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The Passion And the Produce:
New Covent Garden Market Strides Ahead In UK Wholesale — Markets Are The Unappreciated Underpinning Of Grower Prosperity And Urban Diversity

Gary Marshall
Covent Garden Tenants Association
New Covent Garden, London, UK

The Pundit is a son of New York’s Hunts Point Market. And the Pundit Poppa used to sell to many a merchant back in the old Covent Garden as well as in the early years of the New Covent Garden market. So it is a particular treat to have had an opportunity to walk the market, meet many of the merchants and feel that incredible pulse of the industry that one can’t really get outside of a thriving wholesale market.

It is estimated that the wholesale markets of the United Kingdom have a combined turnover in excess of £4 billion ($6.7 billion). London alone accounts for more than one-third of that haul, and the three wholesale sites at New Covent Garden, New Spitalfields and Western International directly employ around 5,000 people. New Covent Garden is the biggest of the three.

Since 2005, Gary Marshall has served as chairman of the Covent Garden’s Tenants Association (CGTA). He is also the managing director for Bevington Salads, the wholesale company he opened in 1987 at just 26 years old. It’s been a busy and, at times, challenging period as the CGTA has been involved in planning for the redevelopment of the market for the last eight years. Here he talks to Tommy Leighton.

Q: It’s well-documented that the wholesale market sector has been through some tough times, but we sit here in 2014 and the London wholesale scene appears to remain vibrant. How do you feel the markets have adapted to the huge changes of the past 25 to 30 years, and where do they fit into the current supply chain?

A: The wholesale markets in the UK were put under severe pressure in the late 1980s and the early 1990s when the supermarkets decided that fruits and vegetables would be their next project. Before then, they had focussed more on tins and boxes, but they recognised that fresh produce could play a key role in their growth.

During the same period, the country went through a severe depression, and the high streets were becoming unfashionable as out-of-town stores were built. This put the independent retailers and the local street markets under equal pressure.

If you condense all that, it’s pretty obvious that this was a difficult time for New Covent Garden’s traders. However, on the flip side, another market segment was beginning to flourish. British consumers were traveling more than ever before, and they were seeing in the US or in southern Europe that the trend was to eat out once or twice a week — or more. It was affordable and therefore became popular very quickly. New Covent Garden, located just three miles from the centre of London, was ideally set up to service the growing catering and foodservice customer base.

At the beginning of the ’90s, less than 10 per cent of the business in this market was catering, but today that has risen to 65-70 per cent. This change has been driven by a fantastic group of entrepreneurial traders who have adapted to the new market conditions with great professionalism, great energy and amazing passion.

Wholesalers like myself had to diversify, understand the dynamics of the new business and be willing to change and offer a wider range of products. It is a necessity now that you  offer quality and consistency at an affordable price. You have to get the very best you can possibly get. This has enabled the caterers in New Covent Garden to provide an unchallenged bespoke service to London.The top 20 restaurants in the City all buy from our market, and 40 per cent of all of the fresh produce you will see on any plate in London’s restaurants and cafés is sourced from our market. There are more than 600 vehicular movements into the City every day.

In the past few years, what we’ve seen is the re-emergence of boot sales (flea markets) and local markets, as places where people have rediscovered their urge to go and shop. Having spent the past couple of decades shopping in the same supermarket stores, they began to realise that there are other places where they can go to shop — on their local high street or elsewhere in their community.

People had forgotten how to buy from markets. But there have been a lot of foreign street markets visiting the UK, which opens eyes to what markets can offer. Consumers have begun to touch, feel and taste product again before they buy and to recognise that the product they had been buying wrapped up in smart packaging wasn’t necessarily the best product available. They want less packaging and more authentic, locally grown product.

It’s a trend that started in Italy, where the local trade never capitulated under the pressure of the supermarkets in the same way as the rest of Europe. It’s a gradual change, but it’s really a cause that’s been taken up by the British in recent years and has benefited our local fruit industry, which was on its last legs not that long ago, but has regrouped and come back with a vengeance.

People don’t just want to buy British produce; they want to buy and trade locally, too, and they don’t see an out-of-town supermarket meeting that desire.

For housewives, supermarkets aren’t trendy anymore — they are merely a convenience. The chains have recognised that in their marketing strategies, of course, and tried to flood the local high streets with their own convenience brands. But there is a demand again for high streets to have a good independent fruiterer, baker and butcher and, in my opinion, the professional fruiterer who knows his job is as busy as he’s ever been.

The days of opening up strings of out-of-town superstores are on the decline. People no longer want to go to soulless, lifeless, anonymous sales arenas, they want personalized service from people who really understand the products they are selling. And, they, quite rightly, want high quality and seasonality at a reasonable price.

Q: In terms of New Covent Garden specifically, what sets the market apart?

A: What we have found in New Covent Garden, in the past three to five years in particular, is that top-quality product will always sell at the best market prices. It is absolutely vital to us nowadays that there is a consistent flow of high-quality product available to us. Led by exporters into this market, the British growers have also recognised this and upped their game, presenting their products in a far better manner for the wholesale and catering trade.

The biggest growth in the market is for the products that are in some way over-spec for the supermarkets — whether that be oversized grapes or stone fruits or citrus that don’t quite fit in with what the multiple retailer wants. Companies have seen that by tailoring that product (which is in perfect condition and of the highest quality) to their wholesale market customers, they can achieve a far better return than they would have gotten from their supermarket customers. Brands such as Gomez Reserv have led the way in producing bespoke product for the non-multiple sector, and they have brought fantastic quality gear into the market.

The days of dumping produce in New Covent Garden are long gone, and there just isn’t a customer coming here anymore for product that falls below the quality expectations of its customers. There are still markets out there for that product, but our trade has moved away from it.

One of the reasons New Covent Garden continues to be successful (we have been voted the UK’s best wholesale market in two out of the last three years) is the quality, variety and continuity in our offer. We indisputably have the greatest range of fresh produce in one consolidated area anywhere in the UK. We also have the premier flower market in the UK, with the same reputation for leading the trends in the floral market as we do in the catering sector. We have trucks coming here every night from every other wholesale market in the country and every major catering supplier because we have product that cannot be found anywhere else.

Our market built its reputation as the hub for all fresh produce sold in the UK throughout most of the 20th century. It’s not quite the same as it was, obviously, but we are still the most influential market in the country.

Q: The supermarkets didn’t just remove a large part of the customer base from the wholesale markets; they also took away chunks of the supplier base — with some companies choosing to bypass wholesale altogether. Yet New Covent Garden still has a turnover in excess of £650 million every year, so there is no shortage of suppliers out there who see real benefits. For any reader whose company does not supply New Covent Garden, why should they change their strategy?

A: This is the perfect time to look to supply New Covent Garden — both our customer base and our reputation are growing. The stability of the wholesale sector at New Covent Garden is at the strongest -- it’s been for many, many years, thanks in large part to the strong foodservice base we have. After years of decline, there is also a growing high-end retail customer base in London and the South East that, because of the lack of poor-quality fruit in the market, have been able to “up” their game with first-class, unique product from around the world.

If I can use my own company, Bevington Salads, as an example, we have exclusive agreements with several growers. We work the Daza brand, for example, throughout the Spanish salad season and also sell a big volume of their melons. We also exclusively receive the Savéol brand from France and, as with Daza, that product is predominantly bought on a semi-firm price.

We have an exclusivity agreement with EXSA UK as well, mostly on citrus and grapes. For me, it works because I know I can promote that product to high-end customers knowing that it is going to offer consistent top quality across the course of the seasons; while for them, they know that I’m working hard to market their product and they also receive the high-end return that product merits.

All wholesalers in New Covent Garden are looking for those types of relationships, and most of the firms in this market will have similar agreements with other growers and suppliers. We all want unique products to work with and brands that we can build within our own businesses, and to grow those brands for our suppliers, too.

Q: It’s the 40th anniversary this year of the market’s relocation from Covent Garden to Nine Elms, Vauxhall. What would you say are the key differences between then and now?

