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Marks And Spencer Buying Manager, Zeina Orfali, Brings New Perspective To The New York Produce Show And Conference

Adding value is the very essence of business, and one way The New York Produce Show and Conference attempts to add value is by bringing to the local produce community new ideas, varied experiences and new people. It is in the very DNA of the event where, in our very first year brought Dr. Johan van Deventer, Managing Director Freshmark, Subsidary of the Shoprite Group in South Africa, a visit we introduced with this piece.

How exciting it is, therefore, that one of the world’s most exceptional retailers will be represented on the program at this year’s edition of The New York Produce Show and Conference.

Zeina Orfali, Buying Manager — Fruit for Marks & Spencer, is renowned for her acumen, her knowledge and her fearless pride in what Marks & Spencer represents.

She has taken on a heavy load this year. Zeina agreed to speak on the supply chain panel at The Global Trade Symposium, sharing the stage with Sun World’s David Marguleas, whose talk we profiled here, and Dudu Ivri, CEO, Tali Grapes in Israel, who previewed his presentation here.

Zeina will present a broader piece on Marks & Spencer and British retailing both at the Global Trade Symposium and on the main show micro-session stage. She also agreed to have a conversation with our student group.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to get a sense of what Zeina might share during her journey to America:

Zeina Orfali
Buying Manager-Fruit
Marks and Spencer
London, UK

Q: We’re honored that you will be presenting at both The Global Trade Symposium and Main New York Produce Show as well as being a special guest on the Perishable Pundit “Thought Leaders” panel and a speaker before the student group.

Could you give us a preview of some of the key points you’ll be discussing at the Show? We look forward to hearing your insights regarding Marks & Spencer’s innovative operation as well as your perspective on British retailing.

A: My input into the debate is going to be more around retail-specific ways of thinking and from the customer point of view and why that’s important. M&S is viewed as one of the most innovative retailers, and that innovation runs completely through our lifeblood internally, particularly in the produce industry where we have exciting opportunity.

Q: Please elaborate. How does M&S avail itself of that opportunity?

A: Produce forms an important pillar. Innovation is frequently presenting itself, and we’re seeking it out as well. I’ll cover first to market products M&S has pioneered, looking at revisiting some of these launches, which from my view have been ground-breaking.

Q: Could you reveal some of the most notable?

A: M&S was the first to import avocados; this was enormous, quite a revelation. We were the first retailer to offer pre-made sandwiches, the first to put use-by dates on products, and the first to sell fresh chicken, a massively innovative concept at the time.

Our reverse-season British asparagus was also interesting. We worked with our grower for five years to develop the first commercial fall asparagus crop for consumers, which was a revolutionary development.

Q: Isn’t M&S often the British media darling on some of these introductions?

A: Our reverse season asparagus did get a lot of media play. [Editor’s note: you can read the extensive coverage in British newspapers here, here, here, here and here]. We launched some edible flowers last year, which made for a nice picture in the press with headlines like: “Flower Power” in the Daily Mail, and “Bring Flower Power to your Plate” in the Telegraph

For our nutritionally enriched Beneforte broccoli, we achieved coverage in 11 print publications, including the Financial Times, The Guardian, as well as several online articles.

Q: In the U.S., a collaborative effort between the USDA, industry and university researchers is underway to build a market for Vitamin D-enhanced mushrooms. Does Marks and Spencer put an emphasis on offering new varieties geared toward healthier eating?

A: Bringing that down to grapes, where this discussion is centered around for the panel at The Global Trade Symposium, M&S is looking for a variety of aspects: improving health attributes, the yields to have a positive impact on cost, and gaps in supply. The industry might be screaming about yields and taste, but the consumer may only see a standard grape and might not be willing to pay 10 Pounds more for that. We want special attributes to convey on pack; it may be another color or flavor.

Q: Do you generally negotiate exclusive deals when you bring these innovative varieties to your shelves?

A: It depends on the product and what we’re offering our customer. M&S will strive when possible to be the exclusive seller of that product. That is our ultimate goal. We’re not the biggest retailer, so it can be a challenge. But if not, we’ll be first to market.

We have built long-term relationships with the best possible range of suppliers to get product to market, and also with media outlets to get the word to consumers. We do tastings with the media, and they are very much on board. We get Christmas calls from the press, ‘What are you launching for the holidays?’ We hold that relationship dear.

