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Produce Business

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French Vending Machine
Pilot Project

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 18, 2008

We always are seeking tools that can help the industry increase consumption while improving the health of the population. This interest is especially close to the heart when it comes to helping children to eat well.

As such, we have paid some significant attention to efforts to sell via vending machine — a large market from which produce is principally absent.

We kicked off this line of coverage with a piece entitled, Dole Introduces Unique Vending Machine Concept. This was followed with a piece entitled, Pilot Project On Vending-Machine Produce Shows Promise In New Channel Of Sales, and then a letter which we ran under the title of Pundit’s Mailbag — Produce And Vending Offer ‘Great Hope’.

All this attention to the possibilities that vending machines offer brought still another letter:

In 2003 we conducted a pilot project regarding the use of vending machines to provide increased consumption opportunities for fresh fruit and vegetables in schools. I am enclosing two articles (in French) on the subject.

Alas, since 2004, in France, the law forbids all vending machines in schools. What has this accomplished? Now the children go outside to buy candies…

— Catherine Roty
Chargée d’études
Ctifl
Paris, France

Ctifl stands for the Centre technique interprofessionnel des fruits et legumes. You can learn more about this organization by viewing its website in French here or via an English-language brochure you can download here.

Roughly speaking, Ctifl can be thought of as the Produce Marketing Association of France. Of course, to avoid offense to our French allies we should perhaps say that PMA is the Ctifl of America!

In any case, Ms. Roty sent two interesting articles over. We had them translated so we offer each in both the original French and a translation in English:

Le point sur Distributeurs de fruits frais dans les établissements scolaires

Fresh fruit vending machines in school establishments

Distributeurs de fruits frais dans les éstablissements Réalité ou utopie?

Fruit in school vending machines: A reality or an impossible ideal?

In addition to the articles, Ms. Roty was kind enough to work with Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to explain the project more completely to our readers. Because of language issues, we did it as a Guest column rather than a Q&A — although we did an abbreviated version as a Q&A in Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, which you can read here.

You can also read the guest column in French here.

Catherine RotyCatherine Roty
Chargée d’Etudes, Département Produits
et Marchés Ctifl


Consumer Research Officer, Product &
Market Research Department Ctifl
Pierre-vayssePierre Vaysse
Chargé du Programme Suivi Qualité Fruits
Département Fruits et Technologie, Ctifl


Engineer in charge of the Fruit Quality
Monitoring Program
Fruit & Technology Research Department, Ctifl

Within the framework of the States General on Food, held on December 13, 2000, the French Government announced it would launch in 2001 a National Program on Nutrition & Health, the Programme National Nutrition Santé (PNNS).

The overall aim of PNNS is “to improve the health status of the [French] population by acting on one of the major decisive factors, namely nutrition”. Among the nine nutritional goals in terms of Public Health, the #1 priority was: “to increase the consumption of fruit and vegetables so as to reduce the number of small consumers by one-quarter — 25%”.

A small consumer of fruit and vegetables is defined as a person who eats less than one-and-a-half portion of fruit per day, and less than two portions of vegetables (excluding potatoes).


However, said items are not only recommended in the form of fresh produce: “fresh, canned or frozen, fruit and vegetables protect your health”. Which is, of course, a real “stab in the back” for a strongly atomized sector that faces the heavy-weights of the food processing industry. Since that slogan, all products having the slightest link to fruits and vegetables are marketed claiming a “health” positioning (Knorr Vie; Andros etc.)

Our experiment was therefore largely motivated by public/state dynamics.

In 2002, the French Ministry of Health entrusted Aprifel (agency for research and information on fresh fruits and vegetables) with the task of encouraging young people to eat fruits and vegetables, and to try to find ways to influence their behavior in the direction intended by the PNNS.