A: I suppose this market hasn’t changed as much as some other markets. We have changed, of course, over the past 40 years from being a traditional wholesale market to a fully balanced composite market for London with the best mix, I believe, of fruit, vegetables, salad and flower traders anywhere in the country.

This is now supported on the same 57-acre site by meat, fish, ice, organics, ingredients, milk and dairy companies, as well as prepared and processing companies serving customers at the top end of the catering and retail market and, in some cases, going directly to individuals. 

One of the biggest changes, of course, is the ease with which people can buy and receive their products these days in areas of the country that were previously difficult to access; so we have had to rise to that challenge, too.

Driven by the needs of the foodservice market mainly (lunch has become the new dinner, so chefs understandably want their product earlier and earlier), our trading hours have certainly changed. Forty years ago, in the old market, the normal hours would be something like 4 a.m. to midday. Now, the peak time is 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and there are people working onsite 24 hours a day, every day.

We are still owned by the government; and being a free market, which does not benefit from any protection, subsidies or handouts, can only enhance the reputation of the tenants. Even after two savage recessions and the evolution of the trade in ways I mentioned earlier, this market is 98 per cent leased and there is actually a shortage of space for wholesalers who wish to expand. Quite pleasingly, four new companies have opened in the past two years — one selling Italian product, another exotics and two British salad firms.

Q: Marking its 40th anniversary in Nine Elms, the market is a platinum sponsor of the London Produce Show. How will your presence take shape?

A: This is a central part of our celebrations to market the 40th anniversary of our move. We are the main sponsor of the opening cocktail reception on the evening of June 4, and there is a booth for the entire market, as well as booths for several individual traders, in the exhibition on the 5th. One of the tours on the Friday morning will also visit the market, and I look forward to seeing you all there.

It’s not often we get the opportunity to showcase the market at a truly international event taking place on our doorstep. This is a great chance for all of us to promote the integral role of NCGM in feeding London and also to highlight the market as a valuable route to market for international growers and exporters. We’re really looking forward to it.

Q: The market is on the verge of being redeveloped after a prolonged period of planning and discussion between the Covent Garden Market Authority (CGMA), the CGTA and, since the deal was struck, the developer VINCI St Modwen. Where do things stand and what are your thoughts at this point in the project?

A: The executive of the CGTA has been in negotiations with the CGMA for over seven years in regard to the redevelopment, and we still have great concerns surrounding the new market being proposed, especially the viability of the new site. We are still to be shown where and how the new flower market will fit and work.

VSM, supported by the CGMA, has put in a planning application that we, the market community, still feel is a long way from satisfying what is required for the 200-plus tenants and their thousands of customers.

When we have a new market, it needs to be better than what we have now and fit for the 21st century in its workability, sustainability and affordability. It also needs to enable the tenants of New Covent Garden, renowned throughout the world as leaders — not followers — to remain at the forefront of an ever-changing industry.

We are hopeful, as is everyone, that our continued negotiations with the CGMA and VSM will lead to a great new market, which is what the hardworking and entrepreneurial traders and customers of NCGM deserve. 

For the tenants, it’s precarious, it’s challenging and it’s frightening in equal measure. There is no hiding from that. We have an opportunity to become the most iconic wholesale market in the UK, maybe even the world, but there is always the possibility that we could become the biggest white elephant in London. We have to make sure that the people who are making the decisions, who have no real understanding of this business, know exactly what they are doing before serious mistakes are made with longterm implications.

The CGMA, the developer and the government must understand why this market is so important to London and the South East of England. Sometimes, with the greatest things we have in our lives, we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone. This market survived two world wars, and it’s survived the two most recent recessions along with many before them, but this is probably our biggest challenge yet.

It is a crying shame that when we are at our strongest, we also find ourselves at our most vulnerable.

Q: So, without doubt, the next few years hold some challenges, but what does the future hold for New Covent Garden and its tenants?

A: The wholesale market is, to many people, invisible. We have 57 acres right next to one of the main train lines into central London, but still the vast majority of people, including most of those in government, have never been here and have no idea what we do or how vital we are to London’s food chain. It’s like we’re in a goldfish bowl looking out.

The importance of the 250 companies, 2,500 employees and hundreds of thousands of people around the world who are employed along the supply chain of the products that we bring to market is really not recognised widely enough. Considering we’ve been here for 40 years with minimal support as the face of London, that England has changed so dramatically and the red tape facing small- and medium-sized companies has increased so significantly, it is a phenomenal achievement that we have the most successful wholesale market in the UK. We are in no mood to give up yet — there’s a huge amount of life left in this market.

What other industry has the diversity, the passion, the knowledge or the risk that we show every day? The fresh produce industry can be as exhilarating as scoring the winning goal in the World Cup Final. It can also be as deflating as being knocked out in the first round of a world title fight. That’s why we love it, and it’s also why we hate it! But one thing hasn’t changed — once you’re in the trade, you’re in it for life.

What incredible passion for his work and his market. One thing that markets have in common all over the world is that they are under-appreciated. In fact markets provide the most valuable of services — but they do it in a way not clear to those not in the business.

First, on the production side, no matter how much large multiples (retail chains) may buy, they are very specific buyers. They want particular varieties, grades and often only one size. Alas, the good Lord has not seen fit to grow produce strictly to order of the multiples, so a robust production agriculture sector depends crucially on the existence of outlets willing to help them move what has actually grown, rather than just what the multiples want to buy.

This is the unique difference between the wholesale and the retail sectors. The retailers buy what they want, but wholesalers assist growers in marketing what they have produced. With good wholesalers helping to guide their producers into producing the kinds of items that can be profitably sold. So anything that weakens the wholesale markets tends to weaken growers who lose outlets for the sizes and varieties that multiples don’t want.

Second, on the independent retail and restaurant side, wholesale markets serve as the distribution center for independents. So if you like a city that is not homogenized solely with large chains, like a city that provides opportunities for immigrants to launch businesses, if you like a city where entrepreneurs of all sorts have the opportunity to compete with large chains, you have to support strong wholesale markets.

Let us hope the fates conspire to allow the market to be redeveloped in such a manner that these businesses will continue to be able to thrive and to support agriculture and entrepreneurial urban diversity at the same time.

Gary is on our “Thought Leader” Panel on Thursday Morning and the tour of The New Covent Garden Market takes place Friday, departing at 6:30 a.m. Come to the London Produce Show and Conference and experience both.

If you would like some additional information, here is a small brochure we prepared.

Or you can check out the website here.

You can register for the London Produce Show and Conference right here.

Finally, though the exhibition hall is sold out, we still have some wonderful opportunities for sponsors to step in and become Charter Sponsors. If you would like to receive more information on how your organization can be part of this great new industry institution, please let us know here.

For The Love Of Fruits and Vegetables:
London Produce Show And Conference Ambassador Valentine Warner Spills His Heart Out

Valentine Warner
TV Chef and Author

Photo Credit: Walter Van Dyck

In the UK it is common for events to have an official “Ambassador” and we both chose and were chosen by TV chef Valentine Warner to take on the honors for the first ever edition of The London Produce Show and Conference. We asked Liz O’Keefe, the co-ordinator for the culinary and media programs at the event to chat with the Chef about growing up in rural England and changing attitudes to cookery and food, and to allow him a chance to challenge the UK fresh produce industry to join the food revolution.

As Liz put it: “Having ventured from a London cooking and catering career to TV presenter, chef, food writer, and broadcaster, it’s clear that Valentine Warner is mad about his fresh produce. He grew up in the heart of West Dorset, the son of a dairy farming diplomat, eating from his immediate locality where everything, wild or cultivated, was simply viewed as “edible or nonedible.”

Warner’s eating fresh philosophy, Explained Liz, is the perfect pairing for the London Produce Show, where he is championing good-quality fresh produce through cookery demonstrations as well as taking part in industry debates.

As his fourth book What to Eat Next has just been published, Warner has decided opinons and we asked Liz to give us a preview of what he would say at The London Produce Show and Conference:

Q: Fresh produce is close to your heart. When did you first become interested in it?

