1 November 2021

Deliveries to your door…

By Rachel Sloane

For the past few months there can’t be many people who have not had a delivery to their front door. During the boredom of lockdowns, with shops closed and gifts to buy, who could resist the lure of the websites offering home delivery.

In a case of “If you can’t beat them, join them,” many of our independent shops found that, to compete with the big national supermarkets and online stores, they also needed to provide a delivery service.  Like many small towns in Suffolk and Norfolk, my own town of Felixstowe, Suffolk, rose to the challenge. I had a delicious Easter Sunday lunch for one delivered hot to my door from Ruby’s café, fruit and vegetables from the Fruit and Flowers greengrocers, bread from The Bakery, and meat from Deben Butchers. Following a phone order, the stationary shop Pierrot, would deliver (if the order was more than £15),  and Stillwater Books would bring a book to your door. Many of the shops started the service in March when they had vulnerable customers who were told to self-isolate, and then expanded it, as all were determined to still have a viable business when the pandemic eased.

“The world totally changed and even now lots of people are still isolating. We had never done deliveries before, and nobody had ever asked us too,” explained The Deben Butcher, Nigel Underwood. “Then, back in March, people started to ask us if we would do it. We tried it and it just grew from there. It’s become a habit really and has changed the whole way we trade in the shop, and I think it will continue.”

Nigel has found it hard to run the shop and do deliveries.

“I have had to open the shop for shorter hours to allow time for deliveries but if it keeps us going, and helps people out, that is the main thing. People are very grateful and that is the satisfaction for me. With a personal service we take up what the supermarkets can’t do. Of course, it’s also nice to see people in the shop!“ he laughed. “This is a totally different way of living. We’ve gone back to the deliveries that our parents and grandparents took for granted.”

Some shops were already doing deliveries before Covid struck.

“We adapted fairly quickly from the start because we had already been doing home deliveries, on a very small scale, so we ramped it up and employed more people,” said Paul Branch, from Fruit and Flowers. “We lost all of our catering work as they closed, from day one, but we’ve been really lucky as we have a big following on our retail work, and home deliveries really took off. It’s actually done us more good than harm, as we have got bigger and bigger. We took on new customers and looked after them, as we did our old customers. We now do a full range of jams, pickles cakes, fresh bread from a local baker so that we have added on to our greengrocery, purely because of lock-down. People wanted comfort food and it worked. As people have gone back to their regular routine, we have kept many of the new customers, so I am very pleased. If a delivery service is the way for us to stay in the high street, that is what we will do. “

Although they did not order ‘online’ of course, because of the pandemic we returned to something like our parents or grandparent’s era, when a delivery boy would pedal round, his bicycle basket groaning with orders, and delivery vans were seen in every street. I remember my mother’s tin box that was left on the doorstep for the bread from the Co-op bakery, the open-sided greengrocers van that came weekly and the milk-float, jangling with empty bottles, a service that was completely taken for granted by customers at the time.

“I’ve done this now for thirty-five years from when I could first drive. I would be delivering all day long from our shop,” reminisced greengrocer Paul. “For me it’s a bit like the old is coming back again, turning a full circle. 

Like many people I was grateful for deliveries until I gained the confidence to return to those small independent local shops, although a milk delivery is one thing that I was having pre-pandemic too, and that came into its own when supermarkets seemed a scary place. My regular milk and eggs are delivered faithfully, although no longer by the Co-op who closed their dairy many years ago, but by Foulgers Dairy, a family-owned business that covers an area from South Norwich, to Lowestoft, down to Felixstowe, and across to the A140.

I asked Adrian Foulger, the manager, what the impact of lockdown was upon the business, especially in the early days.

“We supply 250 schools and numerous hotels, cafes and restaurants, and those orders disappeared overnight when everything had to close for the lockdown.  The positive was that we gained one thousand new customers in a month! We deliver a wide range of products and have an online stop and people were ordering 20 to 30 items at a time – and our egg order tripled! The calls were coming in so fast that we had to take on extra people to help on the phones. Our roundsmen, who normally largely deliver milk and eggs, were taking eight or more different things up to each front door, which all took longer. It was a hard time as that sort of business growth would be over 6 – 8 months and would normally be planned.” 

“After 6- 8 weeks things settled down but I think about 75 – 80% of those new customers have stayed with us and, with the schools and so on reopening, there has been a real overall uplift to the business.” 

Adrian also repeated what all the retailers told me.

“The best thing is how grateful everyone was when we got them out of a hole. It is so rewarding. I’ve had more expressions of gratitude in nine months than in the last twenty years! For twenty years we have struggled in this business and even now it is frustrating to drive past houses to reach our customers- and know we could be delivering to them too.”

Although a milk round like Foulgers is done in the very early hours of the morning, across Suffolk and Norfolk more people are working from home, and that is what has made the home delivery services possible.

Next time you watch the comedy “Open All Hours” on your television, and see Grenville struggling with the delivery bike from Arkwrights corner shop, remember how it took a virus to turn the clock back – and how we need to support our local independent shops.  

(This article was first published in Suffolk Norfolk Life magazine, February 2021)