Local Shops for Local People
Chris Ritchie talks to Chris Bavin of The Naked Grocer about the current climate for small businesses and how shopping around is good for everyone…
Do you remember The Naked Grocer? That nice, friendly shop down Bridge Street in Walton? Until last year it was one of a sadly growing number of independent retailers that bit the bullet in Elmbridge, for one reason or another.
Chris Bavin, who with his wife Millie set up The Naked Grocer, is a familiar face to many in the Elmbridge area – the type of shopkeeper who’d take a few minutes to chat with his customers; the personal touch that you don’t really get in the supermarkets. He’s well known nationally too, thanks to co-presenting Eat Well For Less with Gregg Wallace, and being on the presenting team for the BBC’s recent Tomorrow’s Food series.
Chris generously gave some time to answer a few questions about his experiences as a local shopkeeper. “I was involved in fresh produce and flowers for a long time and thought there was a gap in the market for a very good but reasonably priced greengrocer – something I still believe,” he says. “It was my first ever experience in retail and we had the shop in Walton-on-Thames for six amazing years.”
At the time then, when Chris and Millie took the unit opposite Wilkinson, it was a stone’s throw from Aldi, Sainsbury’s, and a number of smaller corner-shop style outlets. It’s always been risky for independent retailers to go up against the big boys, but what does Chris think?
“Well, I think that a very good independent retailer can hold their own against the supermarkets,” he says. “I think independents can offer real value for money and compete on price. The supermarkets fix prices for longer periods, which means they are cheaper when the prices in the market rise, but by the same token the independent sector can offer better prices when the markets are lower.”
So following those six good years, there’s now a Costcutter in the old Naked spot, which makes around five “mini market” stores in central Walton, in addition to the supermarkets. Is that too many, and how does that affect retailers and consumers?
“I think you will continue to see this trend for the convenience stores,” Chris says. “It is very much the way the supermarkets are going. Bigger stores are now out of fashion and favour. I would say that you just need to be aware that with convenience can come cost, so just be careful and aware of what the prices are.”
Supporting Local Business
Small retail businesses in general seem to come and go but some are more successful than others. Charity shops, for example, stick around, and it seems perhaps food outlets may struggle the most for traction and longevity. “Yes, that has been the case, which is a shame,” he says. “I think people have to be aware that if they want these stores, which I think they do, they need to be supported.”
So is it the responsibility of local people to keep their local shops going? “Well, it is the retailer’s responsibility to have the right offering and determine whether it is required or not, make sure everything is right – product, price, service…but if the community want these stores, and again I think they do, then they have to support them, and that means spending money in them.”
What was it then that led to the decision to move out of the Walton premises? Was the rent just too high for a small business to sustain? “No. If the rent is too high the shop is empty, and then the landlord would invariably lower the rent. Something that I found to be too high was the business rates, and these are set according to historic rental values and quite often now the rent would have been reduced in line with supply and demand but the business rates are still out of kilter and disproportionally high.”
In other words then, it wasn’t necessarily a lack of custom or a greedy landlord – it was the government. Now there’s no need for conspiracy theories but it seems at odds with the government’s policy of helping business start-ups while at the same time setting rates which can stand in the way of success, especially in the early years when fledgling companies are establishing themselves.
In any case, Chris and Millie have moved on and among their other business interests The Naked Grocer lives on. Now based on a local farm and focused on delivering direct, the costs are lower and the business can thrive.
“It is much more controlled now,” Chris says. “We have removed lots of variables from the business and we can focus on the growth areas – fruit for offices and fruit and veg boxes delivered to people’s homes is proving hugely popular.
“We learnt some very valuable lessons in our time in Walton. It was a privilege to have been welcomed into the community.”
So we shouldn’t necessarily feel guilty for Chris and Millie moving on, but all this does raise questions about supply and demand and whether or not the supermarkets can really be competed with. On Eat Well For Less, in which Chris and Gregg help families to see where they can save in some cases considerable money by shopping around and changing their eating habits and brands, it often involves sourcing their food from a number of outlets. Now that might be fine for the TV show environment, but can us ordinary folk really be bothered to visit four or five retailers in our weekly shop? Most of us probably choose one supermarket, at most two (for the small number of items one might not stock for whatever reason), but four or five?
Chris says: “I think in principle it is possible, but the family is more of a vehicle to show the whole country what is possible if you are open to trying new things or cheaper products. It is about highlighting the savings that are possible if you follow a few simple tips.
“It’s very simple really. Plan your meals – then write a list of what it is you need to make those meals (after checking what you already have), then stick to the list you have written. Always try a cheaper alternative – don’t pay for the privilege of convenience.”
And what of the ethos behind The Naked Grocer – that organically grown produce will always be better than processed food? Can families afford to go strictly organic?
“I think cost can never be used as a reason not to eat a healthy diet,” he says. “If you look at some of the poorest parts of the world they have a great diet. Cooking from scratch is the best way to do it. We understand that time and confidence in the kitchen aren’t always abundant, but try a few basic meals and once you have a few basics it will open up lots of variations of that dish – try to enjoy it! If you have cooked it yourself, you know exactly what’s in it and you should hopefully save a few pounds in the process.”
Back to the What’s in Walton Homepage
A History of Walton-on-Thames
Burning Out Daddy
A Profile of Walton Charity
Dining Out in Walton-on-Thames