A: Living in a rural setting, on a farm and with an abundant kitchen garden at hand, eating fresh was always about bringing the outdoors indoors. We collected our milk every night, grew our own vegetables and ate the meat we reared. Dad would always walk into the house with mushrooms, rosehips or blackberries and the like in his hands. If I ever went fishing and caught some unfortunate little thing, my dad would make sure I cooked and ate it. What deepened my interest in good produce was that both my parents were exceptional cooks.

I have always been very interested in producers, and over the years I have visited a lot of growers. Working in restaurants greatly increased my fascination with seeing things at the source. Producers are more often than not curious and riveting people. There is so much to learn from experts. One of my favourite producers is Forge Farm in Oxfordshire. They cultivate the most delicious organic pumpkins and squash, making it clear that using good ingredients is one of the key things to successful cookery.

Q: How do you view the fresh produce industry in the UK?

A: UK producers generate an enormous amount of good-quality fruits and vegetables, yet many of them remain unknown — which is why this kind of event is such a great opportunity. It seems that I am constantly unearthing new suppliers on my travels around the UK and always aim to share this information as quickly and as widely as possible.

We are a nation of excellent growers with a long history of green-fingered brilliance. Getting great produce into the public eye is not easy, though. I think because Britain is a small island, its easier to see the accelerated speed with which public tastes are becoming squeamish and unadventurous. If only we approached our food like the European small suppliers, we would have an easier time. Mind you, markets are once more becoming popular so there is hope.

Q: Do you think that understanding of the UK fresh produce industry and producers in general can be improved?

A: There is always room for improvement. Its a very complicated question to answer. On one hand, we are driven by a supermarket culture that decides what the public likes according to what we buy, but Im not sure we really are aware of what we even could like.

How should a large retailer really educate people when selling? Its quite worrying, in fact, how little retail buyers know about the very thing they are hired to buy for big companies — I once met an olive buyer who hated olives!

A lover of the old ways, its taken me some time to fully understand how the Internet can be used to its best effect. I think the new future of online information and selling could be a great example of technology and information helping the very fragile things one worries it will steamroll. Supermarkets could help considerably more with information and ideas of how to use the wonderful produce that we have.

Q: The fresh produce industry can be very seasonally driven. What is your idea of seasonality and how do you apply it to your cookery?

A: For a start, I would just like to say that we seem to forget that every country has seasons; its just that I dont want to eat foreign strawberries in winter — they are all about the summer for me, and Ill wait.

Mother Nature provides us with the very things that we should be eating at a certain time of year — iron-rich brassicas and roots to take us through the mean months, then a wonderful bloodletting of berries, peas and the like to waltz us through a hot summer.

It makes sense to eat the things that are growing at the time they grow. Asparagus, for example, has a short season. I want to eat as much of it as possible. Therefore, its the job of the seasonal cook to enjoy it in as many different recipes as possible in order to avoid boredom. The asparagus departs and you can start a passionate affair with the next thing to come along. Of course, some imports are wonderful, too.

Q: Whats your favourite fruit or vegetable to cook with?

A: This very much depends on what type of mood I am in and whats around to use. Although I do understand the importance of list-making, you really do need to see whats best, and I think this is much easier to do in a market, as opposed to a supermarket. Markets are all about furtive squeezing of tomatoes, nibbling and petty thievery…I mean tasting. A few of my favourite things happen to be bitter treviso lettuces, fennel, beetroots and, my favourite of all, broad beans. I especially like them when theyre very small and you cook them in their pods. I also really love peaches.

Q: How can we get consumers to eat more fruit and vegetables?

A: Shopping as a supermarket nation, I think its hard to realise differences in variety. Asparagus just becomes asparagus, a vine tomato is just a vine tomato. I love saying to people “try this one over that one” and watch their faces light up as they exclaim, “This beetroot is totally different than any of the beetroots Ive eaten before.”

Unfortunately, old-fashioned things that might be perceived as ugly, like the Egremont Russett apple or the hairy little gooseberry, have fallen out of favour and, with it, disappears so many wonderful tastes replaced by the shiny but bland. So, for me, its really about trying to excite people with storytelling, smells, tasting, etc.

I think the British concept of vegetarianism has not done vegetables any favours — a tired old procession of bakes and butternut squash risotto. Put simply, vegetables are second nature, a common approach in many of the places we like to visit, be it Italy or India. There is an understanding that you dont necessarily need meat or fish to make a meal. A brilliant combination of tomato, salt, olive oil and some good bread is one of the most pleasing things. Salads can be genius, but are often considered boring.

Lastly, I would just say it all starts with the kids. Children are far more interested in things than theyre often given credit for; and cooking is storytelling, drama, theatre — all the senses, fire and knives. Enlightening their minds is surely how to get more people in the future to love, respect and enjoy the very thing that keeps us alive but waste mindlessly.

Valentine Warner will be taking part in the London Produce Show’s opening cocktail reception on June 4 at the Grosvenor House hotel, Park Lane, London, as well as featuring in the Perishable Pundit’s “Thought Leaders” Debate Panel starting at 7:30 a.m., the Chef Demonstration Kitchen at 10:30 a.m. and the Media Masterclass at 3 p.m. on June 5 at the same venue.

There is something of a love/hate relationship between the produce industry and chefs. On the one hand the connection is strong, perhaps stronger than ever. With all the pressure on the restaurant trade to serve healthier food, fresh produce is the chef’s best friend. Everything else is negative. Use less salt, sugar, fat. Only produce rich in colors and textures is applauded — use more.

On the other hand, the chef’s adoration for all things local, obscure varieties and general romantic attitudes toward food puts chefs on a path in which they are increasingly aligned with a small sector of the population, a sector both affluent enough to be exceedingly choosey about what they buy and committed enough to study and care about all the intricacies of fresh produce varietal choice and growing regions.

Yet the industry and chefs must find an entente.

Here is the problem. It is often written that produce has been bred to produce high yields, fruit easy to transport and with long shelf life. These are the “bland” varieties that Chef Valentine alludes to in the interview.

There is truth in this and although much new varietal development is heavily geared toward flavor, replacing all the produce out there with high flavor varieties is a project for generations and even then is unlikely to develop into a produce assortment of the kind of subtle flavor differences Chef Valentine yearns for.

So the produce industry, this means that the route to increasing produce consumption goes right through the idea of using culinary techniques — to make the produce we actually have and can grow in large quantities and sell at affordable prices — to make produce more delicious and appealing.

For chefs, although a tiny minority may be willing to abstain from eating the bounty of the world to focus only on local, all sales data indicated that consumers want fruits and vegetables from wherever they are most delicious that time of year or they want things produced in green houses or stored in controlled atmosphere. And an awful lot of people want quality food at an economical price.

The rise of the celebrity chef has corresponded with a decline in common home cooking. Instead TV shows provide a kind of culinary tourism for people where cooking is a rarity or a special event. In the long run this is a path to lesser relevance.

So chefs need to engage with real people, on budgets, not that interested in the foodie culture and the industry needs to engage with chefs that have the technique to make fruits and vegetables seductively desirable.

You can see this culture clash play out on the culinary stage and conference platforms of The London Produce Show and Conference where we encourage all to say their piece.

If you would like some additional information, here is a small brochure we prepared of the event.

Or you can check out the website here.

You can register for the London Produce Show and Conference right here.

Here is info on the spouse/companion program right here.

Finally, though the exhibition hall is sold out, we still have some wonderful opportunities for sponsors to step in and become Charter Sponsors. If you would like to receive more information on how your organization can be part of this great new industry institution, please let us know here.

Food Dudes Strike Again… This Time With Dynamic Dudes Coming To The London Produce Show and Conference

We have been following the story of the “Food Dudes” for a long time. What appealed to us, initially, was the scientific approach. So many efforts to boost produce consumption report only subjective and anecdotal results. So some high school principal claims that the students are not joining gangs as much, getting better grades, etc. all as a result of some pro-produce program. But there is never any control group, never any follow-up, there are rarely objective standards. Really nothing to justify a further investment.

