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Capespan International's Hazel Akehurst Talks About UK Retailing At The Global Trade Symposium

Each year we invite a special delegate from outside the US to participate in The New York Produce Show and Conference. In 2010 it was Johan van Deventer from the Freshmark subsidiary of the Shoprite Group in South Africa. You can see the piece we wrote about his visit here

In 2011 we had Peter Pokorney from Australia. Last year, our special guest was Zeina Orfala from Marks & Spencer in the United Kingdom, and we wrote about her visit here.  For 2013, our distinguished delegate is Hazel Akehurst. We won’t spoil the surprise but Hazel, who now serves as Head of Sales and Marketing at Capespan International Ltd, has worked at the confluence of some of the most important and influential projects in and relating to the United Kingdom. Projects that deal with local, with sustainability, with ethics and standard setting; projects that have focused on the idea that selling fruit is not enough, that consumers are buying a package of things when they purchase produce and they want to buy sustainability, ethical sourcing and more with each strawberry.

Hazel will be on our main panel  on Wednesday morning and will be addressing our student program. She will also be giving a presentation to the Global Trade Symposium, so we asked Tommy Leighton, a distinguished British journalist in the produce industry and the man spearheading the launch of New York’s sister event, The London Produce Show and Conference to find out more:

Hazel Alehurst
Head of Sales and Marketing
Capespan International

Hazel Akehurst will address the New York audience during a Thought Leadership session. Her talk is entitled “how UK retailers have transformed the way they sell produce and set a new standard for global procurement” and she will give a fascinating insight into the changing face of retailing across the Pond.

Hazel began working in the fresh produce industry seven years ago, as a market analyst for Fresca, the UK’s largest privately owned Fresh Produce company. Using till rolls, Kantar and AC Nielsen data, she steered premium retailers M&S and Sainsbury’s on their sales and marketing strategy.

Since then, the increasingly sophisticated insight gleaned from supermarket loyalty cards has had a huge impact on the way the retail industry markets fresh produce to its customers, which in turn has altered their procurement agenda. Hazel’s first-hand experience of this was at Thanet Earth – a pioneering greenhouse development built in 2009, growing hot house veg that can claim the lowest carbon footprint in the industry. From here Hazel moved on to work for Red Tractor – the UK’s leading quality standard across all fresh food, which has provided British farmers with a brand to promote all that is good and ethical about their products to consumers. That brand has been so successful it is now found on £12 billion of British fresh food a year. Now with Capespan, Hazel is UK head of sales and marketing, and as well as working closely with every British supermarket chain, she collaborates with Capespan’s network of growers around the world to ensure that they fulfil and deliver on the changing demands of their customers.

Tommy Leighton caught up with Hazel to get a preview of what she’ll be talking about.

Q: UK supermarkets have always been held in high regard around the world. So how have they changed in recent years and why do you feel they are setting new standards?

A: In the last decade, retailers in the UK have got a heap more in tune with their customers. They understand what they want, when they want it and where they want to buy it, and have formed a far more targeted approach to fulfilling these needs.

This change has been brought about by the rise of loyalty card data. In the earlier years of loyalty cards, the information wasn’t being used fully. Dunnhumby came along and changed the scenery. It began to delve deeper than ever before into shopping habits and purchasing patterns and every chain stepped up their own efforts to understand their own customers.

Q: What have they found out?

A: Price is definitely still king for the customer and the supermarkets have all addressed that in different ways. Asda have their 10% price guarantee, Sainsbury’s launched the Price Match, which refunds the difference on brands between their prices and those of their competitors, and Tesco went a step further, by including own label in a similar scheme it branded Tesco Price Promise.

But they’re also using their loyalty cards to target lapsed customers with price discounts to bring them back into the category. If someone hasn’t bought Tesco Finest Piccolo tomatoes for three months, they know that now, and will give them incentives to add that product to their basket again.

But they also know that consumers are interested in much more than the products themselves – they want to know the story behind the product – its provenance, who grew it and where and whether it is grown responsibly and ethically. They also need to know it’s safe to eat and traceable. One of the other big changes is that UK supermarkets, working with their suppliers, have become far better at communicating these things.

