Paul Hargreaves: What’s changed during the past 20 years?
We have recently returned from the 20th Speciality & Fine Food Fair. We were at the first show in 1999 with around 50 other exhibitors. In fact, the show was so small we could drive our cars into Olympia and park up next to the stand when setting up. How things have changed! In those days we and other exhibitors were besieged with relevant buyers to our stand. Over the years more and more people seem to come to shows to sell rather than buy and it seems harder and harder to encourage buyers to travel to trade shows.
But for those buyers that do come has what retailers are looking for has changed? Probably not. They are still seeking differentiated products, artisan producers and items that fill category gaps. But, the market itself has expanded exponentially, with fine food no longer the exclusive domain of farm shops and delis. Garden centres, convenience stores and forecourts are now all seeking to fulfil customer demand for different and artisan. Farm Shops, in particular, have had to become far more commercially minded with an offering that entices in a wider, younger audience by expanding their range from originally literally home-grown produce. This is also true of convenience stores, who seek to offer more decadent weekend treats, free-from and generally different products alongside their household staples. Interestingly, provenance which lost its way as a key stocking factor over the past decade is beginning to come to the fore again, with the large grocers looking to stock more local and artisan products.
It is not just the number of fine food retailers that has increased, so has the number of products entering the market, which means that marketing these brands and products has become more important than ever. Ten years ago, Cotswold Fayre received around 100 brands to review annually for a potential listing and this has now increased by over 300% to more than 350 brands. The producers themselves have also changed massively over the decades. Two decades ago, the majority of the producers were fifty plus, often launching a second career after leaving the city. Today, the average age of our suppliers is much lower, and the brands they represent are more commonly a full-time passion and not just a part-time retirement project.
There is no doubt that the popularity for artisan products remain, but, perhaps the greatest challenge is for consumers to spot genuine products with mass produced, big brand products creating stories and packaging to exploit this popularity. It’s certainly an exciting time for everyone involved with the fine food market. Demand has never been higher, but with the number of suppliers exceeding the retail opportunity, I would encourage all new producers with three words: Innovate, innovate and innovate. There are far many “me too” brands emerging. Now, for us, the hard work of choosing our new brands for 2020 starts. Let’s hope we see some real innovation.