Helping food retailers switch to online trading during Covid-19

Locavore is one of 636 ‘shopfront’ members of the platform co-operative Open Food Network (OFN). It was already a growing business – even before COVID-19 struck.

The social enterprise, in Glasgow, connects people with locally and ethically sourced produce via its shop, wholesale operation and vegetable box scheme. And it has been a genuine lifeline to some of its customers during the pandemic.

“Demand exploded for the veg boxes,” said Locavore’s Dorothea Warlich. “People really appreciate that we are reliable, that they can rely on us in an emergency. They’re grateful we have been able to keep going, keep delivering their veg boxes, keep the shop open and well stocked.”

Short supply chains and direct relationships with producers have proved key to coping with increased demand, including delivery to some of the community’s most vulnerable people. Locavore gained around 400 new customers by mid-April with online sales increasing five-fold in just three weeks during the same month.

Dorothea said: “It has really helped having the local connections. We are all about the short supply chains. I really hope this encourages a wider range of people willing to support the food producers in their local communities.”

Locavore’s ethos is not unique. Like other OFN members, it is based on a sustainable local food system which benefits the local economy, the environment and local communities. More than 1,300 food producers are member owners of the software platform – and the UK’s arm of the platform co-operative is booming. In the four months from mid-January to mid-May the weekly turnover of OFN shops increased by more than 1200% to almost £60,000 per week.

Nick Weir is Communications Manager for OFN. He said: “We work to a clear set of values to facilitate a fairer system. We can give farmers a fair price and shoppers affordable, quality produce.COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the need for local control of food systems. We’ve seen a real coming together of communities around these systems which I think will have a lasting effect.”

All OFN members are eligible to stand for election to the co-op’s board and can influence how the software develops – even at a global level. Nick said: “In other countries it’s the same story. Brazil, India, Italy, Ireland… they all want shorter food supply chains.”

Locally rooted and ethically sound retailers are not a new invention. Co-op retailers, including The Co-op Group, the independent retail societies and worker-owned wholefood businesses all champion those ideals.

Nick believes the expanding OFN membership can operate alongside to help create a more sustainable future. “When we are talking about massive neo-liberal enterprises, the biggest supermarket chains and discounters, they’re legally bound to maximise shareholder profit,” he added. “Co-operatives, with their membership structure and values and principles immediately takes away that all-encompassing profit incentive.”