So not surprisingly these programs don’t attract funding, don’t roll out and, ultimately, die.

One program that has not died but has, in fact, grown — slowly but steadily — has been the Food Dudes. We invited Professor Lowe to explain why that is so at The London Produce Show and Conference and we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to find out what kind of future Professor Lowe will unveil at the London Produce Show and Conference:

Professor C. Fergus Lowe
Chief Executive
Food Dudes Health Ltd — Social Enterprise
Cheshire, UK

Exciting children to eat fresh fruits and vegetables and to sustain those habits longterm amidst the vast temptations of fatty, sugary junk foods is no easy task, and one that has perplexed and tormented the produce industry. That’s why Professor Lowe’s presentation on the innovative Food Dudes Programme and complementary exhibit at the London Produce Show are certain to captivate and enlighten attendees.

Intrigued by this healthy eating scheme’s significance early on, we’ve been keen to report on the programme’s unique foundational premise and burgeoning success, from its national rollout in Ireland to several trials in England.

Food Dudes Beat Junk Punks And Kids Eat More Produce

Pundit’s Mailbag — Evaluating Effectiveness In Childhood Eating Studies

Pundit Pulse Of The Industry: Fyffes’ Dr. Laurence Swan

Q: With recent news that Food Dudes won a national contract as part of the School Food Plan to reach over 300 English Schools, could you give us a sneak peek at what the Food Dudes are up to?

A: The Food Dudes Programme is still going very strongly indeed in Ireland. The national school roll-out is nearing completion, and will be pretty well in place by this academic year, reaching half-a-million children in schools across Ireland. In the UK, we’ve been making very considerable progress since we established ourselves as a social enterprise two years ago through our partnership with University of Wales, Bangor, where we had our beginnings as a research group developing Food Dudes, utilizing behavioural science methodology.

The multifaceted approach integrates positive role models, repeated tastings and rewards systems to foster a fun and healthy-eating culture and fundamentally transform kids’ eating habits. [Lowe, as Deputy Vice Chancellor of Bangor University, co-founded the programme and continues to champion its progressive development and expansion.]

Q: How are you translating your success in Ireland to the UK?

A: We went in earnest in the UK over that period and built up a very strong base in the Midlands. The programme has run with great success in West Midlands schools, where we’ve gained expertise and created a whole new set of Food Dudes schemes. We’ve worked with local authorities to develop a scheme for nursery-school children ages two to four, and trialed that very successfully. We hope to publish those results soon.

Q: So up until now, you’ve focussed on elementary-aged children, but you see an advantage of channeling younger audiences to circumvent the problem and influence healthy eating before bad habits become ingrained?

A: It’s very sensible to start addressing childhood obesity rates and establishing good eating habits early on in children. In the United States, childhood obesity and the serious health risks associated with it through adult life are alarmingly high, with the UK not far behind. We should be doing everything in our power to prevent it. For instance, data reported by Public Health England, an executive agency of the Department of Health, reveals the extent of the problem:

“The National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) measures the height and weight of around one million school children in England every year, providing a detailed picture of the prevalence of child obesity. The latest figures, for 2012/13, show that 18.9% of children in Year 6 (aged 10-11) were obese and a further 14.4% were overweight. Of children in Reception (aged 4-5), 9.3% were obese and another 13.0% were overweight. This means almost a third of 10-11 year olds and over a fifth of 4-5 year olds were overweight or obese.”

We’re also evaluating the programme in special schools for children with various disabilities such as autism. These children have very high levels of obesity. And the programme works particularly well with them, as our measured results are showing. It’s a very good programme we’ve added to an array of schemes being developed.

Q: Could you elaborate on other concepts you’re exploring?

A: In addition, we’ve developed a new element for Food Dudes, which focusses on the school dining-room experience for all programmes. From our work in the classrooms, we’re now using everything in contemporary psychology to change behaviours and habits during school mealtimes.

Q: What do you mean by contemporary psychology? Could you share some effective techniques and perhaps some strategies to avoid?

A: What we’ve learned is that if you label a meal the “healthy option of the day,” the effect will be palpable that children will eat less of it. But if you say the vegetable of the day is Brussels sprouts or broccoli bake, and this is the “Food Dudes dish of the day,” kids will eat much more of it.

Branding and how you present it are very important. How staff reacts is also crucial. If a staff member doesn’t like a certain vegetable and frowns if a child eats it, that’s not a good role model. You must get staff onboard, creating an environment that celebrates eating fresh produce and encourages kids to taste different varieties.

But first, the programme is in the classroom. We have a new set of movies, brand-new and up-to-date for the modern era. Food Dudes face off against the Junk Punks, which bonds the children in a common cause and gets them fired up to eat fruits and vegetables. Then we begin the dining experience, and the kids come into it ready to make healthy choices.

Q: Are the children able to sustain that momentum and select those healthy choices when confronted by a myriad of food options easily accessible and typically thrust upon them in school dining halls?

A: Every day, schools will serve chocolate cake and custard, usually pitted in competition with a fruit and vegetable basket in a distant corner. We think that’s unfair competition. We encourage schools, as part of the dining experience scheme, not to present the sweet and fatty foods and instead give various attractively presented fruit and vegetable dishes.

Q: You don’t face a lunchroom revolt if the sweets disappear?

A: No, because the first part of the programme makes the kids really enthusiastic about eating fruits and vegetables. The kids happily take the fruit as dessert because they’ve been conditioned in the classrooms. When we remove the cake out of the Food Dudes menus, they don’t complain; in fact, they don’t even notice because of all the other options. When schools do this, it can make a big difference in children’s overall intake of sweet and fatty foods and is very important for staving off obesity. So that’s another new programme development.

Q: In a behavioural approach to alleviating childhood obesity, does the Food Dudes Programme look to marry healthier eating with increased physical activity?

A: We are just about to trial a physical activity programme this year that we’re calling Dynamic Dudes to fit with the Food Dudes Programme to provide an integrated programme to reduce obesity and improve children’s health. Those are the two sides of the obesity coin, aren’t they?

Q: How will the Dynamic Dudes part work?

A: It’s the same principle of behaviour change. In our new movie sequence, we’ve developed the characters to each have their own signature sport or physical activity skill, so we’re setting them up again as role models to promote active lifestyles.

We have introduced this movie sequence into the classroom for about 10 minutes each day and combined it with the model reward system we’ve used before to encourage activity when they leave the classroom and head to the playground. We have a way to track and manage the behaviour with devices to record the children’s activity.

In addition, we sign them up for community-based activities and games that are rewarding for them, and also encourage them to get out and do things in their environment. We worked with the Government Technology Strategy Board to help develop that.

Q: You’re making great strides in taking the programme to the next level, as well as broadening its reach…

A: We’ve got the geographic spread in the Midlands, and now have begun work around Manchester. Our base is in a nice town near Manchester. It was absolutely crucial for us to move there from the University of Wales, Bangor, because we had to be at the centre of England since we’re beginning to build up a lot of projects in the area.

We’re optimistic about working in counties nearby and are heavily involved in contractual discussions. We have a new project in Scotland, which is very exciting for us since we haven’t been in Scotland before. We’ve also got our first project in Wales with special schools. It is going excellently based on initial results. We very much would like to work in Northern Ireland and other parts of England, which is a very big area of development for us. And, of course, a programme in London would be the next strategic area of development.

Q: How does funding work?

A: In Ireland, we are funded directly through the Department of Agriculture. In the UK, we go through a system of decentralization and local decision-making, so our funding comes mainly from the Department of Public Health and public authorities across the UK, with some additional financial support from the National Health Service as well.

One recent significant development is that the government has launched a School Food Plan to encourage students to take up school meals, and is also funding preschool meals for the younger children. As part of that School Food Plan, it has commissioned work both to help aid the quality of food and to encourage take up of this food.

