Retailing with a difference: East of England Co-operative

East of England Co-operative's ‘Deli To Go’ boasts 100 per cent locally supplied fresh, products delivered direct from some of the region’s leading and innovative food producers

The grocery market is fiercely competitive. From huge supermarket chains to discounters, the choice for consumers is vast. So why choose co-operative? One of the answers can be found locally in East Anglia... and its success has netted East of England Co-operative a host of regional and national awards.     

The co-op boasts more than 135 food stores across Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. And since 2007 a ground-breaking scheme to bring an ever growing range of local products to its shelves has been making waves and boosting profits. Sourced Locally was launched with a commitment to reconnect customers with food provenance; providing an opportunity to buy local food while reducing food miles.

The seed of the idea came about when Roger Grosvenor, the East of England’s Executive Officer for Retail, was driving through fields of locally grown asparagus and went on to visit a local Co-op store, only to find South American asparagus on sale. A partnership was quickly developed with a local asparagus producer who then delivered freshly picked produce directly to Co-op stores – and Sourced Locally was born.

Roger Grosvenor said: “So why did we begin selling products made on our doorstep? Simply because we felt it was the right thing to do. East Anglia is one of the most productive agricultural landscapes in the world and we are surrounded by quality food being grown and produced all around us.

"We know that local food and drink production supports thousands of jobs and is crucial to our regional economy and, as a local independent retailer at the heart of communities, we wanted to help strengthen that, reconnect our customers with where their food comes from and create more opportunities to buy locally produced food and drink on a daily basis.”

"Without the co-op I’m pretty sure that we would not continue our business," Andrew Sturgeon, owner of Lodge Farm in Suffolk

Seven years on, Sourced Locally generated a turnover of almost £15 million, with 2014 enjoying a 21 per cent uplift on 2013. Almost 140 producers had become involved, supplying more than 2,750 products, including over 30 East of England Co-op own-brand label products. From asparagus to yoghurt, the majority of products are sourced from within 30 miles of the store and delivered direct by producers, providing customers with the freshest choice of locally-sourced produce on a daily basis. This innovative supply chain dramatically reduces food miles and waste and is central to the success of Sourced Locally.  

The co-op’s new ‘Deli To Go’, introduced to more than 60 stores to replace serve over delis, brings together an even wider array of 100 per cent locally supplied fresh, products delivered direct from some of the region’s leading and innovative food producers. 

Robert and Laura Strathern, Fairfields Potatoes, EssexKevin Warden, Local and Fresh Foods Manager, said: “We offer truly local fresh food which hasn’t travelled around the country to packaging and distribution centres, or been subject to extensive refrigeration. We work with our local producers to ensure that, where possible, they can deliver their products direct to stores in their community. This means we can have fresh fruit and vegetables on our shelves on the same day as they’ve been picked from local fields.”

New partners often start the relationship by introducing one or two products to stores near their operation and are then helped and supported to expand at their own pace. From small beginnings, many producers have gone on to stock all Co-op food stores in their locality. Havensfield Eggs in Suffolk began by supplying a few Co-op food stores and now provide eggs to around 100 stores. Other producers such as Vintage Farm Projects, who supply daffodils to around six local stores, prefer to keep things on a smaller scale.

“So why did we begin selling products made on our doorstep? Simply because we felt it was the right thing to do," Roger Grosvenor, East of England Co-operative

Sourced Locally promotes sustainable partnerships based on its ‘3P's policy': creating a profit for the supplier; a profit for the society; and providing produce at a realistic price for the customer. Andrew Sturgeon, owner of Lodge Farm in Suffolk, supplies seasonal fruit and vegetables to the Sourced Locally range. He said: "We have a genuine dialogue about the price that we are being offered. Because we have a bigger share of the final price we are now investing again in machinery and buildings. 

"Customers are able to buy local produce and that money is being recycled within the community. It’s keeping this business alive. Without the Co-op I’m pretty sure that we would not continue our business." 
Alaistaire and Fiona Brice, of Havensfield Eggs, SuffolkSince its launch more than £34 million has been ploughed back into the region through payments to its local suppliers. Research shows how this is creating business confidence in the region and has enabled small and medium enterprises to secure and create around 300 local jobs.

Robert Strathern, of Fairfields Farm in Colchester, which supplies potatoes and handmade crisps for Sourced Locally, said: "We’ve managed to provide more local employment as our business expanded on the back of what we’ve been doing with the Co-op. A family business is really important within a rural local economy and it’s nice working with businesses which have a likeminded approach in family values towards business."