Q: These are just some of the ways the supermarkets have used their new-found wealth of consumer data. How has the way they’ve responded affected the marketplace?

A: They have created a huge pull in the marketplace and innovative growers have stepped in to fill that demand.

I’ll be using the three places I’ve worked as examples in New York, as they have all in their own way adapted their offer to match the market demand.

Thanet Earth is a great example of growers responding to the changing market. They recognised the growing demand for British salads and invested £100 million in the UK’s largest greenhouse in Kent. It has an impeccable sustainability record and fulfils consumer demand for home-grown, sustainable tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

Thanet Earth is truly inspiring – it harnesses technology to make the most of nature’s assets, using high performance glass to take advantage of superb light levels in Kent, collecting rainwater and recycling water leftover from the previous days watering as well as the condensation on the inside of the panes. From the customer point of view, Thanet Earth has also fully committed to communicating its story, through all forms of media, but prominently through Facebook and Twitter, working alongside its customers.

At Capespan, a leading international fruit company, we are growers ourselves, but also have very strong grower partnerships dating back 87 years. We own 16 farms growing citrus, top fruit and table grapes in Southern Africa and while UK customers want to know that the fruit is grown sustainably, they also want to know about ethics, specifically how people who work on our farms, and the communities they live in, are being treated.

Namibian Grape Company, Capespan’s Namibian farm is a great example of this. Our 778ha farm in Aussenkehr, the largest in Namibia, is helping to create employment in a country where unemployment runs at 51%. In fact, grape production in Aussenkehr accounts for 5% of Namibia’s GDP. There is a significant local community that depends on the grape farms and Capespan is investing heavily in social infrastructure. We have fully equipped pre-school facility in partnership with Maersk Shipping Line; donated a 4×4 ambulance to the Aussenkehr community; constructed an administrative office-wing, classroom and ablution facilities for the school too.

Our customers want to see this type of commitment and so do their customers. We are communicating that back to consumers on-pack, online and through features in magazines.

Q: How else is the UK retail market changing?

A: There have been huge changes in the way the supermarkets market fresh produce in recent years. But the real revolution is not how they are selling it, it’s how they are buying it. Increasingly, they are buying direct from grower-exporters. Asda has its International Produce procurement model, Global Pacific is in place at Morrisons and of course Tesco has also gone direct through Global Fruit Sourcing.

The traditional grower-exporter – category manager – retailer supply chain is not redundant, but is significantly changing. What we’ve done at Capespan within this changing supply chain model is to focus on working with our growers by providing “value at source”. This means we provide specific, targeted help and support to our growers at farm level, so they can fulfil their orders to supermarkets from as far as 7,000 or 8,000 miles away.

In Namibia for example, they are growing the first grapes of the South African season into a critical pre-Christmas window in the UK. But it’s difficult for a grower at that distance, with such a short season of 5-6 weeks, to fully understand the needs and demands of a supermarket customer. We help and support by parachuting in a specialised team who truly know the customer who train the teams in all areas of the business on post-harvest handling and pre-cooling, specific to each retailer needs, so they do not disappoint their customers.

Each supermarket will always want something slightly different. I even found that when I was at Red Tractor, where all retailers would use our standard as a foundation for their quality specifications then apply additional requirements over and above Red Tractor. Although there has been some narrowing across the market place, the priorities of a Marks & Spencer customer will always be distinct from that of an Asda customer.

The nuances in the demands are important for growers to recognise and our on-the-spot training aims to help them do that.

Q: We look forward to seeing you in New York.

A: I am really looking forward to being there too, and to meeting the growers there. I think these shows are invaluable to the industry, as an opportunity to get together and discuss the direction in which things are heading. Growers and suppliers into any sector can learn from the event, take that information away and position themselves to be even more relevant in the future.


Hazel’s whole career has been devoted to working with projects that  remind us that the produce trade of tomorrow will not be like the trade of yesterday, that consumers want more.

Find out what they want and who will give it to them by registering to hear Hazel at both The Global Trade Symposium and The New York Produce Show and Conference. You can register on site or sign up now and save the wait. Register here

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