We’ve entered into a full-fledged partnership with the Children’s Food Trust, a charity very respected by the government and by our programme. Through these developments, we anticipate dealing with more than half of the eligible schools in the UK, and that will take us to parts of the UK where we haven’t been before, which is a very good opportunity for us.

The fact of the matter is that our programme produces very big and lasting changes in children’s consumption of fruits and vegetables, and it is the only programme in the UK and actually across Europe that can do that. It’s the only one of its kind to have these kinds of results.

Our issue is to raise our profile so people know that we exist and the value of what we do. So participating in the London Produce Show helps let people know we are here and that we have a terrific set of programmes.

Q: Could you speak to how you quantify results and can confidently make those claims? In the United States, for instance, many school programmes geared towards increasing produce consumption generate wonderful anecdotes from school administrators, teachers, students and parents extolling success, yet the scientific research data has been more challenging to come by. How do you jump outside the subjective feedback to accurately assess a programme’s validity?

A: We are behavioural scientists by training with many decades behind us in research. We’re conditioned to using objective methodologies to access behaviours and have brought those methodologies and that thinking into this work. It’s why we’re effective in what we do, because we take a serious approach to behaviour change.

All the components in our programmes have been established and proved effective, not just by us but by other researchers as well in terms of behaviour change. When looking at behaviour change, you have to take a very rigorous approach and measure results objectively.

It is very interesting to look at methodology on measuring food intake. Asking parents is open to various optimistic biases. Parents tend to exaggerate the amount of fruits and vegetables their children eat. We actually use little of that.

Sometimes we’ve used weighing to compare portions of food before the child eats and then afterward, combined with observation techniques to assess portions before and after, to calculate percentages. More recently, we’ve explored other methods with colleagues at the University of Utah that involve photographing the food before and after and doing a blind assessment on how much has been eaten.

Most interesting, positively, is computer recognition of food. This technology is emerging with great potential, which should be wonderful. A number of people are working on this. We ourselves have recently gotten funding to pursue computer recognition systems with our people in Utah. We could identify particular foods and the quantity that remains after the child has eaten the meal with absolute accuracy. This new analysis would be so objective and also very cost effective.

Q: It could also be less obtrusive and noticeable to the children…

A: Yes, that’s right. You pass the meals under a photographic device; it’s quick and easy and, again, much less costly than having researchers going out there.

Q: Still, since all this scientific data on food intake is done in school, how can you know what occurs when they leave? Do you take into account the possibility that they could go home and eat a big piece of cake?

A: That’s a valid question. And it goes back to some of the conventional methods, doing the telephone interviews with parents and accounting for the biases, and we’ve got the supporting evidence of carry over at home. But this new technology could be integrated into the parental side for an objective record, where parents take photographs rather than relying on their self-reporting.

Q: Do you have some statistics on the impact you’re having with this programme?

A: A doubling of consumption is not uncommon. It happens with variations from school to school and class to class. In recent studies, we’ve been looking at what happens when you increase consumption of fruits and vegetables to the consumption of sweet and fatty foods. What we’ve seen is a direct correlation, with a systematical reduction of sweet and fatty foods averaging 25 to 30 per cent. This is quite significant in terms of addressing childhood obesity problems.

Q: Studies like these must help you in securing the funding to back your expansion plans — that Food Dudes is not just a show of cute characters. At the same time, are you able to prove that these behavioural changes aren’t fleeting and that children continue their enthusiastic consumption of fruits and vegetables as they grow into adults?

A: We spent a lot of time on this issue. We get great effects quite quickly but the key is sustaining these effects. These kids are constantly bombarded by all the marketing of junk foods. It’s all around them, and it’s extraordinarily pervasive. Even in the school environment there are a lot of other temptations. That’s what they’re up against.

As we proceed, our mission is not only defined by increasing the number of schools we’re in; we want to be in retail environments and move to fast-food outlets and get them on our side, promoting the eating of fresh fruits and vegetables. And the home, which is actually far and away the greatest influence, even more so than the school. In the future, we want to take our programmes directly to the home, and we’re now beginning to design all our materials, our movies, websites and videos on YouTube with that in mind.

We have new features in the design of them all. They are much more sophisticated in the animation and pop lines to appeal to kids today. Also, in a novel departure, we run on positivity and fun. That’s part of the psychology — to make eating fruits and vegetables enjoyable. We’re not trying by psychological persuasion to restrict people “you can’t do this, you can’t do that.” For example, we don’t think pushing legislation to ban large sugary drinks is the way to go. So often, negative methods are not the right approach.

The truth is, we need to take on the companies that supply these huge vats of sugary drinks. As a result, you get fat, you’re unable to do things, your skin wrinkles and your teeth fall out. These problems are not farfetched; there is a science behind what we’re conveying. We’re taking on a side of the industry that is not good for the kids.

Q: Are you going to follow these kids that you’re helping to see how they’re progressing through the years?

A: We would love to stay in touch with these children but we haven’t had sufficient funding to do this longterm support. When we get the Dynamic Dudes up and running in the next year, we will be able to start studying a whole range of health indicators over time. And we’ll be looking at public health outlets. It would be a major study, but we think the time is coming.

Q: It sounds like you’re really dedicated to elevate the programme to a new plateau…

A: Basically, I retired from my main role at the university so that I could really drive the programme forward. I hadn’t had the time to seriously take the programme on with other colleagues to a higher level as you say. We’re bringing it to the rest of the UK and looking at other countries as well.

We’re already working in Italy — Sicily and Milan — and publications will be coming out soon from these groups where we’ve seen the good results. We’re actually with researchers in Utah on a US-aid-funded project. We’d like to translate our programme to the US market. That’s a big aim for us because the challenge is great there.

Our biggest effort to get across to people is that changing behaviour is not easy, but it’s the only way to deal with obesity. We have to change what we eat and we have to change our levels of physical activity. But that requires a scientifically driven approach because, as we know, the conventional approaches to education don’t make a blind bit of difference.

We just happen to be one of the first ones to recognise the importance of applying behavioural science here. In other areas, clinical psychology principles are being used all the time with phenomenal success, but no one brings that into the public health domain this way.

I’m the vice chair of a scientific expert panel of the European Union for the School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme, which gives 150 million euros annually to member states to use in those efforts. I’ve just been in Brussels again presenting our research outcomes to the 27 members. I’m in a good position to understand what’s going on in the other member programs.

Many don’t grasp the importance of behaviour-based programs — that it’s not just about giving kids fruits and vegetables, but encouraging behavioural change. The EU has made great strides in this direction within the last few years, and now in recommendations coming through, it is going to support the introduction of behaviour-based programs like ours.

We are very interested to hear this presentation and, in fact, it is quite intriguing to see they have convincing evidence of increased consumption of fruits and vegetable as well as an impact on reducing consumption of problematic foods. Yet we suspect that to really get the funding and support that global expansion will require, the researchers will have to go one step further. Increasing produce consumption is fine. It is of great concern to the produce industry and of some concern to the public health authorities. But for most of the world increasing produce consumption is not an end to itself, it is a means to a willed end: A more healthy population.

One can become a vegetarian and live life on a pizza and French Fries centric diet. And, in any case, our knowledge of what the actual health effects of various diets actually are is, to say the least, imperfect. So the real challenge is not to prove just that Food Dudes or any such programs boosts produce consumption, but to prove it boosts public health. Are Irish kids healthier than they were before Food Dudes rolled out, are comparisons with other places in Ireland’s favor since it bought into Food Dudes. These are tough standards.

Perhaps, though, the most inspiring part of the Food Dudes story is Professor Fergus Lowe himself. For he has persevered in the face of skepticism and doubt, he has preserved when others thought they knew the way. He has made great personal sacrifices to devote time and resources to this project. This dedication has allowed the program to evolve and that is often the key to success.

Come see how perseverance has paid off for Professor Lowe and how successful you can be as you absorb all you can at The London Produce Show and Conference.

The show website is here.

Registration is here.

Remember there is also a great program for spouses and companions you can learn about here.

