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Frome's most forward-thinking butcher is down, but not out [WFJ #53]
What's next for Penleigh, and what does it say about the future of the British high street?
From 2pm this Saturday, Frome shoppers will find it more difficult to access meat from local, traditional, and sustainable farms.
That’s because Penleigh butchers, who’ve been at 5 Stony Street for the last six and a half years, are shutting up shop and moving online.
While Penleigh’s high street presence has succumbed to a combination of increasing overhead costs and shopping behaviours, it’s perhaps most tangibly felt in the energy bill – Owen Singer, who runs the business and rented the shop space, tells The WFJ how, in a matter of months, his electricity payments “went from 300-odd pounds a month, to 1,500.”
Figures like these aren’t so easy to curtail when you consider premises, such as butchers’ shops, need to keep their fridges going 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “Fridges work harder in the summer,” Owen says, “so if I carried on [at the shop] until June or July, that’d be up to £2,500. And I can’t pass that on to the customer, because no one wants to pay £50 for a chicken. Not that I think that’s how much a chicken should be worth.”
This more or less reinforces what the rest of us already know – households, after all, are experiencing an energy bill spike of dramatic proportions. But Owen, who farms and butchers the pigs he sold at the shop, has a unique perspective, as he sees firsthand how the costs of food production – from rearing to processing and retailing – have increased so unsustainably.
“Grain is going from 110 pounds a tonne to 300 pounds a tonne. If you're a pig farmer or a chicken farmer, the actual costs of producing it don't stack up on certain things. But I know my product and that's why I do it.”
All this may have been weatherable, if customer numbers increased to a respectable level. But Owen thinks within the past few years shopping behaviours have changed, and for the long-term. He says “people haven’t got the time to shop on the high street” anymore and that, when they did – i.e. during Covid lockdowns – it only highlighted how normal, everyday life is no longer conducive to popping to the butcher, baker, individually and on a daily basis.
He might be right, though there’s more to it. About 47 shops closed every day on UK high streets in 2022 – a 50% increase to the year prior – with retail sector experts blaming sales volumes, energy prices, and inflation exacerbated by war in Ukraine as cause for the sudden decline.
Among the casualties, independent shops suffered the most. As Owen admits, while before the pandemic the shop wasn’t performing to expectations, Covid-19 did, ironically, provide a bit of a lifeline. “We were starting at two in the morning, working all hours to serve people who couldn’t get to the supermarket, or the supermarket couldn’t supply them. We did so many deliveries to so many people, and I had people coming in saying they were enjoying shopping again. Great things came from [lockdown] but the first week people were let loose [from restrictions], we were quite busy the weekend, then things dropped back to normal.”
Really it’s the period we’re in now that’s proving a much bigger challenge for businesses to maintain a bricks-and-mortar presence. And it’s showing – 61% of Brits think the cost of living will push the high street as we know it to breaking point. Is Frome, having experienced a few premises emptying in recent months, and despite its enviable independent spirit, any exception?
Anecdotally, perhaps to some degree. “You look around and there's still other businesses doing really well,” says Owen. “There's a cost of living crisis, but places you can go and eat still do well. People are happy to spend a bit of money to be looked after and do something special.”
The evolution of Penleigh butchers
As much as the high street is a part of what makes Frome Frome, it’s under threat from what is emerging as the leading driver of British shopping habits: Convenience. 26% of retail sales in the UK are now online, whereas 16 years ago, it was a mere 2.8%.
And so, in the wake of the shop’s closure, it’s been a case of ‘can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ for Penleigh, as Owen is taking the retail side of his business almost entirely online for local delivery and click-and-collect.
“The idea is there'll be pre-ordering, so I know what I'm killing or having to buy in for a Thursday evening delivery or Saturday collection at Boyle Cross” (Owen points out that, though trading weekly at Boyle Cross with Somerset Farmers Markets and/or as part of a Frome Town Council scheme is not yet confirmed at the time of writing, that’s what he’s working towards).
“You’ll order by end of play Monday, and you'll get it on Thursday. Eventually it'll be paid online, all done beforehand, and I'll deliver it in boxes. In an ideal world, we want to move into subscriptions.”
Making use of an already “really engaged” social media audience, Penleigh’s Facebook, and particularly Instagram, will pose as the businesses’ new shopfront, with the website acting as, what Owen describes, the “brain behind it”.
As for what’s in that virtual shop, it won't be much different to what Penleigh’s regulars are used to. “All local provenance, all traditional British rare breeds,” Owen says. “But just being a bit more targeted with it rather than buying it and hoping someone's going to want it. It works well for me because there isn't any wastage, and you buy what you need rather than taking your chances with it.”
Owen concedes that the four days between order and collection may put people off (he says, “If it works, brilliant. If it doesn't, we'll figure something else out”), but that’s not to say there won’t be a fair few ad hoc staples readily available at the Saturday market stall. “Sausages, barbeque food in the summer, mince, steak, chicken breasts, chicken thighs. That sort of thing.”
Better quality food carries a noticeable (but usually justified) cost, especially at a time like now. But, as Penleigh will no longer have such significant overheads, wouldn’t that mean there’ll be less to pass on to the customer? “I will be able to offer a cheaper price on certain things,” Owen says. “As we're not having the waste, I won't have another wage or the rent to pay, and I’m not burning as much electricity. Our prices are sat below the Tesco Finest or Waitrose equivalent, but the quality is better.
“You could always get cheaper,” he adds, “but we were always about sustainable agriculture, traditional and mixed farms, animal welfare, taste, and quality of the produce.”
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