Leading a supermarket revolution

I love shopping in farmers’ markets and I am very into local food so the story and concept of hiSbe Food was something that immediately appealed to me. hiSbe (how it Should be) is a different kind of supermarket; one that puts the customers, suppliers and employees before profits and shareholders. Pretty groundbreaking.

The supermarket was opened in Brighton in 2013 in a 'fanfare of alternative', but the route there for co-founder Ruth Anslow was a traditional one. She studied international business and modern languages at Aston University before joining the Unilever graduate scheme. Ruth says, “There was a clear progression from my course to the workplace. I got a really good grounding in sales and marketing and worked on some big accounts. I also learned how the retail environment works and how to negotiate with buyers.” From Unilever she went to Sarah Lee, where she managed the Tesco business. Ruth says it was tough at times: “Any big corporate job is but they instil discipline; stuff that gives you a good grounding in business.” 

Short-term profit versus long-term gain

Ruth was at Unilever for four years, Sarah Lee for eight years in the UK and four years in Spain. Despite this experience, Ruth says, “There was a creative side to me that was stifled by processes and the lack of risk. I wanted to spread my wings.” She adds, “Our section was being bought out and you saw the sale for what it was, about delivering short-term profits and share results.”

In this sort of approach, Ruth says, the value to the consumer gets lost and it becomes about a numbers game: “I realised I wanted to do something else.” She had been inspired by the likes of Anita Roddick and Ben & Jerry’s and her sister Amy and she had been talking a lot about food issues, with Amy selling direct trade coffee on a market stall. “With her interest in behavioural change and my interest in doing business for good, we talked about what a business that transformed the food industry would look like. By the time I had moved back to England we knew we wanted to reinvent the way supermarkets do business.” She adds, “I am a firm believer in not changing things from the inside but smashing the model and reinventing the mould.”

Ruth and Amy at the launch of hiSbe with local MP Caroline Lucas
Ruth and Amy at the launch of hiSbe with local MP Caroline Lucas

Happiness before profits

hiSbe, says Ruth, serves communities not shareholders: “We put the happiness of staff and suppliers ahead of profits. When you drill down, this translates into caring about where the food comes from, paying suppliers fairly, paying staff a living wage (revolutionary in the industry) and not wasting food.”

hiSbe was set up as Community Interest Company (CIC) - a limited company with an asset lock. It sits somewhere between a charity and company. This was very important, says Ruth, “We are out to change business and it can transform whole industries. A limited company wasn’t enough of a commitment to the social cause. We put profits back into the social purpose, which means that as long as the company exists it serves its social purpose.”

Mobilising a fanbase

hiSbe was funded partly through the sisters’ own investment and angel funding as well as crowdfunding. “We had to raise £200,000 to open the store,” Ruth says. Struggling to get finance from traditional sources for an unproven concept they hit on the idea of crowdfunding, aiming to raise £30,000 through individuals. They figured that the backing would be a good way to prove the concept and they were right: “Creating a customer base and reassuring other investors was our big innovation really.”

Ruth Onslow of hisRuth says that, as with any other things, “you get out what you put in.” Crowdfunding requires work and preparation like anything else. Says Ruth, “We did 90 days, which was too long really, but you need to be lining up contacts and social media. Go to the crowd, know where they are and motivate them to part with their cash.” She adds, “Make it short and sweet and pithy and visual. Anyone can make something more complicated but making it simple and clear is harder.” Funders got vouchers to spend in the store for their backing. If they backed a tenner they got a tenner’s worth of vouchers but there were other perks such as having an invitation to the first birthday party or their name engraved: “If you have something tangible it’s a great way of getting started.”

If you're interested in seeing the video Ruth and Amy used to promote the crowdfunding project, you can view that here.

Ruth believes the supermarket is a real and scaleable model that they hope to expand. “We do work with lots of workers co-ops, but they exist for the workers. We wanted something that could be relocated and set up anywhere.” Though there are 12 employees now, the plan is over the next 30 years to create a national supermarket chain.

The supermarket is open 9am-8pm seven days a week and has everything you need for a weekly shop. The idea is to make it easy for people and cheaper. “We erode the profit margins normally associated with good food,” says Ruth. There’s a fair margin on everything. Everything packaged is normally sold under the recommended retail price and things like rice, pasta and lentils can be bought loose from a dispenser - if you only want 20p's worth of rice, you can buy 20p's worth. “We can buy that stuff in bulk and still pass it on to them at a very good price. When it is more expensive we explain why. There are simply some products that should be more expensive.”

hiSbe supermarket

And after 15 months of trading they are just starting to make a profit. This has come, in part from making money on the in-store coffee bar, which in turn helps to bring down the price of other items in the store. They also rent out pods at the back of the store to independent food companies to come in with pre-prepared food. “It’s about being clever with the in-store income streams.”

Feel the fear and do it anyway

Setting up a business is an emotional rollercoaster, but, says Ruth, “When you have a dream and it’s a social mission you feel it even more. There have been times of real fear and worry about stuff.” But, she adds, “the other side of fear is infinite possibility and you learn to ride the wave of it.” She says she deals with stress by, simply, acknowledging that it’s created in her mind. “”If you can accept that and learn to live with it then you can focus on the solution and not the stress itself.”

Ruth believes that the industry will change. “They will be forced to, she says, “and it’s already happening with food waste. The business model isn’t set up to be sustainable but they will be forced to make changes and copy us.”


Business book

“It all started with some of Anita Roddick’s books but one of the most recent ones is Start With Why by Simon Sinek (Penguin). It’s a great book and the principle of it is that customers and people want to buy into why you’re doing something and not what you’re doing. The success of HisBe hinges on explaining to people that we’re transforming the food industry and to reinvent the way supermarkets do business not that we’re just into free-range meat. I would recommend anyone who felt some entrepreneurial spirit to read this book.”

Favourite Quote

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but building the new", Socrates

Productivity hack

“The only thing I keep coming back to is something my teacher told me at school which was do the big rocks first. You have big, strategic things that need to be done first and it’s very easy to knock the little things off the list and leave the larger ones.”




Infinity Foods

Anita Roddick books

Shopped, by Joanna Blythman

Contact Ruth

Contact Ruth on Twitter @RuthAnslow
Contact Ruth via Facebook at Facebook.com/hiSbeFood

I really hope enjoyed the interview with Ruth, whether you just read it here or listened to the whole thing on the podcast. If you have any thoughts or comments about this episode, please do share them with us on Twitter or Facebook – we’d love to hear from you!

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Thanks again to Ruth for sharing her story with us.