My own experience of this sector of the market has come through six years of retail management with the National Trust in Herefordshire, a county which is well-endowed with all kinds of tempting and high quality produce. When I became involved, at Croft Castle in 2007, our local products were no more than a token presence: an estate-grown wine (a best-seller, though in limited quantity), a honey and an apple-juice which were both made in Worcestershire. Sales from these lines totalled about 3% of our gross sales.

Realising that we needed to make a bigger impact, and aided by the Trust’s “Going Local” policy, we added over 30 new lines during 2008 including beers, ciders, jams & chutneys, biscuits, cakes, cosmetics and, critically, ice-cream. By the early part of our third year local sales were running at close to 20% of the total sales, and they continued to rise. During 2012, at the Brockhampton Estate, they had reached 30%, from just 21% of shelf space.

Local wines add colour and gloss to an attractive display.

Local wines add colour and gloss to an attractive display.

The message we were getting from our customers was clear: be bold, creative and, above all, give local suppliers a high priority. The justification for this comes not only in sales figures, but also in visitor satisfaction. A good shopping experience rounds off the day nicely, and helps to encourage repeat visits – it really does!

Cause and effect

Popular demand for locally produced goods in Heritage shops is based on five important drivers:

  • Visitors are now more widely travelled, they make critical comparisons, and they expect to take away with them an authentic “taste” of the area they have just explored.
  • Public perception, informed by green lobbying, environmentalists and influenced by the high cost of fuel, is that local products have added value (although visitors may be ignoring the miles they have travelled to the attraction).
  • A further perception, usually justified, that the local offer is a product of guaranteed origin.
  • The widely-held view, less often justified, that added value denotes added quality.
  • The rapid proliferation of small-scale local producers. If this implies that demand was not always running ahead of supply, it is worth considering that economic pressures on farming and rural industries, creating a need to diversify, began well before the current crisis. In the mid-1980s, many who had previously relied on farming and growing for their living, began to extend into the next position in the food supply chain and became processors as well as producers. Initially it was hard going: the market was not well developed, small shops were going out of business, and the supermarkets were not encouraging specialist interests.

The great surge of public interest in environmental issues changed all that, and uncovered a demand from the consumer to have whatever is produced in their own locality, or region. At much the same time, there was a dramatic growth in what could be called the “history” market, and a corresponding rise in “heritage” visits. Even so, this was a sector that responded rather slowly to the changing situation, with the result that, even in 2103, there is plenty of growth still to be had.

Strategy

How, then, should individual retailers/managers/buyers respond to this Cheerful situation? Given the number of forces pushing in the right direction it might seem that all a heritage shop has to do is major on local products and it will make a killing. Nothing is ever that easy. Within the heritage environment marketing can be a real headache. Tucked away inside a large estate, garden, or complex of buildings, the shop can struggle to draw attention to the specifics of its offer. Usually it has to rely on the marketing programme for the whole attraction to filter through to the retail end, and this can be a slow and uncertain process. Promotion of local products through tastings and demonstrations, properly signposted and directed, does have an effect and the results are measurable, though not necessarily consistent.

An array of beers brewed in Shropshire and Worcestershire, in military formation for added effect.

An array of beers brewed in Shropshire and Worcestershire, in military formation for added effect.

Probably the most effective tools for retailers in this situation are the social media. It is a hit-and-miss process, but it is instant, widespread, and the message can be endlessly repeated in different forms. Profit margins can be a tricky area. Quality products, well packaged are not usually cheap. The problem for “one off” locations lies in having enough confidence to charge premium prices. But even large organisations like the National Trust can struggle in this direction. The good news for those who have, or want to have, a locally sourcing policy is that the local goods will hold their own. I have had the opportunity in two National Trust properties to run local jams, honeys and preserves alongside centrally supplied similar products. The local lines, at higher prices but lower margins, frequently outperformed successful central products. Over a lengthy period the higher cash return would easily offset the difference in margin.

Supply, by which I mean regular and guaranteed availability of product, is vital. Nothing is more frustrating, or embarrassing, than trialling a new product and discovering, when demand takes off, that the supplier is unable to meet it. Meet the suppliers, on their own premises, before committing to the product. Find out what experiences other retailers have had with the same suppliers, and never commit on the basis of a sample brought in to the shop. Local knowledge (and your own local knowledge) is everything.

Finally, make the local offer bold and striking. Have plenty of each line on view, don’t be afraid to have only one or two different products on a shelf, and make the most of other relevant material, such as books, to create a link with local themes or interests. Localism is important to the heritage industries, local suppliers are important to heritage shops. Making it visually clear, with attractive displays prominently placed, that this is understood, is bound to bring results.

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