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Using Village shops to promote healthier food choices in Rural Norfolk
Project Code: N09018
Institute of Food Research Enterprises Ltd
Scarpello, T ; Lambert, N
Inappropriate nutrition is a significant causal factor for the premature onset of major chronic diseases. Information on food poverty in rural locales is relatively underdeveloped but has become of increasing concern recently. The growth of large supermarkets has resulted in an increase in closure of village stores / Post Offices.
Furthermore, village stores generally stock fewer “healthy food” items and tend to be more expensive than large supermarkets. For some individuals and in particular those
of restricted mobility, such as the elderly, this may cause difficulties in obtaining a diet in line with Government recommendations for healthy eating. In addition, the impact of rural store closures is a significant social issue and viewed by some as the continual erosion of “rural life”. Recent changes in Government policy have recognised the importance in maintenance of village stores / Post Offices.
This study aimed to devise a short list of intervention ideas for promoting healthier food choices in village stores. The intervention ideas were primarily based upon the
perceptions and world of the village shopper. What does the village shop mean to its users? What are the social, psychological and cultural factors which encourage /
discourage individuals to step inside a village shop? What do customers buy in such stores and why? Understanding these issues is essential to developing an intervention strategy. This project has brought together a partnership with unique practical expertise in rural development and village retail services to ensure that any
intervention is practically achievable, in addition to “consumer-informed”. As part of this study, a Village Shops Working Group has been set up to co-ordinate all relevant
village shop work in the region.
A qualitative approach is ideally suited to exploring complex social and cultural issues such as what healthy eating means or what a village shop represents. Semistructured
interviews were conducted with 40 Norfolk village store users. Interviews took place between March and June 2004. The interviewees included a broad cross section of demographics and spanned a range of different store types. The taped interviews were transcribed and analysed by four researchers using a phenomenological approach. After analysis of 29 transcripts it was clear that data saturation had been reached, i.e. no new significant “themes” were likely to emerge and hence the findings are based on the analysis of these transcripts.
Four “super-themes” emerged from analysis of village shopper interviews: 1) the village store as an icon; 2) village store as a service provider; 3) other food sources and 4) lifestyle factors. These will now be described in turn:
Village Store as an Icon
The village store was generally viewed with great affection. Many felt it was the “heart of the community”, an important meeting place, especially for isolated people. There was a significant loyalty to their village, village store and local businesses. Knowledge of the existence of the village store partially counteracted feelings of vulnerability. The village store clearly played an important part in what has been described by social scientists as the “rural idyll” - the “chocolate box” picture of a utopian lifestyle replete with church, pub and little shop. However, data in recent years has challenged some rural preconceptions and the “rural idyll” is acknowledged as partially concealing rural deprivation. Detrimental changes to the rural community were raised by interviewees and linked to changing family values, changing working patterns and to in-migration of urban dwellers. This “super-theme” clearly captures the environmental and social context of the “village shop”. Clearly there is no such thing as a “neutral” retail outlet. The who, why and how consumers use a given store depends greatly upon how it is conceptualised within society.
Village Store as a Service Provider
The village store was mainly used as a source of “top-up” shopping (particularly for bread and milk), as expected from the national pattern. Where shoppers had opted to
use the village store for the majority of purchases, a desire to support the village store and prevent potential closure were important factors. “Healthy foods” were not felt to
be emphasized in village stores, and enhancing the range and quality of fresh fruit and vegetables was a common desire. In addition to food purchases, use of the village
store Post Office and the purchase of newspapers were common. The village store was also believed to be an important source of information on community events and
the quality of personal service played a significant role. Good service was believed to enhance the store atmosphere and increase the “fun” of shopping. In the literature, it is
hypothesized that the personal service offered by village stores could be enhanced as a competitive advantage over the supermarkets. The level of business skills held by
village store-keepers is also acknowledged as vital for survival within an increasingly competitive and technologically driven retail market. Village stores tend not even to possess an EpoS (electronic point of sale) system.
Village Store in the Context of Other Food Sources
The supermarket was usually selected as the main source for food shopping, whilst many interviewees were also keen supporters of “local foods” for the very reason such foods were perceived as the antithesis of supermarket shopping. The supermarkets were attractive due to their large range of goods available “under-oneroof” and relatively low prices (in particular as promotional offers). However, they were viewed as impersonal places and powerful organisations which were blamed for the loss of local services. “Local food” and / or shopping within the village store, was therefore attractive as a means of supporting local business. Local produce was believed to be fresher and more advantageous to health. These foods were believed to be safer to consume, and produced via superior ethical and environmentally friendly methods in comparison to supermarket foods. An increased range of local produce in the village store was desired. “Local food” is recognised as a growing national phenomenon and the village store has been cited as an important location for furthering popularity. A range of additional food sources were also used to fit with village shopper lifestyle.
