Some call it luck — though we’ve found it is almost always related to talent — to have built a resume with a Who’s Who of top names. Jelger de Vriend has, among other places, worked at Chiquita, Ahold, Total Produce and his own consultancy.
When we first headed out to the Netherlands to start talking to people in the produce trade, Jelger’s name came up over and over. It seemed to us he was among the most well-connected people in produce. So, we were thrilled when we had the opportunity to have him present here at The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference.
A deep background often enables one to see opportunities that others will miss, and Jelger seems to have found a unique way of helping retailers present a higher quality fresh offering. Producers and marketers, who often talk a great deal about increasing consumption, rarely do very much to enhance the consumer experience. In fact, how much does anyone – retailers, producers, industry associations, etc. — actually know about the consumer experience of freshness at retail ? Not much, which means they can’t act to make things better.
We asked Samina Virani, Contributing Editor at Pundit sister publication ProduceBusinessUK.com, to get a sneak preview about what Jelger de Vriend is actually doing:
Jelger de Vriend
Heemskerk, The Netherlands
Q: How did you get into the produce business?
A: That’s a long-time story. I’m an agronomist. I studied agriculture and that landed me my first job, which was at Chiquita. I worked in the quality research group of Chiquita, in Costa Rica. They had a tropical research group focusing on improving the quality of bananas.
In total, I lived for 3 years in Costa Rica, and then I moved to Holland, where I became a sourcing manager for fruits and vegetables. I did that for about 7 years.
Ten years ago Maud Jentjens and I founded Innovative Fresh. As consumers we were often frustrated with the quality of fresh produce in supermarkets. Consumer research was not taking place and retail and the fresh produce industry was traditional and very supply driven. We started to monitor the quality of fresh produce on the retail shelf; through the eyes of the consumer.
Q: What is your main passion in this industry? You’ve been in it quite a while and now co-founded Innovative Fresh.
A: It’s a combination of fresh produce and consumers. Really improving the fresh experience for consumers in supermarkets.
Q: As a consumer myself, I’m quite interested in what fresh means, and what does “best in fresh” mean?
A: It seems that every supermarket chain has decided that the fresh category, and fresh produce is their key strategic focus. It makes a lot of sense. It’s where the supermarkets can really distinguish themselves. It is where they can offer really attractive products. A lot of attention is going into that. We experienced that as a company.
Q: When you talk about “fresh,” are there any standards or markers that you use to define that?
A: Yes, a lot of it is related to taste. Shelf-life, also, but if you really want to satisfy consumers, then it’s very much about taste. A lot of what we do as a company is focused on monitoring taste performance of fresh produce.
Q: How would you define what tastes fresh?
A: What we do is that we know what really great taste is for fresh produce. We also know the reality in the market is that it is not meeting those consumer expectations for many reasons. The main reason is that fresh produce is a complex industry with lots of different origins, different varieties, different supply chains, and intermediary players. Also, on the retail shelf, in order to do a really good job, you just have to be on top of your game.
When you are an average consumer and you go into the supermarket, there are still lots of things that can be further improved. That’s what we help retailers and suppliers with: identifying those opportunities, and giving them the insights that will help them to make those improvements.
Q: How broad is your client base now?
A: We are working with major retailers in 7 countries: Holland, Belgium, Germany, UK, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The majority of what we do is for supermarkets.
Q: Do you have an example or a case study of something you did that transformed the “best in fresh” strategy?
A: If you take for example, ready-to-eat avocados. It’s one of the most complained-about items by consumers. Quite understandably.If you buy avocados on a Friday or Saturday because you planned to make a guacamole on Saturday evening, and you are paying 3 euros for 2 ready-to-eat avocados, then, after the shops are closed, you’re in the kitchen preparing the guacamole and realize that the avocados are either over-ripe or have internal defects, then you are really very disappointed. People really go back to the local supermarket to complain about that kind of stuff; about the 3 euros they paid for the avocados, and that they were not perfect.
