Creating a sustainable safe place: Our interview with hiSbe
Towards the end of last year, we took a trip to Brighton (an hour and a half south of London) to drop in on hiSbe – How It Should Be – a grocery store that uses “thoughtful sourcing” to select its range of sustainable, ethical and local produce.
We had a quick chat with the co-founder, Amy Anslow, about the hiSbe way and how the store creates a sustainable safe place for the UK’s growing Feel Gooder segment – a typology we identified in our recent sustainability research, which we’ll be sharing in a free webinar on Monday 19th January, 3-4pm GMT.
So, tell us a bit about hiSbe. We are really interested in sustainable products, particularly laundry, tea and coffee….
So everything in here is thoughtfully sourced, so it’s all about making the right decisions for the department -– there are different considerations depending on whether it’s tea, coffee, laundry, fruit and veg etc. We have the hiSbe way which is our sourcing policy, we are geared towards locally sourced and will prioritise local – all our meat is local, we get all our fruit and veg locally. And for our packaged groceries, we use the Ethical Consumer Index and we tend to stock only the top three brands in each category. And then we also, along side that, work with wholesalers like Suma and Infinity wholesalers who we know are doing a much more complex level of sifting through to make sure they’ve got brands that are in line with their own ethics. So we know in almost all cases if Suma is stocking it, it’s not going to jar with our policies either.
It’s been a lot of work, sorting the products and making sure we do what we want to do. And of course the most important thing for us is to make it more affordable. So it’s not just about getting the most ethical products, it’s a balance between what we can still bring to customers at a price without doing us out of business.
Of course, because there’s the perception that Organic and sustainable is much more expensive…
We get around that, mostly we sell products below the RRP because the RRP has crept up so much over the last ten years, you can actually have a very financially sustainable business without always selling on or above the RRP. If you’ve got huge logistical operations then you’ve got to keep pushing and forcing suppliers to give you better and better rates. We’ve been working fairly with suppliers and giving them the best price for a reasonable margin then you can give customers a better price as well.
You’re pricing strategy is really transparent. So what’s the most important thing to people when they come in, do you think? Are they looking for Organic, or British, or local or sustainable?
We know that they care about that stuff but they don’t want to think about it, they don’t really want to have to decode it all, so they want to go somewhere where they know they can trust everything has been considered and sourced thoughtfully. And I think generally when people come in here they get that – they can trust, “okay, this is hiSbe, how it should be…”
So then they can just switch off and go shopping?
Exactly, unless they are really, really keen on one particular aspect of what we do. So maybe they are really into Organic, or animal welfare – that’s a very high priority for Fair trade buyers.
It’s really interesting what you say about some of the considerations being less important to some people. When we did our research, we did it in four different countries – US, UK Germany and Italy – and in the UK it’s a real conscious choice to buy sustainable, but it’s sort of a bit of a drag as well.
Yes, and I think that’s been perpetuated by the supermarkets putting premiums on Organic and Fairtrade, so they put a premium on and it makes people think, “If I’m going to pay more for it, I should really understand it” but I haven’t got time to understand it, so I’m going to switch off a bit as I don’t really get it, I don’t understand what the standards are.” And in the UK, people want the best quality food they can afford. For most people who can cook for themselves want the best they can afford and they do care about welfare, because they know the higher the welfare, the better the quality of meat, the nicer it tastes, the more people are going to say, “ooh they cooked me a really nice meal and it was great”.
So I think it’s a lot about wanting to feel like they are doing the right thing, it’s about tapping into that little bit of slackivism of thinking “I do good, but it doesn’t in any way pain me to do it”. So we wanted to create a mainstream shop that’s aimed at people on average incomes who just want to be doing better and don’t want to do a veg box scheme and then go to their local farmers market – it’s just too inconvenient for most people.
Do you make any decisions on what you stock based on how things look? We always talk about Method because their design really stands out at the shelf.
I think that’s a good point and where possible we do try to tend to merchandise the packaging we think is nicer in different ways, but for us – and especially with something like cleaning products – it’s going to come down to the price, and Method unfortunately is still quite a high price product. We like Ecover and Ecoleaf, we tend to sell those two, and our refills are Ecoleaf; we tend to prioritise them because they are a British company as well. But yeah I think they could do a lot more with their packaging, it’s not very exciting. But then that keeps the price lower, as they can use the same bottle for six different products, so whilst it’s not very imaginative it does keep their costs lower.
They’ve got two different challenges haven’t they, they’ve got to stick out within the mainstream retail market, where grocery shoppers are looking across mainstream brands and actually there it does a great job of doing sustainability, but then when you’re into a store that’s just sustainable products, you suddenly have these codes and conventions that you see across everything.
Yeah, and I think we have to include the household section because a lot of people who are shopping sustainably come here anyway because of the ethics and want to buy those products. But my feeling is the people who shop here for food, because they live locally, because they like the prices, because they like the store, would probably still get most of their cleaning products in Sainsbury’s, that’s going to be a longer shift.
So does that section not do as well?
It’s certainly something we found, it’s harder to connect a washing powder and back to making something sustainable. You can see it with food, you can understand the link. It’s so much more difficult with laundry.
Exactly. And historically, well they are very different. If you look at the difference between an Ecoleaf or an Ecover washing powder with Daz or Ariel, the amount of perfume and colours in those products compared with something that’s closer to nature and so doesn’t really smell of anything. With a jasmine and elderflower detergent your whole house smells like laundry and I think people have this association with clothes and laundry – it’s cleaner if it smells cleaner.
Do you think that people use this as their local supermarket?
Yes, definitely. We had always said that people who wanted to shop values would travel from Hove or from the other side of Brighton. What we wanted to be was just the place that everybody within a 5 minute walk would come because it’s more affordable, it’s better quality, the fruit and veg taste better, it’s friendlier – all those reasons. And they have a thing that it’s better than the supermarkets – they don’t waste as much, they recycle, they don’t throw food away and if they get just one bit of that difference then they get it.
And so what are your plans for the future?
Well we’ve been open nearly ten months now, we opened just before Christmas but we had no plan for Christmas, we pretty much ignored Christmas and focused on the New Year and getting excited. This year we’ll be doing a bit more for Christmas, and we’ve got plans to extend the dispenser area because that’s doing really, really well, people like to buy things loose – just buy 20p’s worth of rice or pasta, so we’ve got another 20 dispensers going in to sell new products like olive oil etc. And then realistically it will be February/March 2015 where we start looking for potential sites for a second store, probably Hove.
So in the same area?
For us building a small regional chain first of all is the way to go, because otherwise you’d have to start the whole supply chain from scratch again, if you go to Hove then we can use all the same suppliers. And it’s good for our suppliers, if they know we’ve got an extra store then we are doubling their output. As soon as you put stores too far apart you’ve got to have a head office so that people can convene, it’s easier if the stores are 20 minutes/half an hour away from each other – otherwise your over heads start going up.
And then suddenly that slice of pie starts getting bigger.
Well, thank you.
What a great store, congratulations on almost a year. And thanks for talking to us!