Rachel Yankey:
England’s Most Decorated Footballer To Address London Show
(That’s Soccer To The American Contingent!)

When this American boy came to Britain, he told them we always had a sports star at the New York produce show and conference. This past year, we pointed out it was Walt Frazier. A fact that resulted in blank stares as none of the UK staff, though mostly sports mad, had ever heard of him.

So we decided that between football (our soccer), rugby and cricket, we knew almost nothing and, as such we would leave this particular decision 100% to the British team. We were a little limited as many of the top athletes are in preparation for the upcoming World Cup. However our London Produce show staff team, definitely picked a winner:

On the main seminar stage at 1 p.m. on Thursday, June 5, England’s most capped football (soccer) star, Rachel Yankey, will be interviewed by Tommy Leighton about her glittering career to date, her thoughts on the upcoming World Cup in Brazil and the role she now plays in introducing youngsters to a healthy diet.

Yankey has had an incredible football career, which began at eight-years-old when she masqueraded as a boy to get a game. She has represented her country — England — on more occasions than anyone, male or female.

Yankey made her England debut in 1997. She has played in two World Cups (2007 and 2011), three European Championships (2001, 2005 and 2013) and played for Great Britain at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

She became England’s first full-time professional woman footballer with Fulham Ladies in 2000 and has won countless honours with Fulham, Arsenal Ladies and other teams at home and in North America.

She is known for more than just her playing ability, however — having first received her MBE in 2005, the Arsenal Ladies star was named in the New Year’s honours list in December 2013, for her tireless work in promoting the women’s game at youth level. She picked up her OBE earlier this year.

Having now appeared on 129 occasions for England, Yankey admits to feeling a “sense of responsibility” for the younger generation following her into the game.

Inspiring the next generation has been a priority for some time. She runs the Rachel Yankey Football Programme, which introduces schoolchildren to the importance of diet and teamwork as well as teaches them the game.

"Projects like this are what I want to stay heavily involved in — the coaching side and educating youngsters," Yankey says. “It’s important for any youngster to look up to someone who has been there and done it, that you can Google, that you can watch on TV. It’s special. I’m very grateful for what football has given me. There are a lot of young, talented players,and I need to make sure that I show them my experience and help them come through.”

So come to The London Produce Show and Conference and meet Rachel Yankey and see how her journey of success can inspire you.

If you would like some additional information, here is a small brochure we prepared.

Or you can check out the website here.

You can register for the London Produce Show and Conference right here.

Finally, though the exhibition hall is sold out, we still have some wonderful opportunities for sponsors to step in and become Charter Sponsors. If you would like to receive more information on how your organization can be part of this great new industry institution, please let us know here.

Nyenrode Business University’s Henry Robben Speaks Out:
How To Win A Sustainable Business Advantage

Many of the things we are doing in the UK at The London Produce Show and Conference are adaptations of successful approaches we pioneered in New York. One of the unique components of The New York Produce Show and Conference is our University Interchange Program. In this program we reach out to the great universities and bring in professors to share with the trade the cutting edge research they are doing and students to expose them to the industry and excite them about becoming the next generation of talent to work in the field. The students always find the events fascinating and their attendance productive. The professors typically provide great value. In New York we have seen academic presentations such as these:

Dr. Roberta Cook Will Talk About Increasing Produce Consumption At Global Symposium

New York Delegates To Receive An Education In Ethnobotany From Eminent Italian Professor

A Cornell Study On New York Wines Raises A Fresh Question: What Do We Mean When We Ask About Local?

What Makes Consumers Willing To Pay More? University Of Delaware’s Kent Messer To Unveil A Unique Synthesis Of Multiple Studies At The New York Produce Show And Conference

Global Trade Symposium Keynote Speaker, Professor Tom Reardon, Will Discuss The Rapid Transformation, And Increasing Opportunities, Of Produce Markets In Emerging Countries

Immigration, One Of The Hottest Post-Election Issues, Will Be Brought To The Floor Of The New York Produce Show And Conference

Meet The Gastronomes — And Learn About Their Mission To Increase Produce Consumption — At The New York Produce Show And Conference

Food “To Die For” May Do Just That… Seminal Study Encouraging The Eating Of Bitter Vegetables For Health To Be Unveiled At New York Produce Show And Conference

Perceptions And Misperceptions: Consumer Attitudes On Organic And Local — University Of Connecticut Study To Be Unveiled At New York Produce Show and Conference

Cornell Professor Miguel Gómez To Speak At New York Produce Show And Conference On Fruit & Vegetable Dispute Resolution Corporation

Riding The Roller Coaster: Roberta Cook Of UC Davis Explains How Economic Fluctuations Create Marketing Opportunities

Vitamin D Enhancement In Mushrooms: Can This Be A Portal For The Produce Department Into Functional Foods? Professor Neal Hooker Of St. Joseph’s University Unveils The Latest Research At New York Produce Show And Conference

Foodservice At The New York Produce Show And Conference: Amy Myrdal Miller Of The Culinary Institute Of America To Engage The Industry Toward MyPlate Solutions That Will Increase Sales, Consumption And Public Health

ETHNIC AMERICA: Opportunities For Growers, Wholesalers And Retailers In Ethnic Produce Items... Rutgers University's Dr. Ramu Govindasamy Unveils New Research

What's In A Name? Professor Brad Rickard Of Cornell Produces New Research That Indicates Shakespeare May Have Been In Error... On Apples At Least

Cornell Professors To Present At The New York Produce Show And Conference: New Ways Of Thinking About Local: Can The East Coast Develop A Broccoli Industry?

Pundit Mailbag — Professor John Stanton’s Presentation At New York Produce Show And Conference ‘Worth The Registration Fee Alone’

Professors From Cornell And Arizona State Universities To Unveil Generic Produce Promotion Research Results At New York Produce Show And Conference

Research To Be Unveiled At The New York Produce Show And Conference Shows ‘Local’ Preference Versus Organic

Rutger’s Professor Ramu Govindasamy To Speak Out At The New York Produce Show And Conference… Research On Asian And Hispanic Produce Marketing On The East Coast Identifies A Profitable Opportunity

A New Hypothesis On Local: To Boost Sales, Sell It Through Supermarkets… Cornell’s Miguel Gomez Previews His Upcoming Talk At The New York Produce Show And Conference

We have extended the concept and invited Cornell University, one of the schools we work with in New York, to contribute to The London Produce Show and Conference. We profiled that presentation in a piece we titled:

At The London Produce Show And Conference: ‘Room at the Top? — What U.K. Retailers Can Learn From U.S. Natural/Gourmet Retailing’ Cornell University’s Rod Hawkes Points Out That ‘Upscale’ Has Changed And That The American Experience Points To The Possibility Of Big Changes Ahead For UK Retailing

We also reached out to a Dutch university where Cornell’s eminent Professor Ed McLaughlin holds an adjunct appointment. We are hosting eight students from this university and we asked Pundit European Correspondent Gill McShane to find out more about the Professor’s talk:

Henry RobbenHenry Robben
Professor of Marketing
Nyenrode Business University
Breukelen, The Netherlands

Q: Can you provide a sneak preview of your talk at the London Produce Show and Conference? What key marketing insights will you be highlighting in particular?

A: My specialization is marketing strategy, and I investigate how companies can compete and remain sustainable in changing markets by creating competitive advantages, or, in other words, reasons for customers to buy and to stay. In what appears to be an increasingly competitive environment, with thin margins and rising customer demands, I will present a general picture of how companies will not survive in the market unless they have competitive advantages that make them more relevant for customers. In some industries the economies of scale are important but I would like to emphasize the duty of companies to first create effectiveness and then search for efficiencies, and not the other way around. Given that fresh produce is a very important category for most households (and mostly isn’t branded) the question becomes how can we achieve a competitive advantage through mainly non-branded products like fresh produce in what is a highly branded retail environment?

Q: Can you describe what you term as competitive advantages and explain how fresh produce companies and retailers can achieve them?

