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Give and you shall receive

The exterior of Fodder in Hereford

Mark Hubbard, co-owner and manager of Fodder in Hereford, tells us how an open-minded approach to sales and marketing has reaped speedy rewards

Phillip and I took over Fodder right at the end of September 2014. The shop has been here for 30 years, and already had a loyal band of customers, but we knew that we could do more, and make the store better. I’d worked in the shop for five years a few years ago, and we actually tried to buy the shop previously, the last time it was up for sale.

When we took over, we only had £14,000 worth of stock, but we’d budgeted to be able to increase that very quickly. I’ve worked with this kind of food all my life; I used to be a vegan myself, and am still very much committed to eating wholefoods and ethically-sourced produce. Philip and I have a very clear vision; we want to use only small suppliers, as local as possible, and remove all multinational corporations from our supply chain. Within six weeks of taking over, we had doubled the footfall and spend in the shop, and we’ve carried on building steadily from there.

Hitting the ground running

We are very lucky with the position of our shop, and with the town that we’re based in. Hereford is lovely, and has a really strong community feel, and we want our shop to be a part of that community. You can’t just sit and wait for that to happen, though; you have to do things to get to know the local people, and to help them get to know you. A month after we’d taken over the store, we held a street party outside. We’re very fortunate that we’re on a lovely, semi-pedestrianised street at the end of the cathedral close, so there’s not much motorised traffic to speak of.

We put out a message on our Facebook page and on Twitter to let all our customers know that we wanted to throw a party to thank everyone for their loyalty and support since we’d started running Fodder. The staff cooked all afternoon, using the ingredients that we sell in the shop. Our wholesalers, Queenswood, are absolutely fantastic. The service that they offer is still like that of a small company, with a really personal touch. They got in touch with lots of their suppliers and lots of them offered us free produce for the party to help us out. We held the party in the street at the time the shop would usually be closing, and put up fairy lights to help with the party atmosphere; it was October, so we were quite lucky with the weather, it was dark enough to be festive but not cold enough to chase people away!

We made 40 vegan pizzas, all of which were devoured; all the vegans knew they were dairy-free, but those who weren’t vegan couldn’t even tell the difference. Just goes to show how much melting vegan cheese has improved since the 1970s! We also had a local wine producer doing a tasting, and Trumpers teas did a tea cocktail. We kept the shop open and the tills running until 9pm, so that people could pop inside if they wanted to and buy some of the things that they’d tasted at the party. We took over two-and-a-half thousand pounds that day; people were really pleased to be supporting us, and a lot tried things that they wouldn’t normally taste, and realised how fantastic healthy, wholesome, ethical food can taste.

Building on our success

We saw a real improvement in footfall after our street party, and I wanted to expand on that success, so I decided to run a stall at the Viva Vegan Roadshow this summer. Again, we didn’t sell anything, but approached our suppliers to see who would be happy to give us some freebies to give out. I got lots of lovely vegan products, and just gave them away! I was quite surprised that not many stallholders had given much thought to how their stalls were presented. I took along a lot of the packs that we make up ourselves of rice, oats, seeds and dried fruit, and made a lovely mountain out of them to make an eye-catching display. People made an absolute beeline for our stall, it looked so brilliant! I gave out freebies, with flyers telling people that our shop was only two minutes away, and they should go and have a look. I finished up at 4pm and got back to Fodder at 4.30pm, to find the staff in total shock, wondering what on earth I’d done. People had walked straight from my stall to the shop, and we’d taken a huge amount on the tills all afternoon.

I hear retailers saying that they don’t do promotions because they’re too much effort and cost too much. But they really do work. Giving things away to people to promote your store makes sense both because it creates goodwill and because it spreads the word about what you do. And if you can get your suppliers to help you out with freebies – which they are often very willing to do, if you just ask – then you don’t even have to spend a lot of money doing it. Our vegan cheese supplier Violife sent us a DHL package of £150 worth of free cheese all the way from Greece! I believe that people respond to largesse, and if they get a nice big freebie they will feel more willing to visit your shop and spend than if you gave them a teeny little piece of something or other!

The Fodder team

A strong team

We were very lucky to inherit a fantastic team of staff when I took over Fodder. They are 100 per cent reliable and honest. When we came on board, we told them that we wanted to put them all on the Living Wage – the real one, not the silly one George Osborne goes on about – as quickly as possible, but that right from the start we would increase wages to above minimum wage. It’s really important that everyone who works here enjoys their job, and wants to come to work every day, just like we do. The staff hadn’t had a Christmas party in years, and when they did, they had to pay for themselves. We took them out at Christmas just a few months after taking over and made sure everyone had a brilliant night and didn’t have to spend a penny. All of that helps to build a team and makes your staff want to go the extra mile, because they’re proud of where they work.