Aprifel asked the Ctifl (Centre Technique Interprofessionnel des Fruits et Légumes, Interprofessional Institute for Applied Research on Fruit and Vegetables) (the organization I work for) to, firstly, study the technical feasibility — temperature, hygrometry, ethylene, “best before” date, assortment, etc. — and, secondly, determine expectations of this young and captive target as to the fruits and vegetables to be sold in vending machines.

Two secondary schools in Bergerac (Southwest France), the “lycée général Maine de Biran” (1,500 pupils) and the “lycée professionnel Jean Capelle” (750 pupils) were the basis for our trials throughout 2003.

The town of Bergerac was chosen because of its proximity to the Ctifl Lanxade research station.

The choice of material was imposed by the fragility of the fruits: vending machines using revolving stainless steel trays with same-level delivery (i.e., without dropping the fruits) and, of course, equipped with a cooling system.

A FIFO (first-in, first-out) machine was lent to us by Jean-Pierre Hasson of Rodaprim, a fruit&veg wholesaler in Rouen. He himself had a “fleet” of about 40 machines installed all over this city in Normandy (town hall, hospital, swimming pool, schools, etc.) more or less successfully selling apples at a price of € 0.80, of which 5% was donated to Cancer Research.

Ctifl bought a shopper vending machine.

For both models, cleaning was a long and tedious process.

Refilling and maintaining the machines are normally tasks allotted to the vending machine operator, but in this case they were carried out by Arzenton, a wholesale firm in Bergerac from the Créno group [a group of fruit & vegetable wholesale companies] and member of UNCGFL (French fruit&veg wholesalers’ association).

The aim was to define on a real-life basis the threshold of profitability for a wholesaler or retailer taking care of ordering, preparing, washing and delivering the products, but also to draw up a guide of good hygiene practices. We did not solicit the traditional vending machine operators represented in France by Navsa.

Temperatures: on average, there is a temperature difference of 2°C between the upper and lower trays of the machine (even more pronounced with the FIFO model). The upper trays should be dedicated to fruits requiring low temperatures, in our case strawberries, followed by fruits that release ethylene — apples, pears, apricots — and then fruits without distinct temperature requirements — clementines, prunes and dried apricots, table grapes. The lower trays are to be used for fruits that are susceptible to low temperatures — tomatoes, cherries, bananas and kiwifruit.

The most comfortable temperature for consumption is 9 -10° Celsius.

Hygrometry: the humidity regulation systems of the currently available vending machines are not sufficient to keep fresh fruits and vegetables from drying out. Throughout the trials, a plate filled with water was placed in the lower part of the machines, and the water level was checked each time the machine was restocked.

Packaging and washing: the fruits sold per piece were placed on small plates in order to keep them from being tossed around during the rotation of the revolving trays; for fruits that are very susceptible to dehydration, such as table grapes and apricots, as well as very fragile fruits — in this case strawberries, we used plastic punnets. Juicy products were supplied with a paper napkin. All fruits were washed, except the strawberries: a pictogram recommended to wash them before eating them.

Product range: depends entirely on the restocking frequency.

Adapted to Vending MachinesRequiring ripenessRequiring fast rotation
Dried apricotsKiwifruitBananas
Prunes
ApplesPearsCherries
Table grapesNectarinesStrawberries
ClementinesPeachesKumquats
OrangesApricotsFreyssinettes*
Cherry tomatoes

*very small, sweet bananas


Sales results over the calendar year 2003 (excluding school holidays; moreover, there were strikes during weeks #23 and 24).

IN VOLUME

Number of fruits sold = 3,261

Number of fruits/day = 40

59 % of total sales were apples

IN VALUE

Turnover = 1,549 €

On total sales: 51% apples, 19% strawberries


The vending machines had 10 trays, with 12 products per tray.

In order to limit restocking to once a week, the number of fruits sold per day must not exceed 120/4.5 days = 26 fruits.

With restocking occurring twice a week, which is a rhythm more adapted to our products, the maximum sales threshold increases to 52 units/day.

