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Is the traditional high street butcher shop dying?

If you asked an average passerby when was the last time they visited their local, independent butcher’s shop, there’s a decent chance that many of them wouldn’t be able to remember. For many professionals both inside and outside the industry, this is hardly a surprise. Traditional butcher’s shops are seen to be on the way out, superseded by the rise of ultra-convenient supermarkets. Today, many of those looking for reliable equipment like butcher’s knives and mincers are indeed behind supermarket counters. However, there’s a sizeable amount of evidence to say that while there has indeed been a decline, the traditional butcher isn’t quite gone yet. (In fact, it may even be making a comeback!) We take a quick look at the state of the industry today, and what that may mean for customers and butchers alike.

The clear decline of local butchers shops

For many experienced and veteran butchers, especially those who’ve been working in their trade for decades, the decline is clear to see. It’s more than just anecdotal - a particularly significant report was compiled by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, alongside the English Beef and Lamb Executive. This report notes that in 1990, there were around 15,000 butcher’s shops in the UK. After twenty years had passed, though, by 2010 there were just 6380, and recent statistics suggest this number has fallen still further to 5830. That’s a drop somewhere in the region of about 60%, in the space of just 30 years. So what’s causing it?

The reasons why local butchers shops are becoming rarer

You probably already know the first and most obvious one - supermarkets. The convenience of modern supermarkets, combined with changing lifestyles of consumers, are two of the biggest factors behind the decline. Another one is shortage of labour. Put simply, many butchers think that growing numbers of young people in their 20s and 30s simply aren’t interested in working in the industry. 10% to 15% of meat processing jobs are currently vacant, which translates to around 10,000 unfilled posts at slaughterhouses. By the same token, butchers are struggling to fill positions in their shops, which often means having to operate at a reduced capacity and ultimately having an impact on their business.

On top of this, consumer demands are slowly changing, with tens of thousands of households leaning towards kitchen-ready meals that can be prepared and eaten quickly to fit around work, family and social activities. There’s been a particularly measurable rise in the number of vegetarians and vegans, especially in younger generations. A third of British people now eat reduced-meat or even completely meat-free diets, with almost 13% identifying as vegetarian or vegan, and 21% as ‘flexitarian’ (semi vegetarian). The continual momentum towards this lifestyle is supported by most academics and scientific researchers, too. A report by scientists on the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health, says that a ‘planetary health diet’ is required to protect the wellbeing of future generations, which means shifting from meat to vegetable consumption. The report was widely covered in mainstream news outlets, and has already been credited with increasing the number of vegetarians in the UK (even if only marginally, at this stage).

So is this the end for the local high street butcher?

Not necessarily! Some of the younger high street butchers believe that the worst might have already passed for the industry. While the rise of the supermarket certainly made a significant impact, there’s are a couple of edges that skilled, specialist butchers may have over supermarkets. Provenance is one of these. Due to increasing conscientiousness about animal welfare and environmental concerns, more and more people are asking butchers about where their meat comes from, and about the ‘story’ of the animal. (Interestingly, the customers most prone to asking these sorts of questions are those in the 20-30 age range, the same generation shying away from actually being behind the counter.) This supports the idea that many customers want a high-quality, ethically sourced product, something that they may feel not every supermarket will be able to consistently provide. As one optimistic young butcher said: “as long as you’re selling quality products, you’ll get people through the door.”

The customers themselves also seem to be gradually recognising the increasingly depersonalised aspect of one-stop-shop supermarkets. A survey of customer attitudes all the way back in 2014 showed an increase in respondents saying that they frequently shopped in smaller local outlets, indicating a growing desire to connect with their community and local supply chain. In that survey, more than half the respondents also emphasised the importance of quality assurance schemes.

So while the local high street butcher has certainly been knocked by the rise of in-house butchers at supermarkets, it seems that as long as artisan and independent butchers are able to continue providing their customers with provenance and quality produce, which has been ethically sourced with regards to animal welfare and environmental sustainability, the traditional butcher shop isn’t quite dead yet!

Whether you work in an independent butcher’s shop or you’re in-house at a supermarket, we’ve got a wide range of butcher’s equipment to suit you. You can shop market-leading butchers knives such as our Victorinox Butchers Knives, or reliable, heavy duty machinery such as our meat bandsaws. And don’t forget, you can always get in touch with us for some friendly help or advice by giving us a quick call on 01254 427 761!