Meaningful convenience: the rise of the niche grocery

Katie Mogan Graham at Belle General. Photo by Emily Dobby.
Katie Mogan Graham of Belle General. Photo by Emily Dobby.

It’s a good time to be in the grocery business — especially if you’re a small store.

Big supermarkets are struggling mainly due to the high cost of expanding online delivery operations as well as competition amongst food delivery apps. You could say that the larger stores are very much behind the eight ball in terms of responding to the changes in customer’s shopping behaviours. 

The demand for online groceries, and all the challenges that meeting orders entails, is inspiring smaller grocers to reimagine their approach. Smaller, independent operators have space to differentiate their brand from larger corporate stores. They’re able to be more nimble and to adapt to local customer demand quickly as well as provide a high level of customer service and care.

As these big supermarkets struggle to find their footing, a new breed of local grocers are pivoting and innovating to serve local clients and promote local produce and craftspeople. This reimagined grocery experience is happening in both cities and small towns, where  grocery aisles are thoughtfully curated to promote local products and producers.

Niche supermarkets are curated experiences bringing people together and connecting them with local food and local producers/craftspeople. The niche grocer makes it easy for locals to support their local producers and to develop more conscious consumer habits.

Owners of niche stores are smart; they are offering customers, especially younger ones, what analysts have referred to as “food experiences” – a plethora of local, environmentally friendly food and home products, maybe beer on tap, healthy meals to go. This customer usually shops only when they cook, visiting more than one store to collect ingredients, rather than making a weekly trip to buy en masse. This consumer expects quality products and experiences.

After a year of being isolated in our homes, people are yearning for human interaction, a sense of community and a niche store is a setting that could facilitate just that.

I think people are becoming increasingly interested in the experience of a retail environment, as much as the products they sell. When you go into a specialty, or “niche” store, there’s usually a lot of passion and excitement exhibited by the proprietor, and often by the clientele they’ve attracted. After a year of being relatively isolated in our “bubbles”, I think we are all craving interaction, ” says Katie Mogan Graham, owner of Belle General.

“In the first week that we’ve been open [May 2021], hands down, my favourite aspect of the business has been meeting so many interesting people I never would have had the opportunity to connect with [if it wasn’t for Belle],” says Mogan Graham.

Jami Wood (left) and Ceri Barlow of Niche Grocerant. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet/YAM magazine.
Jami Wood (left) and Ceri Barlow of Niche Grocerant. Photo by Jeffrey Bosdet/YAM magazine.

You could say the niche grocery is an experimental, hybrid kind of grocery store for North American audiences, but not for Europeans.

“My friend and business partner, Jami Wood and I travelled to Europe and fell in love with the way you could wander into any little cafe and be able to buy locally produced grocery items along with your coffee and grappa or cicchetti and wine,” says Ceri Barlow of Niche Grocerant.

At the end of the day, the core of the niche concept is offering a meaningful experience and quality local goods to the client. 

Ceramics at Neighbourly Store. Photo by James Jones.
Ceramics at Neighbourly Store. Photo by James Jones.

“KWENCH originated out of a desire to increase individual happiness and one of the ways we do this is to reduce busyness and create meaningful convenience, says Tessa McLoughlin of Club Kwench and Neighbourly, which is housed within the work and culture club’s space in downtown Victoria. “So ‘meaningful convenience’ for us with Neighbourly became a space where everything — from the cafe to what’s in the pantry — has been thoughtfully selected to help make the day easier for the people of this community while minimizing environmental impact and featuring the quality goods that Victoria is now known for.” 

She adds “I see more people wanting quality goods and to support local and sustainable as much as possible. This has been trending for a while now, but I think COVID-19 has really galvanized the way people rally around local business.”

Many owners are hopeful that this hybrid business concept will flourish in the near future.

“When we registered our business with the CRA we had to choose ‘Food Retail’ as our business type. There is no category for our hybrid business model currently but I hope to see it emerge in the future. I feel like this is the type of concept people are looking for. With our busy lives today businesses should be striving to make it easier for people to support their local producers,” says Barlow.

Further reading:

Food-preneurs bring passion to the plate

How commercial real estate is faring through COVID-19