A sea change?

by Barbara Baker

Fish display Fishmonger Fish display

There is currently much emphasis on the desirability of supermarkets selling local and regional produce yet the supermarkets themselves do not always understand what these terms mean. A Friends of the Earth survey published in June 2002 found, for instance, that most supermarkets regard 'local' as meaning 'British' or 'produced in the UK'; further misunderstanding arises where products are flagged as local but tend to be regional specialities, not necessarily even made in the region they profess to be a speciality of, or 'locality' foods which are not just popular in a certain region but all over the UK.

It is a confusing picture and there are relatively few examples of genuinely locally produced products sold only in stores within a 30 mile or so radius of where the product has been produced, as suggested by the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE). Some of the multiples now have dedicated local and regional sourcing teams, which is a significant step forward, yet it is still relatively difficult to find examples of non-centralised ordering and delivery systems or genuine relationships between individual stores and local suppliers.

Safeway's 'locally landed' West Country fish is perhaps an unlikely, but excellent, example of what can be achieved if a multiple is prepared to break new ground and work directly with a local supplier. Duncan Lucas, Fish Development Manager at Safeway, has been instrumental in setting up the 12 week trial, which has been an extraordinary success in terms of increased fish sales - 27 per cent on average - outperforming existing national distribution stores. Fish is seen as a 'drive category' within Safeway, used to promote its 'best at fresh' principles, a core brand value where product standards and innovation are key.


Fresh from the West

Lucas selected Fresh From the West, a Falmouth-based supplier, headed up by Sandy Ralph, and newly created subsidiary of Fal Fish, headed up by Mark Greet. Before this initiative was launched, orders were computer generated at store level, keyed onto the main frame system, and fish distributed from port based suppliers to regional distribution centres - but orders on day one were not delivered until day three which meant product shortages could not be identified until the day of delivery. Effectively fish caught in Cornwall may have clocked up considerable 'food miles' before ending up on fish counters back down in Cornwall. The situation now is very different.

Sandy Ralph explains that Fresh From The West buy primarily from Newlyn market which is barely a half mile from their factory. They also buy from fish auctions in Plymouth, Looe and Brixham in Devon. In addition, they have private agreements with a number of privately owned vessels who land their catch exclusively to Fresh From The West as well as shares in two vessels, so they are very 'hands on', a young enthusiastic team in what is widely regarded as an archaic industry.

Sandy Ralph & Andrew GreenAndrew Green is typical of the fishermen who land their catch direct to Fresh From the West. Andrew works single-handed in his 20 ton day trawler, leaving Falmouth harbour at around 5am and returning typically 8 - 10 hours later with a catch that varies according to the tides, the weather and a host of other variables including sheer skill and downright luck.

Andrew Green sorts, guts and ices his catch on board - prime fish such as turbot, sole, monkfish, John Dory, as well as cod and whiting. The fish is weighed as soon as he returns to port, ice-boxed, carefully labelled to ensure full traceability and sent immediately in Fresh From The West's own chilled transport direct to their factory in Newlyn. The following morning, Andrew's catch, along with all the fish bought at the early morning auctions, is prepared and filleted to Safeway's specifications and sent on to Bodmin, Bude, Plymstock or other stores in the Safeway trial.

It is the responsibility of the fishmonger in each store to contact Fresh From the West direct to place a provisional order on day one for delivery day two. Fresh From The West's buyers collate and try to meet those orders according to what's available in the market the following morning. If specific orders can't be met, due to bad weather for instance, then the fishmonger takes advantage of the best of what else is on offer in the market that morning so there is no shortage of fish on offer to customers. In short, the system is going back to basics - daily telesales to stores to take orders as well as active selling on good local quality or price deals.

'The advantage to Safeway is clear,' says Sandy Ralph. "The fish is as fresh as it could possibly be.' Ralph explains that Newlyn is the highest value fishing port in England and Wales with over 50 different species typically on sale. 'At Newlyn, Falmouth and other Cornish ports, there is a predominance of day boats and small inshore vessels, a quite different industry from North East England and North East Scotland where there are larger volumes but much fewer species landed, cod and haddock being predominant. These species may be caught as far away as Icelandic and Norwegian waters by vessels spending up to 14 days at sea.