Most of the supermarkets I know have avocado complaints as one of their Top 10. What we do is monitor the performance and the ready-to-eat quality of the avocados. We help the retailers better understand what they can do for the consumers. As a result, there are happier consumers, more repetitive sales, which grows the avocado category.
Q: How do you monitor the performance?
A: We have two laboratories, and we analyze what the ready-to-eat quality really is: the firmness, the flavor, etc. Are there internal defects? Then we report that back. So, the retailer knows exactly that last week whether their avocados were perfect and whether they really were ready to eat. Or there were some defects, some issues, that they were not good enough, and then they will use our work to make those improvements.
Q: Let’s talk about the presentation you are doing for the Amsterdam Produce Show this week:
A: I’m going to explain that the focus right now in retail particularly seems to be fresh. All the fresh categories in general. Lots of retailers have projects going on where they are putting the focus strategically on fresh.
The beauty is that the produce industry seems to be at the center of the fresh universe. So, a lot of what happens in retail now is in the fresh produce area. That’s understandable because a lot of the dynamics around retail, for instance in restaurants, has also been in the fresh area, and there is a lot of blurring going on now between restaurants and retail.
A lot of concepts are flowing or migrating into retail that have originally been developed in the restaurant world. That makes it a really interesting time. Things like juice bars, sushi bars, pizza, together with the developments in convenience assortments. There is a lot of focus, interest and dynamics in that fresh area, particularly in fresh produce.
Having said that, it also means we have a role to play as an industry because when we look at performance of fresh produce, we still think there is a lot to be improved. One of the most interesting things where I think historically the fresh produce industry has been lacking is measuring performance. We don’t have a history of measuring the performance of fresh produce. It’s more relationship-focused and history-focused than trying to measure and monitor it.
If our clients really want to be best in fresh, and if that means the produce industry wants to have a role in that, then we have some steps to make as well.
Q: Do you see an opportunity there to transform this idea into a broader market?
Q: Do you have any expectations for the upcoming show?
A: I’m looking forward to it; that’s for sure.
Q: Is there any message you would like people to know?
A: Yes, I wanted to say that there are quite a few influences that are coming from the restaurant world. One point I will make on Thursday is that the restaurant world has been focused on attracting consumers or guests for a very long time. The Michelin Guide introduced the Michelin Stars in 1926.
Really what Michelin focused on was identifying restaurants that were worth the special journey. Those were the ones that were worth 3 stars in his method. Over time, what you’ve seen is that from a retail standpoint, we are getting very close to something similar.
I think the future of retail is going to be to deliver an exceptional fresh experience worth a special journey. That is the point I will make on Thursday. We have an opportunity both as retailers and as produce people to deliver an exceptional fresh experience for consumers. The better we are at doing that, the more successful we will be attracting those consumers into supermarkets and driving consumption sales.
Just to be complete; the 3 main points I am going to make on Thursday will be:
-Treat “Customers” as “Guests”: make quality important
-Measure quality performance! Through the Eyes of the Guest
-And remember Michel (1926): “An exceptional Fresh Experience is worth a special journey”
There is always somebody who likes to trumpet how much Coca-Cola or some other packaged food company spends on marketing and then bemoans the sorry state of the produce industry wrangling up just paltry dollars for promotion and marketing. It is all true enough, but not the whole story.
Produce is variable in a way Coca-Cola would never accept. And this impacts the effectiveness of marketing. As long as every time someone opens a can of Coke, the experience is the same.
Produce marketing can help build demand, but if the product is sometimes mealy, often not sweet, sometime not crisp, then marketing and promotion may only draw customers to trial who will then be convinced they don’t like the product or that buying it is too much of a risk.
So, we applaud Jelger for making an actual effort to make retailers aware of what they are selling. In doing this, such knowledge can begin the process of improvement – retailers looking at their own display and storage systems, turning to ripeners, repackers, producers, packers, importers, exporters and more to find better way.
Come and find out what Fresh really means and how the industry can build demand by delivering a better fresh experience.
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We look forward to working together to advance the industry and to #CelebratingFresh at The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference.