-winning Austen's of Rochester
Andy Austen from award-winning Austen's of Rochester

Not to mention a desire to eat healthily and ethically.

All of which has rather played into the hands of the local farm shop.

Once rather down at heel, today's outlets are enjoying a huge boom in popularity; chiselling out a niche as 'speciality' temples of locally grown and produced fruit, vegetables, fish and meats.

If proof were ever needed of the scale at which they are on the rise, look no further than Macknade.

Haven Farm Shop in Sutton Valence is also the village Post Office
Haven Farm Shop in Sutton Valence is also the village Post Office

For years a modest outlet in Faversham, it is now opening another major store and restaurant at Elwick Place in Ashford - the site of the town's new multiplex cinema.

Its range will even stretch to cocktails, highlighting the diverse nature of these once modest ventures.

Stephanie Durling is manager of Produced in Kent, an organisation which champions local food and drink providers.

She said: "In Kent, we are seeing both the traditional farm shop and also visitor attractions shops enhancing and expanding their retail offers with an increased emphasis on local products."

Made in Kent: Macknade Fine Foods

"We’ve also seen a number of new shop launches in recent months to meet consumer demand for seasonal, traceable, fresh produce.

"Following the rise of the supermarket and mass consumerisation of the nineties and early noughties, Kent farm shops have boomed over the last decade and there’s a noticeable shift in shopping habits across the county in step with nationwide trends.

"Following a spate of supermarket food scandals, consumer confidence has been dented and shoppers are seeking out authentic products with high provenance, traceability and quality ratings, which is exactly what the farm shops offer."

According to a report published earlier this year by Kent County Council, there were some 2,395 food and drink production enterprises in the county last year - a figure which has grown by 3.5% over the last five years.

Macknade is moving into Ashford town centre
Macknade is moving into Ashford town centre

Of those, farming enterprises account for 88.9%.

The Groombridge Farm Shop near Tunbridge Wells is a prime example of the organic growth the sector is seeing.

Opened in 2001 as The Asparagus Hut selling, you guessed it, asparagus from New Park Farm, it has now grown into a fully-fledged farm shop which was rebuilt, refurbished and reopened in June.

For others, they are heading out of the countryside and into traditional retail hubs.

Stephanie Durling, Produced in Kent manager
Stephanie Durling, Produced in Kent manager

The move into town centres is being fuelled as prime sites open up as big chains vacate their traditional patches.

Austen’s of Rochester moved into the town centre in 2015, initially as a greengrocer, but quickly diversified into a broader local food and drink offering.

It now boasts the majority of its produce has travelled less than 25 miles and arrives in store less than 24 hours after it was picked.

Boss Andy Austen said: "We want to encourage everybody to talk about and eat local as much as possible and, by doing so, ensure we all play a part in the sustainability of our local farms and passionate artisan food producers."

"Following a spate of supermarket food scandals, consumer confidence has been dented and shoppers are seeking out authentic products with high provenance, traceability and quality ratings, which is exactly what the farm shops offer"- Stephanie Durling, Produced in Kent

There are benefits too for shoppers.

Lower Ladysden Farm Shop in Goudhurst opened for business in April, selling produce grown on its farm but also having a range of lightly bruised fresh fruits which don't quite make the grade for shops - but are ideal for jam and preserve makers, and are sold at reduced prices.

Another Kent retail stalwart, Lower Hardres Farm Shop, near Canterbury, is a one-stop rural farm store established in 2007.

It has its own in-house butchery and stocks an array of home-grown fruit and vegetables, as well as dairy produce and bread from other local suppliers.

What's more, they are committed to making it affordable - a key concern for many shoppers keen to buy local, but often deterred by the higher price tag.

Local producers face a struggle in under-cutting the major supermarkets who bring with them the ability to obtain discounts by bulk purchasing and slashing prices as so-called 'lost leaders' - luring shoppers in for one deal, sold at below cost price, to then capitalise on the purchase of other more profitable items.

With food tourism also pulling in customers - a recent trend which sees visitors come to take in the food and drink as a key part of their travels - it's little wonder why others are following suit.

Hever Castle and Gardens has put the emphasis of its shop on Kent produce, ranging from preserves, chutneys and chocolates to alcoholic beverages.

Farm shops help plough money back into the local economy
Farm shops help plough money back into the local economy

Ashley Collins, head of retail at Hever Castle, is passionate about sourcing local products.

He said: "We’ve really committed to increasing our local offering and our customers have embraced it. Our sales show that local is what people are choosing."

Meanwhile, the team at Quex Barn in Birchington, near Margate, are on a mission to bring fresh local produce to local people and visitors alike.

Surrounded by some of the most productive and fertile land in the country, its restaurant and shop has become as much part of the experience as visiting the manor house which sits within the estate.

And with every purchase from a local farm shop being ploughed back – often quite literally – into the local economy, farm shops are proving a rare win-win case for both consumers and producers.

For more news on big brands and good places to enjoy a tasty bite, head to our Eat, Drink, Shop section

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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