On the morning of Normans’ 65th birthday celebration, a customer who has shopping with them for over 50 years dropped by with her son and grandchildren to say congratulations to Phil Norman and Sue Young. At an advanced age, and no longer able to use a car independently, she often can’t get into town to shop, although she can still phone in her grocery list and get same day delivery. As she grasped Sue’s hand, she said: “I shan’t be changing my approach to life. Don’t think I will be going to a supermarket.”
With its window baskets heaped with fruit, bundles of vegetables and urns of flowers, Normans is a landmark in the market place. Phil and Sue are the second generation to run the family business, which opened in 1948.
Although Phil is confident that his customers will remain loyal to his business, he is worried about the market place. In the first week after Waitrose opened there was a noticeable drop in turnover. He hopes that the dip is just short term, that customers are just curious about the shop.
He is certainly confident about his ability to compete with the large supermarkets on value and freshness. Having conducted market research into price checks, he confirmed that his produce is cheaper than Waitrose’s. He also enjoys a direct delivery chain, meaning none of his produce is stored in warehouses.
One of their suppliers is a farmer outside Spalding who delivers three times a week, supplying vegetables that have been harvested the previous day, and more usually that morning. Another supplier sources non-UK produce from Paris markets. The produce arrives in Bournemouth and is delivered to the shop twice a week by 4.00am. Eggs are supplied by a farmer near Stamford.
The importance of maintaining a direct link with farmers was the founding principle behind the business when Jim Norman opened in 1948. Jim had been working as a builder on the army hospital site at Lilford Hall during the war, when he saw the premises in Oundle. Both he and his father, an engineer, were beginning to make post-war plans for a business start-up. After the war, when the building became available they moved to Oundle and set up shop using their connections with local growers.
Both Phil and Sue grew up in the cottage behind the shop, and started helping out while they were still at school. Sue has been working in the shop for 42 years, and Phil started working full time in 1981. Their father continued to work in the shop until a few days before he died at the age of 74.
The shop employs five workers, and as Phil says, the nature of the business is all-consuming. “I can’t just clock off at 5.00pm. There’s always the next delivery, the next season to plan for. And of course, I’m here in the very early hours to meet the morning deliveries.”
One of Sue’s sons and his family now live in the cottage behind the shop. None of their children have yet joined the business, although all have pursued qualifications or jobs in the food industry.
On the birthday weekend, there’s a continual flow of customers passing through the door, many of whom Sue greets by name. There’s no doubt that they will also go to a supermarket for their shopping at some point, but whether its because of the quality, the price or the service, the local green grocer remains part of the day’s routine.