In the best of cases, return on investment starts in the second year, with an average product price of € 0.80 (eighty eurocents).

The fruit & vegetable vending machines were voluntarily placed in a competitive environment; both schools had vending machines offering hot and cold drinks, as well as sweet and salty snacks of well-known international brands. The idea was to let the young consumers make their own choices, not to impose the « nutritionally correct » but to tempt them into “responsible behavior” by offering tasty fruits and eating pleasure.

The fruit & vegetable vending machines were received favorably by the young public. The machines were perceived as a welcome diversification, and the students declared they were ready to try at least once this original offer. If the offer was convincing, word of mouth would do the rest.

Gustative uncertainty, lack of convenience, “generic” products that are hardly associated with a commercial environment… fruits and vegetables in vending machines suffer severe handicaps. Among a public of teenagers, one of the key factors to success for this concept is diversity, in other words: avoid “canteen fruits”! Events can be organized on a multitude of themes: based on the season, a color, a vitamin C special in winter, a carotene special before the holidays or a potassium special during exam periods.

The objective is to improve knowledge on the world of fruits and vegetables: varieties, seasonality, origin(s), gustatory and nutritional quality. This a perfectly attainable goal. It is to be noted, however, that the labels were rarely read, and no specific displays or events were organized.

The prices were aligned with the competing products and never exceeded 1€, which was a sort of psychologic threshold beyond which the students considered the fresh products “too” expensive. Just like their parents do, the teenagers recalculate the price per kilo, they don’t compare it to the competing products.

In the end, 82% of the students declared they had “bought more than once” from the fruit & veg vending machine; 60% of them said they had bought less from other vending machines, both for drinks and snacks. That means that the fruit & veg vending machines acquired a certain customer loyalty — mainly among girls.

Against a background of pandemic obesity, and in order to avoid snacking among young consumers, a law in France (law on public health published on August 9, 2005, article 30) specifies that “vending machines for drinks and food requiring payment and accessible to the pupils are prohibited in schools as from September 1st, 2005”.

This law stopped the enthusiasm created by the project. However, it condemns a distribution method but hardly changes snacking habits. Now, students buy sweets through the student board(!), or they leave the school premises and stock up at the local bakery or sandwich shops, where, of course, fresh fruits are totally absent.

At the end of 2007, the French Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, in a wish to improve accessibility of fruits and vegetables (and he should have pointed out « fresh fruits and vegetables », as processed produce doesn’t have the same constraints whether in terms of storage, packaging or shelf life), requested that two projects be carried out:

1. A project of free distribution in primary schools; the contact for this project is:

Jean Pierre Lebrun
Chef de projet “accessibilité aux fruits par les enfants” au MAP
Ministère de l’agriculture et de la pêche
251, rue de Vaugirard
75732 Paris cedex 15 — France
(01) 49 55 80 45
jean-pierre.lebrun@agriculture.gouv.fr

The children here are much younger than those who participated in our project. The products will be free, the distribution will take place in schools situated in less-favored areas, and the project will start in September 2008.

2. A new project involving vending machines with an offer of fresh fruits, to be installed in agricultural (secondary) schools; you may contact:

Nathalie Prudon-Desgouttes
Ministère de l’Agriculture et de la Pêche
Direction générale de l’enseignement
et de la recherche Sous-direction des politiques de formation
Bureau de la vie scolaire et de l’insertion
1 ter avenue de Lowendal
75700 PARIS O7 SP — France
(01) 49 55 50 98
nathalie.prudon-desgouttes@agriculture.gouv.fr

Conclusion:

1. Perhaps, as shown by the experiment you mentioned some time ago, minimally processed products would stand a better chance than their initial form (apple slices rather than a whole fruit, for instance)..