Lifestyle Factors Affecting Likelihood of Shopping in the Village Store
Shopping and eating practices were frequently set within routines as prescribed by habitual behaviour and the beliefs and conceptions of participants. There was a striking division between interviewees who appeared to have a strong “food culture”, for whom eating a healthy diet was easily obtainable and enjoyable, and those for whom it was not. Nutritional knowledge was relatively high and frequently associated with consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables. “Healthy foods” were generally not considered as “treats”. Time was perceived as a large pressure, a motivation for supermarket shopping, and a driver for the consumption of “convenience foods”.
Lack of time was cited as a factor for dislike of shopping and cooking. Where greater time was perceived, shopping could be viewed as a form of entertainment and there
was greater likelihood of seeking unusual, “speciality foods” for more elaborate recipes. The immediate family and past family experiences had an important influence
on shopping and eating behaviour. Those with children, for example, were more concerned with the link between diet and health. Shopping and cooking activities were more commonly undertaken by females. Car ownership played an important role in aiding access to greater food choice (in particular in reaching large supermarkets) and enhancing independence. However, increasing use of the car was also believed to have aided a weakening in rural communities.
Key areas for enhancing healthier food choices as revealed by interviews, were synthesised into three potential intervention packages in conjunction with the FSA: 1) increasing local produce; 2) increasing healthier “convenience foods” or 3) increasing healthier “snack foods”. There is a wide range of different village stores and it is
envisaged these interventions will be transferable throughout UK rural areas. Ad hoc feedback from 13 heterogeneous village stores revealed store-keepers were keen to
trial any of these three interventions. In addition to facilitating healthier food choices, these intervention packages also have the potential to increase store profits.
This study has provided new insight into the relatively under-researched field of rural food poverty. Interventions to encourage healthier food choices, which may also increase the economic viability of village stores are proposed. Whilst the decline in village stores has been partially brought about by increasing time-pressures to the
consumer and the desire for choice, it is clear that for many, and in particular for those more restricted to the village, the village store remains an important retail location.
Aiding village store viability and helping stores to promote healthy eating are thus valuable objectives.
This study forms the second phase of a project designed to develop recommendations for enhancing healthier food choices within village stores. Village stores have
received little academic attention in recent years and evidence is frequently anecdotal in substance. However, the increasing decline in numbers of village stores, and their
relatively poor focus on healthier options, could be limiting the ability of some consumers in selecting goods which fall in line with government recommendations for healthy eating.
This phase reports on the potential for village stores to successfully and profitably promote “healthier snacks”. “Snacks” were targeted, following qualitative consultation with village shoppers, in the first phase of this study.
The intervention strategy was refined in conjunction with store-keepers, the FSA and project Advisory Committee. Interventions are more likely to demonstrate success if a
consumer-involved approach, incorporating behavioural change strategy, is undertaken.
A pilot case-study method was applied. Three heterogeneous village stores in Norfolk were purposively selected for trial of the intervention, with a view to maximising “transferability” to other UK village stores. The intervention ran from January 2006 to January 2007, and was ultimately managed and tailored by each store-keeper/ team of
store-keepers. For the initial six months, store-keepers received aid in product selection and marketing technique, and support was withdrawn for the latter six months. There is no universally accepted definition of a “snack”. A relatively narrow selection of foods (dried fruit, nuts/ seeds, apples and bananas) and drinks (pure fruit juices, pure water, semi-skimmed or skimmed milk/ flavoured milk) were selected to form the focus of healthier snack promotional activity. Products had to meet particular nutritional criteria, and be limited to within a particular weight, in order to qualify.
The intervention was evaluated using a three-pronged approach:
1) Detailed product sale data was recorded for the initial six month period, and analysed in comparison to sales from three “matched” control stores.
2) Questionnaire data was collated via the trial stores, prior to the intervention and compared to data collated post-intervention launch.
3) Qualitative interviews were undertaken with both village shoppers and storekeepers in the trial stores, to generate in-depth personal experiences of the intervention.