Ahead of the curve

We really try to stay ahead of the curve with what we stock, too. Each week we try something new in the shop, put it on the counter, and ask our customers what they think. We’ve had a lot of success with new things, and if people have tried something, they become part of a customer base who come back specifically to buy that product. We find out about new things through customer reviews on online store websites, through wholesaler catalogues and through magazines like Better Retailing. We leave the magazine out for the staff to read, too. Recent new discoveries have included Sibberi birch water, which has been a big hit, and the Raw Chocolate Pie Company products – we are the only place in Herefordshire that sells them, and we only found out about them because a customer posted a picture of the pies on our Facebook page.

We have also recently discovered Naturemade in Devon, a range of tofu, tempeh and fridge cakes made by a lady called Esme Brown. We love supporting small businesses, and if they’re in the UK, even better. It suits our business, too – her price point is slightly lower than our other tofu supplier, and she uses less packaging. In some ways it’s easier to stay ahead of the game when you’re in Herefordshire; even if we get new things at the same time as they’re getting them in London, or slightly later, we’re doing pretty well for round here!

Interestingly, some of the strongest feedback we’ve had, both online and in person from our customers, is when we told them about why we didn’t stock Green & Black’s any more. It’s great chocolate, but if people want to buy it, they can get it from the supermarket. We want to be selling products that you can’t get in bigger stores. Our customers felt it was the right choice, and we’re now working with Montezuma, Conscious chocolate, Buja Buja and Moo Free, which is what we stock now. We also don’t stock Yeo Valley products, because although I think they’re a great company, you can buy their stuff in the supermarket. We stock Neal’s Yard Dairy instead; they’re local to us, so it feels right.

Keeping prices in check

We think it’s really important to ensure that our prices aren’t too high; we would much rather sell more things at a lower price, than fewer at a high price. When we took over the store, we instinctively felt that some of the pricing was just wrong. We are running a price check on everything, but we sell two and half thousand products, so it will take some time. We’ve put a notice up telling our customers that it is happening, but asking them to bear with us! When we’ve checked a product, we put a pink star on the shelves, showing where the prices have fallen. We even price check against Asda and Tesco. There are some products where it’s obvious that we aren’t going to make much profit. For example, there were frosts in Turkey over a year ago affecting hazelnut and apricot trees, and the crops failed, so prices doubled. We want to keep them affordable, so we kept the price steady and just took a hit with our profit margins. It’s important sometimes to keep the supply line going, and if we put our usual margin on, no one would be able to afford to buy them.

Learning from others

The health food business is an exciting and vibrant one, and I think it’s really important to learn from other retailers who are doing new, interesting things. I recently went on a trip to Brighton to stay with friends and did a tour of some of the fantastic health food shops that they have there; hiSbe, for example, are fantastic, and are bringing a new energy to the concept of the health food store. One of the things I noticed them the best shops do is that they communicate brilliantly with their customers, telling that what they are doing and why. So I want to go through all of our suppliers, like Viridian, Solgar, Bioforce, Nature’s Own – and find out what’s great about them, and what makes them stand out from the crowd. Then we’re going to put signs up on the walls telling our customers why these suppliers are so great, and why we’ve picked them to stock in our shop.

Planning for the future

The store hasn’t been changed in the last 30 years, so soon we are planning to rip everything out and start again. We want to really think about the customer experience, what it feels like when you walk in the store. At the moment you walk into supplements and remedies, and I don’t think that makes people feel healthy: you need to see lots of lovely fresh fruit and vegetables when you first come in. But we will ensure we talk to our customers before we do anything, with a Facebook questionnaire and a survey. We’ll ask what they like, what they don’t, what we can improve and what values the shop should have. We’ll also do some rebranding, looking at what makes us peculiarly Fodder and how we can get that message across in everything we do.

You do have to love this job. I worked 80 hours a week for the first three months, and soon realised that I couldn’t keep that up. Now I try to keep it at around 60 hours, but I always end up popping in on one of my days off! Part of taking over a business is understanding that you need to put in that energy in the early days. But Philip and I really can’t believe our luck. We wanted to buy this shop five years ago, and now that it’s finally ours, we really want to put our stamp on it and make it a business to be really proud of.

Mark’s tips for marketing your business successfully

  • Make good use of social media
    You will have some customers that don’t use it, but it’s a great way to communicate with your customers, and invaluable when you want feedback or customer suggestions and tips

  • Use old school communication tools, too!
    Facebook and Twitter are great, but never underestimate the power of a well-placed sign on your shop wall or a big sticker on a shelf!

  • Be generous!
    People really respond to being given things for free, or to special offers and promotions. You will almost always get back what you’ve spent, and usually much more besides

  • Ask for help
    Your suppliers need you to sell their products just as much as you do, and are often happy to help out with free product and promotional materials if you run events and promotions

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