Awards are everywhere these days. With so many given out over an increasing number of categories, some people consider even taking the opportunity to enter as a waste of time. How valuable are they really? In this article, Edward Berry gives his unique perspective; having won a number of awards as a respected retailer, he now offers an insider's view on the awards process as a judge in the UK's food industry.
I was fortunate enough to be responsible for a retail business over a period when it picked up many of the better UK national food retail awards within its category. I say “fortunate” partly to demonstrate some modesty and give credit to a talented team – and because fortune came our way via the judges’ selection.
This was for the Ludlow Food Centre, an extended farm shop operation that won the FARMA (now FRA) best retailer award, Reed Publishing’s Deli and Farm Shop award for Food Hall, Guild of Fine Food award for Shop of the Year and others – mainly regional awards and specialisms for butchery and others.
In some instances, the awards simply came our way whilst others were via an application.
I am now gamekeeper turned poacher and have judged for FARMA and head up the Guild of Fine Food’s Shop of the Year team of judges. The latter is an award by application with a variety of categories, robust and rigorous processes, in-depth judging with the business owners or managers and a separate mystery shop visit. I therefore now consider myself to have some understanding of the whole exercise, so think it a good moment to stand back and have a considered look at awards, the challenges, benefits, opportunities and come to some sort of conclusion as to the question – do awards have real value?
Regrettably, we are perhaps less emotionally responsive to the description “award-winning”.
This is simply because we see it too often. Now that is not to say that shouting loudly if you win is a dreadful thing; in fact, it’s essential if you do win an award, to use it as widely as possible. It's just a feature of an excess of occasions that we see the words “award-winning” and the inevitable dilution of impact. So, not a good start, perhaps?
It’s the type of award, the level of achievement and the winner’s use and benefits that really matter.
Awards are varied in their scope and in the processes by which recipients are selected. Some are national, some regional. There are those organised by trade journals and others that are given by consumer publications and newspapers where the winners are selected and voted by readers.
Awards that are entered via an application will probably require quite a bit of preparatory work - completion of forms with sometimes a substantial amount of detail, supply of images and possibly video footage and, of course, time spent with judges.
My advice if entering would be to give this due consideration. Judges are more likely to look more favourably on entries that demonstrate a genuine interest in the award.
When considering awards, it is a moment to have a critical look at the business. If it’s a national award, you must believe that you are top of your game, the best of the best, the ultimate in retail. I always encourage business owners to get out and visit others. The bar has been raised in recent years, and its probably not enough to win an award by just stocking what you think is good produce. You have an excellent opportunity in simply taking the time to see who and what has won in previous years.
If you are considering entering awards or simply working to enhance your shop to award winning standard, it’s good to look at the scope of awards available. For some a national award has little real value as customers are only visiting from a short distance. In this instance regional and local awards may have greater value. For those with a destination to visit from further afield, then national awards are excellent. Don’t forget, if the PR machinery works, you are just as likely to find yourselves in the travel recommendations of a national paper as you are in a foodie column.
Awards can be taken as a simple endorsement, just to be received and consigned to a dusty shelf. However, to take that view is an opportunity missed. We can’t look at awards without identifying what impacts they can have on business.
One immediate benefit is the knowledge that someone who is not you, the owner, manager or employee, thinks you are doing a decent job – in fact, a fantastic job. Also, that person, or group of people, know what they are doing and saying. An award, short-listing or even a nomination can act as an independent endorsement for your business. A win can give a seal of approval to your activities and is a sign of quality for potential customers. It can also help with relationships with suppliers. It’s a terrific way of differentiating your company from competitors and will send out positive signals to customers.
And what of the opportunity to improve? No business in our world should be complacent and awards are an ideal opportunity to step back and have a good look, to make sure we are doing the best we can. The Guild of Fine Food awards, whilst by application, are free to enter. However, the finalists also receive both a copy of the mystery shop report and some words from the judges – aspects of the outlet they liked and some suggestions for improvement. For some, these words of wisdom can really make a difference.
The application process for entering a retail award or ambition to win can encourage you to look at your business from a distinct perspective and compare yourself to others, whether competitors or simply those you respect with a similar business, be it farm shop, food hall, specialist, deli or grocer.
You’ll want to make sure that you stand out whether that’s through product, innovation, customer service, investment in people, overall quality, marketing or any of the range of features that judges look at. This might help you think about ways you could be doing things better and identify areas for improvement. Who knows, this might be one of the ways your business could benefit that will be more valuable than the prize itself.