The project team continued to contribute to the Norfolk Rural Shops Alliance group, to ensure potential influences on the project work were accounted for and to maximise
a co-ordinated approach. This organisation consists of key personnel involved in work relating to village stores throughout Norfolk. Furthermore, the group exchanges
information at a national level, via the Rural Shops Alliance.
Analysis of the quantitative sale and questionnaire data, reveals relatively small, although positive increases in numbers of healthier snacks sold in the trial stores, during the intervention period. Achieving any measurable dietary change in the “real world” is difficult, and this study has generated insight into the particular challenges present within the village store environment. Barriers to the sale of healthier foods, from both a consumer and retailer perspective, were challenged by the intervention.
For village shoppers, the intervention was generally received positively. The central marketing message, “Dare to be Different”, appeared to invite shoppers to question their prior perceptions of “snacks”, healthy eating and shopping practices. Interviewees demonstrated a relatively developed awareness of healthy eating. However, the intervention had to address the fact that healthier options were not always selected, which apparently related largely to negative perceptions of such products, including poor taste and ability to provide satisfaction. Such perceptions appeared to be deepened by lifestyle factors, in particular habitual purchasing and lack of time, and were further enhanced by traditional advertising and stocking in village stores, which had focused largely on less healthy snack items. Shoppers were thus generally supportive of the intervention, which was largely viewed as an extension to the perceived role of the village store. As a result, promotion of healthier goods in the village shop, appeared to strengthen a sense of loyalty to the store, and provided another aspect to the perceived role of these shops within the “rural idyll”.
For village retailers, the intervention was viewed as a partial success, with perceived benefits differing between the individual stores. Generally village stores face numerous barriers in exploiting new market areas. This study found that lack of staff time played a crucial role, as exacerbated by lack of financial resources, lack of training, difficulties with suppliers, and disproportionate regulatory requirements. Store-keepers reportedly were prepared to undertake relatively long working hours, for relatively little financial reward in an attempt to circumvent barriers, and because they actively enjoyed customer interaction. The store was perceived as playing an important role in the community, however, it appeared this perception could act as a diversion from other store strategy areas.
Selection of stocks was apparently shaped by personal preferences of the storekeepers. The retailers displayed less developed nutritional understanding than the village shoppers, and demonstrated difficulties in selecting and obtaining healthier products. For the two smaller trial stores, accessing suitable suppliers for healthier items sold within suitable trading terms, proved to be particularly problematic. Healthier products which fitted secondary consumer desires, such as those produced locally, or those marketed to children, were especially rare to obtain. In these smaller stores, store-keepers reported an increased awareness of different product opportunities, to be a particular benefit of the intervention. The larger trial store, associated with a buying consortium, and with higher numbers of staff, had access to a relatively greater range of healthier products, and reported overall increased sale ofhealthier snacks to be a particular benefit of the intervention.
For all three trial stores, the marketing material appeared to be received positively. Marketing in the two smaller trial stores had tended to be restricted to direct customer requests and promoted by “word-of-mouth”. The larger trial store, with less limited resources, demonstrated more advanced marketing techniques. Nevertheless,
supermarkets were generally perceived as demonstrating superior marketing methods, and it was recognised that promotion of healthier options was becoming more
common-place in those stores. Trial store-keepers therefore appeared to appreciate the quality of the intervention marketing material, perceived as suitably offsetting
materials made available to them for less healthy snack items.
To ensure effective promotion of healthier goods within village stores, recommendations must be attractive to both retailers and consumers, and address the characteristics of the village store environment. A holistic approach is required which is supported by a robust policy structure encompassing rural, food and health fields.
Recommendations are listed in section 6.0, and cover: 1) recommendations for the promotion of healthier products; 2) recommendations to maximise overall business strategy; and 3) recommendations to address methodological considerations when investigating this sector.
This pioneering pilot work, has:
• Demonstrated positive changes in the purchase and consumption of healthier snack items in village stores, and thus demonstrated potential to further successful and profitable promotion of healthier options within this environment
• Provided recommendations to further healthier product choices in village stores, throughout the UK
• Deepened understanding of the village store sector, both from a retailer and consumer perspective
• Provided specialised insight into the role of village stores in the provision of a healthy diet
• Revealed methodological considerations to address when planning, delivering and monitoring dietary interventions within village stores
• Provided a hub to focus the multiple and diverse activities associated with village shops, through the project’s Advisory Committee and via the Norfolk Rural Shops Alliance group
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