2. Furthermore, I’m afraid that fresh fruits as a substitute for sweets will never be a real alternative. Traditional snacks are offered in non-refrigerated vending machines: our offer will be the only one requiring an active choice. As part of a “small meal” (in cooled vending machines), the positioning is not right, because that offer is anchored in the salty food environment, where consumers often prefer to go without dessert.

The technical part of our experiment was handled by Pierre Vaysse, in charge of the programs on a Gustatory quality indicator, Quality references and sensory evaluation of fruits, and Quality measurement tools at the Ctifl Lanxade research station. As for me, I was in charge of the part on consumer expectations.

We appreciate Catherine Roty and Ctifl for sharing all this with the industry outside of France.

There is so much commonality in the issues we face that it would be a shame to not learn from one another and work together when we can.

Just look at some of the key points raised by this piece:

The overall aim of PNNS is “to improve the health status of the [French] population by acting on one of the major decisive factors, namely nutrition”. Among the nine nutritional goals in terms of Public Health, the #1 priority was: “to increase the consumption of fruit and vegetables so as to reduce the number of small consumers by one-quarter (25%)”.

In other words, the motivation behind the whole project is really the same issues that drive the Fruits & Veggies — More Matters! campaign of The Produce for Better Health Foundation.

However, said items are not only recommended in the form of fresh produce: “fresh, canned or frozen, fruit and vegetables protect your health”. Which is, of course, a real “stab in the back” for a strongly atomized sector that faces the heavy-weights of the food processing industry. Since that slogan, all products having the slightest link to fruits and vegetables are marketed claiming a “health” positioning (Knorr Vie; Andros etc.)

We’ve mentioned our concerns here, here, here and here that since PBH also includes promotion of frozen, canned and juice, the trade may need to consider alternative programs strictly to promote fresh.

The fruit & vegetable vending machines were voluntarily placed in a competitive environment; both schools had vending machines offering hot and cold drinks, as well as sweet and salty snacks of well-known international brands. The idea was to let the young consumers make their own choices, not to impose the “nutritionally correct” but to tempt them into “responsible behavior” by offering tasty fruits and eating pleasure.

This is a sound response to the criticism that much produce promotion comes across as medicinal — we find the notion of tempting people into responsible behavior by dangling the eating pleasure of fresh fruits and vegetables before them as exceedingly appealing and far more likely to change behavior than browbeating folks — especially young people.

That means that the fruit & veg vending machines acquired a certain customer loyalty — mainly among girls.

The gender gap in produce is something that could profitably get more study. What motivates this? What can be done about it?

This law stopped the enthusiasm created by the project. However, it condemns a distribution method but hardly changes snacking habits. Now, students buy sweets through the student board (!) or they leave the school premises and stock up at the local bakery or sandwich shops, where of course fresh fruits are totally absent.

This demonstrates the foolishness of attempting to restrict choice. The produce industry should reject this approach. We have to win by persuasion and by creating products people love.

…a project of free distribution in primary schools

As we discussed in our interview with United’s Lorelei DiSogra here, expanding this program is a top priority for the trade in the US.

Perhaps, as shown by the experiment you mentioned some time ago, minimally processed products would stand a better chance than their initial form (apple slices rather than a whole fruit, for instance)..

Certainly this should be tested. It might also provide a way to broaden variety by, say, including melon.

Furthermore, I’m afraid that fresh fruits as a substitute for sweets will never be a real alternative. Traditional snacks are offered in non-refrigerated vending machines: our offer will be the only one requiring an active choice. As part of a “small meal” (in cooled vending machines), the positioning is not right, because that offer is anchored in the salty food environment, where consumers often prefer to go without dessert.

An interesting thought we hadn’t heard articulated in this way before. To increase consumption, we may have to influence the choice of other meal parts.

Those who export to France should certainly consider working with their importers to participate in the new free distribution and the new vending machine program.

We thank Catherine Roty, Pierre Vaysse and the Ctifl for offering their case study as an example to help make the industry strong. We appreciate the effort and look forward to continuing cooperation. Vive la France!

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