Awards recognise the demanding work and achievements of your employees so winning can help boost staff morale and hopefully improve motivation. Your team can fully appreciate what’s great about the company they work for and can feel proud to be a part of it. To get the greatest benefit, make sure staff feel they get the recognition they deserve by getting everyone together and celebrating your victory.
Current employees could also be excited to share the news of an award with others and, in so doing, raise the image of your business and make it even more likely to attract and retain new recruits.
Your work doesn’t stop with accepting an award; in fact, that’s where the real action starts. Those organising and giving out awards operate to varying levels of visibility. Some have a real feel for PR, develop some excellent press and give you a real boost. Some have less in the toolbox. Either way, it’s also up to you to get your story out there. Awards should be considered a real opportunity in the marketing mix.
Even being shortlisted is a chance to shout, help brand awareness and promote your shop in front of customers, current and new. It's essential to take time to maximise PR exposure with releases and media communication. Awards celebrate demanding work and success and are great PR opportunities. It’s fantastic to be recognised so it’s important to make sure that people know what your business has achieved.
It’s also worth reworking all the relevant marketing materials to include the award logo on your website, literature, email and any promotional or sales material. You probably have plenty of wall space and external signage to enhance with your new award!
Despite my concerns about the overuse of the words “award-winning”, perhaps that’s just my view as I see it too often, and not always in circumstances that I think merit the words, your customers, however, should love it.
It endorses their reasons to visit you, gives them a sense that they have made a discovery and the right choice in shopping with you which in turn they will be proud, even smug, to pass on to their friends.
Consider the pride with which consumers show off brands they use; your shop can deliver a similar emotion. They’ll probably enjoy sharing your pride and spending a little more with you.
We call this customer loyalty.
You can share the success by offering some sort of promotion, with your top products.
In fact, by selecting the category carefully you can create a niche and generate good news stories. From sustainability to green awards, from contribution to society, education and training, from young people to improving the lives of others; show how you are making a difference and justify that award.
If you maximise the short term and long term benefits of winning an award, then all the above can contribute to improved competitiveness. Winning awards suggests a successful, vibrant, profitable, sustainable, well-run business, so can only enhance your position when it comes to applying for grants, loans or investment. It could increase the value of goodwill in the business and credibility with financial institutions.
Let's face it, who doesn’t enjoy a good party?
Some awards are given at trade shows, but the big ones tend to build up the glamour and razzmatazz with a full-blown, black tie evening with music, celebrities, and a well-rehearsed awards ceremony. It’s a lovely chance to reward your team by inviting them. This is also a great chance to network, catch up with friends, and enjoy the adulation or hide the disappointment.
A small word of caution though... these can be long evenings with plenty of liquid refreshment. If you believe you might be up for an award, and it’s one of those towards the end of the evening then remember, if you win, you may have to give an acceptance speech, and will quite possibly have to give an interview in front of a camera.
Is it possible to win too many awards? In my experience, there are some outlets whose names come up often, and now have a plethora of awards well displayed.
Well firstly, let's recognise that they are doing a fantastic job, not just in winning awards, but evidently justifying receipt of them. That’s clearly a benefit and should be applauded. The danger is that the frequency might diminish the impact. That said, it’s good to miss a year or two and then win again to demonstrate that you are still top of your game. Abstinence might send out the wrong message.
I would also suggest that some judges would prefer to see a diverse range of winners – so winning even a second time consecutively could be a real challenge.
By the same token, there are plenty of excellent retailers who don’t win awards. This is maybe because they don’t enter, or just carry on doing a respectable job without seeking external recognition. They might also feel that with a very high profile, not to win is dangerous.
Perhaps it’s for them, that I am writing this article. You may not agree with everything, but I have seen first-hand the enormous impact winning can have, to the owners, staff, customers and the bottom line.
"Awards are here to stay so, on one level, I could simply suggest, whatever your own view of awards, that it is better to be in than out.
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Edward operates the Flying Fork, a food and retail advisory service for independent food retailers, farm shops, delis and food producers. He works closely with the Guild of Fine Food; judges Shop of the Year, Great Taste Awards and World Cheese Awards; has worked on projects for the Farm Retail Association (formerly FARMA); speaks on industry subjects; mentors at the Speciality Fine Food Fair and is a regular contributor to publications such as the Fine Food Digest.