A: In Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) and retail, we need to create competitive advantages in terms of image, offering, customer process, and sometimes price. It is only when these competitive advantages truly act as compelling reasons for customers to buy that we can think about sustainability. If you look at Lidl, the German discount chain, they have won an award in the Netherlands four times in a row (2010-2013) for having the best produce in a supermarket chain. Given that they are a hard discounter this raises a few questions. We have a hard discounter that is winning market share with non-branded produce. You could say that the retailer’s own brand rubs off on that produce and it’s also the additional services and products that they sell that attract the customers.

Q: So, you believe that reputation and image play a key role in developing a competitive advantage?

A: Yes, my research shows the biggest differentiator between companies that are winning and losing is their image. We have found that to be true across several industries: B2B, B2C, services, products and so on. Of course, image is something that doesn’t happen overnight; you work towards it over many, many years. Image is also customer-specific, it’s not product-specific and it may not be company-specific, which makes it difficult to make a very clear-cut suggestion to companies because it’s their customers that experience a certain image. It’s customers who say: ‘I like this company because…’.

What every company should do is think about how they are being perceived at a particular moment, and ask themselves what are the particular components of their image that their customers like. Find out what your image should be in order to retain your customers. In my research you don’t see any significant statistical differences in terms of the offering as most supermarkets and companies have an OK offering. They don’t distinguish themselves in terms of how they treat the customer either because in western Europe we do know what customers like and we know how to treat them. So maybe it’s the image that needs working on.

Q: In what ways could a company improve its image?

A: You can improve your image but it takes time. I think for a retailer it’s very important to have an image that demonstrates that they are reliable and sustainable. Most people care about their food whatever their budget because they still want to feed their families healthy and sustainable meals. To facilitate that a retailer might need to change its assortment. For instance you only see cucumbers in store that are very straight because as produce is such an important category retailers like to present it in the best way possible. Yet cucumbers that are curved taste just as good. So retailers might offer those too as a value option or you could even sell these curved cucumbers at a higher price because they are special.

Q: How can the additional services and products offered by a company or retailer help that organization to gain a competitive advantage?

A: Albert Heijn, in the Netherlands at least, has its own label called ‘Excellent’. Under this brand the retailer offers fresh food (a salad or pre-processed pie) with an awful lot of margin but in general it’s made up of vegetables or fruit. But the products are assembled into a very nice package that looks very appealing and because of that the retailer can command a very high price. So it’s not the produce per se that is attracting the customers. You might have a nice, ripe apple but there is a lot more that you could and should do to obtain its competitive advantage.

Q: In effect, you’re saying that it’s possible for a company or retailer to use other products to boost their fresh produce sales?

A: That’s right. Simply marketing the produce itself isn’t good enough unless it has outstanding quality or you have a very surprising assortment. But coupling produce with other products is very enticing. For example, asparagus is big in the Netherlands and to cook it you can use a certain kettle which not everyone owns. Of course you can still cook asparagus without this particular kettle but it’s much more fun to use it. So, if you have the asparagus and can sell the the pots and pans that go with it that’s great, and perhaps there are some other vegetables that could be cooked in the kettle that you could also sell that would lead to further sales.

Q: Data shows that fresh fruit and vegetable consumption in Europe is in decline, while other (often cheaper) sectors that also claim to be healthy, such as yogurts, are doing well. In view of your comments about product coupling, could the fresh produce sector position itself better by working together with other sectors to market a combined offer?

A: I think it all boils down to what you want to be for each customer. The customer’s need for good food will always be there. The way we choose our food and which combinations may be subject to fashion. If people like yogurt so much, why not jazz it up with a little fruit to make it even better. You could entice people to make their own perfect breakfast of yogurt with fruit and leave it up to them to decide which fruits to use. It’s always good to look at what’s happening in terms of developments but you should also try to find out why customers are changing their behavior. If it’s because of price then of course you have a problem. If the customer thinks the largest part of the margins go to the retailer they will ask why doesn’t the retailer decrease its margins so the customer can have a better price. But if the retailer can show that most of the margins go to the producer then you would have an entirely different situation. Of course customer preferences always shift so companies and retailers should shift along with them.

Q: Do you think that a lack of ‘good marketing’ has played a part in European consumers not eating more fresh fruits and vegetables?

A: It’s about good marketing, yes. A lot of marketing that we see doesn’t deserve to be called marketing – it’s more like a bad way of selling. Marketing should always consider the needs of all stakeholders combined and not just those of one party. I think that suppliers and retailers should find out what is it that their customers really prefer. If they prefer a good assortment then change your assortment. It’s all about businesses being effective rather than being efficient. Any supplier, whether they are B2B or B2C, has the duty to make their customer happier, more competitive and profitable. It’s their duty to create value for the customer and you can only create value if you do something that satisfies a need, whatever that need might be. So my advice would be to focus more on the needs of the customer because if you fulfil that then you create value. Then a very nice principle called reciprocation comes in to play: ‘if you’re good to me, I’ll be good to you’, which is a natural tendency in human beings.

Q: Apart from using image and product coupling, are there any other ways that fresh produce suppliers can develop a competitive advantage?

A: Obviously recipes and usage instructions are attractive but that’s really a no-brainer as everyone is doing it. You could also look at changing your assortment according to seasonality, which is a big deal in some markets where people prefer to buy produce that’s in season. I know that many people in the Netherlands for instance like tangerines but for them tangerines are a summer product so you could just sell the fruit in summer. But, of course, there will be some who argue that tangerines can be supplied and eaten all year round. Local sourcing is another way. I know a local grower in the Netherlands that delivers its produce to customers at home and they only supply those fruits and vegetables that are in season. So they must be taking some market share from the supermarkets. The top restaurants in the Netherlands also get their produce from local growers and they simply use what’s available at the time.

Q: Do you think local sourcing could really lead to major sales growth in a market like the UK where consumers have become so used to having all of their produce items in stock all year round with consistently good quality and the option to buy a whole range of fruits and vegetables which the UK simply cannot grow under its climate?

A: For those that want to eat produce all year-round which are not grown in the UK, assortment comes into play. Produce is such an important category for households – you have to have it. Lidl has shown that if you offer a good assortment then you can win market share. I think that because no one expects a hard discounter to have such a good assortment of produce and such good quality that consumers are pleasantly surprised and shop there more often. It makes it more enticing. You could also differentiate your assortment by selling local produce at a regular or lower price and the more exotic produce at a higher price. But then you may put off those shoppers that want to do all of their shopping in one store.

Q: The rapid success of the discount retailers in the UK has led to the big four supermarkets responding to that competition with a raft of price cuts across their product ranges. Do you consider lower prices to be a competitive advantage?

A: What we see through research is that companies who focus on price are more often than not the losers in that industry. I think that if you start to compete on price it’s either because you’ve nothing to offer, or rather nothing that distinguishes you from your competitors so a lower price is your only instrument. Or, you want to engage in a price war which will not benefit anyone except the winning company. Supermarkets might say they’re not engaging in a price war – they’re just matching their prices in certain categories with their competitors. But customers think differently; they are happy to buy some products at one supermarket and others elsewhere. So you might distribute traffic to supermarkets differently and, if you don’t pay attention, in an unwanted direction.

Q: What would be a better solution than cutting prices?

A: I think it would be far better to offer an assortment that suits your customer segment so they are attracted by a better offer rather than a lower price. There are instances where consumers don’t mind paying a higher price because they have friends over for dinner or it’s someone’s birthday. Then there will be occasions when they don’t want to pay a higher price at all because they don’t see the difference between the products that they can buy at Aldi and Albert Heijn for example, especially if these supermarkets are located quite closely to each other because then it might be worth doing two trips instead of one.

Q: Clearly there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy to developing your competitive advantage, so how can companies work out what is the best marketing approach for them? Does it come down to working out the specific needs of your own customers and tailoring your offer accordingly?