Fresh From The West have worked extremely closely with Safeway, recognising the potential of the opportunity and keen to be involved in a locally landed initiative. 'Knowing such fresh fish is being sold in local stores via a very short and direct distribution chain is tremendously satisfying,' says Mark Greet.


Steep learning curve

Both Safeway and Fresh from the West admit the initiative has involved a steep learning curve. 'We have had to step up our quality control in terms of traceability,' says Sandy Ralph, ' and change the management ethos within our business to cope. It is all down to due diligence and understanding that responsibility for safety must be shared. It's no good us just telling Safeway the fish is fresh, we have to be able to prove it, and that means documenting everything, from landing times, dates and ports, the vessel involved, chilling and storage temperatures - every aspect of quality control you can think of. It has been a formidable task for a small company.'

Safeway too have worked hard to ensure the initiative succeeds. 'There is no doubt that if there hadn't been a commercial advantage to Safeway then the trial would never got underway. But we were prepared to be flexible to help Fresh From The West where quality control was not undermined,' says Lucas. 'For example, fish is traditionally bought in a standard weight box but we changed our system so we buy per kilo - the catch weight instead.' Whilst this may sound insignificant, in fact it offers considerable advantages to small suppliers. It is impractical if not impossible to ensure every box reaches a specific weight so suppliers are effectively forced to overfill, which means they lose out financially.

In addition, Safeway rationalised its specifications to make it easier for Fresh From The West to see at a glance exactly what was required in terms of exactly how the fish should be prepared, filleted etc. Safeway also provided input in terms of training and support to ensure Fresh From The West's staff were able to deliver what is required . Fresh From the West's determination to meet Safeway's exacting standards and work to food safety requirements has resulted in a top quality product with full traceability.

There are differences in-store too. Gavin Carter, head of the fishmongery department at Safeway's Bodmin store: 'We cannot believe the difference in sales since we started selling locally landed fish,' says Carter. 'Shortening the supply chain has resulted in a superb standard in terms of quality and freshness. Customers love it.' Elliot Arnold, store manager, is equally keen. 'We have great suppliers here in Cornwall so it makes sense to use them.'

As a direct result of Safeway's commercial decision, Fresh From the West have taken on more staff locally and are looking to expand further although Duncan Lucas feels it is important the company isn't pressured to develop beyond their capacity. Fresh From The West ensure they primarily use local firms for the smooth running of their business - the knock-on effect of their relationship with Safeway in turn represents a significant amount of money being ploughed back into the local community.

It could be argued that in some ways the trial has become a victim of its own success in that other stores in the West Country are eager to be involved and the trial is likely to be rolled out to other regions. 'This will be good news for other local fish merchants,' says Duncan Lucas, 'as there are now opportunities for all who can achieve our standards. In the South West, in addition to delivering direct to some stores, Fresh From the West will also deliver to one of Safeway's regional distribution depots so further stores in the region can benefit.

This development is a good example of how the concepts of 'local' and 'regional' can become blurred. But Nicola Ellen, Safeway's Strategy Manager for CSR, is adamant this development will not affect the overall integrity of the initiative. 'If people get fixated about the transport it misses the point. Local sourcing is about selling locally produced products locally - and that's what we will continue to do.'

It also highlights the way in which the concept of local sourcing presents a number of dilemmas not least for the multiples who inevitably have to recognise the practical implications of economies of scale or for suppliers who don't necessarily subscribe to a 'small is beautiful' philosophy or see anything wrong with being ambitious.

But consumers aren't off the hook either - one irony about the superb quality and range of Safeway's 'locally landed' fish is that it's tempting to drive an embarrassing number of environmentally unfriendly food miles out of your way to shop buy some…


Posted: 27 Sep 2002

Home | About | Issues | Results | Case studies | News | Contacts

Copyright ©2002 - 2003 IIED - all rights reserved

Site design and implementation by cbrody.com