A: As a marketer I’m fighting against the idea of there being one solution. I know that quite a few industries would like to have a very efficient solution that they can use at any time, in any place and anywhere. As a marketer I don’t think you should look for such a solution at all. I strongly believe that there are many segments in a market. I don’t believe that there is a homogenous market, so there will always be segments of customers who would prefer one assortment over another assortment. What you need is a solution suited to your environment and your customer, and preferably one that can’t be copied quickly. In other words, look for an effective solution and not so much an efficient solution.

Q: What would be an example of an effective solution for the fresh produce business?

A: I think rearranging your supermarket produce department or your produce offer to reflect the segmentation of your market would help. For example, I recently saw a very nice presentation in Belgium by a manufacturer of furnaces called Atag. They said there are three types of cooks: the every-day or efficient cook who cooks to eat; the social cook who cooks because they like to entertain family and friends; and the would-be professional chef. All three types of these cooks may show up at your store yet they are all looking for different products. So one idea might be to offer such an environment that reflects these three different segments.

Q: How would you suggest that a retailer presents its produce offer to reflect those three different market segments?

A: Of course you couldn’t segregate your supermarket for the different cooks because there is some crossover. For instance, I am a social cook but I’m also an everyday cook because I need to feed my children. So a good idea would be to offer several varieties of produce. You might also have different packaging options and presentations with different weights for the various customers’ needs. But for the hard discounters the best solution would be to focus on one or two of these segments and not on all of them. The power of many great marketing companies is their focus. They don’t want to be everything to everyone.

Q: If it really comes down to fully understanding who’s buying your products, how can companies and retailers learn more about their consumers?

A: The easiest way for retailers to find out about their shoppers is through simple observation. Go to your store and see what is happening. Another way is through analyzing data. Don’t assume, just analyze the data and see what it means. Loyalty programs would create a lot of data. You could also get data from watching how consumers behave in their own homes. There is a market research agency called Insites which has a different approach to gathering data. They use online qualitative research whereby they establish a forum on the internet and invite everyday customers to talk about their experience with certain products.

Most retailers are already sitting on enormous piles of data, so it comes down to how can they put it to good use. Albert Heijn in the Netherlands is doing a nice job online of trying to get people to buy more because once you’re browsing through the assortments online they provide hints about what else you could buy from them. But what about in store? They could seduce you to buy more in their stores but it would need to be based on whether you have the time to browse, the time to listen to advice and the time to make choices. Sampling is always a good idea too because it’s a very powerful way of letting consumers experience new products while finding out their immediate reaction.

Q: How easy do you think it is for retailers to truly understand who their customers are?

A: I think it’s fairly easy if you ask the right questions. If you insist on benchmarking your operations with other organizations or operations then you’re forgetting the customer. As a marketer I’d say if you can focus on certain segments or the certain needs of those segments it would be far better than simply looking at how can you organize things more efficiently. Asking the right questions about your customer is key but you have to give them chance to think about what they need. Observing them in their natural habitat – in the kitchen or wherever they eat their meals – is best. Then you would see that consumers also value other things that have to do with food such as having happy family members and healthy kids, or feeling that they’re contributing to society and not wasting energy or products and so on and so forth.

Q: So, retailers really need to put the consumer first and invest more in understanding their specific needs and the driving forces behind their purchasing decisions?

A: Yes, if you look at big companies like Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Gillette they practically live with consumers. They ask them to prepare a meal, to fry an egg or prepare a cup of coffee. Every day Gillette observes how hundreds of men shave in front of their mirrors. If retailers cooperated with manufacturers or other parties they would get this data. Also there’s no law against retailers doing this research themselves or they could engage with independent consultants or research institutes to do it for them. Instead of having an big annual conference retailers could spend that money on really good research to find out what it is that drives consumers.

Q: Do you think that over the years retailers have forgotten about the consumer and instead become caught up in competing with each other and offering consumers what they think they want?

A: Well, the goals of a retailer are completely different to the goals of their consumers. So there might be a disconnect in terms of focusing on what their competitors are doing rather than what their regular consumer would like. If you focus on your competitor you are more or less bound to end up benchmarking and ending up providing a similar assortment. The customer sees that and then doesn’t want to pay more for an assortment of similar value. So retailers must make sure that they differentiate themselves in a way that’s relevant for their customers.

Q: How do you think companies and retailers can truly differentiate themselves when they’re selling mostly the same items, particularly when it comes to fresh produce?

A: That’s where part of the problem arises because supermarkets for example are all similar. They attract similar customers and those customers are looking for similar things so they expect to pay similar prices. But because they want to be everything for everyone they are no different. There might be some cosmetic differences like a different slogan, logo or gimmick but it’s not a form of strong marketing. Strong marketing is being different and relevant in the eyes of the customer but it takes guts to do this.

I think in most cases it simply boils down to assortment and presentation. If every retailer sells the same apples, which they typically do, then why should a consumer go to one supermarket in particular. But if one retailer can pride themselves on having the freshest apples then that would be a nice reason for the customer to shop there.

I think retailing by itself is perfectly positioned to carry out proper behavioral research; to find out how people buy, what they buy and why they buy. It’s more about systematically collecting the right information through which you can make the right decisions. I think retail is perfectly suited to do just that because they have a large number of people visiting their stores and they carry out many transactions. It would be pretty easy to conduct some experiments that really show what differences could be made with product presentation and assortment, etc.

Q: What do you think is the industry’s greatest challenge?

A: The most important thing is to focus. Don’t expect that you can sell everything to everyone. Don’t expect that you can be the number one in each category. I think companies and retailers should focus on those customers that for them are the right customers. If you try to cater for everyone you will have a problem. I firmly believe that the only way to become sustainable and to be sustainable is to focus on what it is that the customer needs and to make sure that you differentiate yourself and that you’re relevant in the eyes of the customer.

Q: And finally, what overarching message would you like the delegates at the London Produce Show and Conference to take away from your presentation?

A: I’d love to make everyone realize that if they want to win in their market they need to be different and relevant in the eyes of their customer, and that means making choices. You need to focus with the utmost discipline because it’s very easy to lose focus when your competitors are playing with prices or launching nice gimmicks as part of their marketing campaigns. You really need to have some backbone to continue focusing on what you do and not give in.

We find this thesis interesting but hope the good professor will push it to the limits of his logic in his live presentation. There is little argument that businesses should be customer focused and that one can go astray focusing on competitors rather than the customer.

It also seems unobjectionable to say that if an entrepreneur is looking to start a new business, say a new retailer, they would be better off focusing on a specific niche rather than trying to appeal to everyone. Indeed during Tesco’s journey to America as Fresh & Easy we often urged Tesco to split the stores into two concepts. Make some a deep discount Aldi clone, while others became a kind of epicurean Trader Joe’s clone.

But what, specifically, is the suggestion this piece is making to a Tesco? In what ways are Tesco shoppers so different from those who shop at Sainsbury’s that a change in assortment or merchandising is likely to provide a big competitive edge?

When Professor Henry Robben writes that … “if you start to compete on price it’s either because you’ve nothing to offer, or rather nothing that distinguishes you from your competitors  he is doubtless correct.

Most companies would rather have a superior offering and offer superior value through that offering than have to compete on price. But almost inherently we are talking niche markets, such as a retailer who focuses on a particular ethnic group or consumers who want the healthiest food, etc. So, perhaps, one could argue that the direction retailers should go is to consumers themselves. Create divisions that specialize in different kinds of people.

There is a lot to this, but, less than it seems. Ethnic groups have special needs but many of their needs are the same as everyone else’s needs.

In produce perhaps the way to proceed is with proprietary items. Unique genetic variations that offer consumers compelling options. Because these items are typically limited in quantity that is allowed to be planted, not every retailer can sell the same thing.

Driscoll’s is big in this, and Sun World has an initiative to gather its licensee growers from around the world to showcase how a retailer can decide to differentiate itself and gain consumer preference by featuring unique and proprietary Sun World varieties year round.

So we hope the trade will join us to listen to Professor Robben’s presentation and then go out on the trade show floor and see how unique proprietary produce can help a retailer gain a competitive edge.

You can learn more about the event on our website.

You can register for the event right here.

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