Q: Are there advantages to being a smaller retailer? Often we hear that in the bigger chains, innovation can be bogged down by cumbersome bureaucracy, while more specialized retailers can be flexible to capitalize on unexpected opportunities…

A: When we have a product launch, we can do best for the growers, because we’re smaller. If they don’t get commercial volumes in year one, or two, or three, they can sell that full crop to us.

Because merchandising is a key aspect of what we do, we’re incredibly flexible. A grower comes to us; they only have four weeks’ supply and we’ll have it on the shelf in a week. We also are flexible to put out small lines to see how they perform.

Q: Do you have any examples?

A: I launched a baby iceberg last year that nobody else had, and it sold like hot cakes. A larger retailer in the UK couldn’t get their hands on it. It came to us and we jumped on it quickly to get it on the shelves.

We also have done something quite interesting. We have a brand set up specifically for produce, called Discovery Brand. It’s our latest discovery, and it almost has a blank label. That way the buyer can bring in something new, and the more generic label allows that flexibility.

The buying is not set in stone. It’s a label that’s the same for salad as on fruit. It helps us avoid adding additional cost on minimum print runs for product on shelves two or three weeks, but also highlights to consumers, ‘I’m brand new, try me.’

Q: That’s very clever…Could you tell us more about your brand strategy?

A: One of our brands is a project called Plan A, because there is no Plan B. It involves a 100-point plan that starts with the environment, and encompasses ethical working and trading in a good manner that is trustworthy.

Health is a key pillar in produce, which is intrinsically healthy, but long term we are striving to make product even healthier. This is easy to do in the prepared side, and we have lots of health brands underneath that. In produce, that involves altering the fundamental make up of the product.

Two years ago, we introduce the ACE pepper with high levels of Vitamins A, C, and E, hence the ACE pepper. We first marketed it three years ago and now the brand goes across produce and dairy, called the Active Health brand. It highlights additional health benefits, for example, Omega 3 milk or eggs. We have lunch-time take-away drinks with added vitamins. And we’ve done enrichment work on produce items, such as our selenium-enhanced tomato, which has antioxidant properties and helps support the immune and reproductive systems. There are many other claims but some are unproven.

Q: It’s interesting that you hesitated on making health claims. In the U.S., produce companies walk a fine line in this arena due to FDA and other government regulations. Do you find this to be the case in the UK as well?

A: Yes. We must be a bit mindful with what we can claim. We are striving to achieve these healthier products, but marketing them is a challenge around not misleading customers, saying it reduces cancer, for example. Yet we also want to promote attributes that have been proven to help those in ill health. We have to take guidance from our nutritionist and technical produce manager, who is very knowledgeable on guidelines.

When we launched Beneforte broccoli, the newspapers got hold of it and loved it, and their headlines proclaimed it was anti-cancer broccoli and it spiraled a bit. But it isn’t something we ever want to put on our pack. [You can read the articles here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.]

We’re also working on pesticide-free product. We recognize pesticides are not only not good for the environment, but they’re something we’d like to start moving away from. It’s the Plan A thing to do to reduce pesticide usage. How do you market pesticide-free? With tomatoes and pears that is much easier to achieve, but then on products like citrus, it is difficult with post-harvest treatments to significantly extend product life.

Q: Don’t you worry that you could create consumer confusion? For example, if your customers see a select number of pesticide-free products, will they fear the rest of the produce department?

A: This is a concern. If we label a product pesticide-free, do customers get confused? It’s a dangerous line. We have to be careful how we market some of these messages. It is difficult when I’m on the ground in my job working with growers on a commitment towards pesticide-free, but it will cost 10 percent more to do it, and how will you market to the customer. It’s a really hard challenge.

Q: We’d be remiss if we didn’t touch upon Marks and Spencer’s strict food safety standards…

A: M&S is recognized for the highest safety audit standards. We have our internal Field to Fork system, which encompasses all the audit standards. If a supplier can say M&S is one of its customers, it opens the door to a lot of other retailers. There is a general assumption the supplier must be able to comply with their standards from an audit and food safety point of view, because standards don’t get any higher than M&S.

The relationships with our grower base aren’t replicated anywhere else in the UK. We have growers working with us 50 years in produce. This is a really long period of time when working in a commodity products business. Companies will move around to get the best prices, but we try to form a longer term view in our relationships. From a commercial standpoint, one of our main goals is to develop innovative products.

We launched the Angello sweet and seedless pepper, which won the 2012 Fruit Logistica Innovation Award.

Q: That certainly was an exciting moment when the seedless pepper took top accolades. It is worth pointing out that once the expert judges narrow the field to a shortlist of 10 final nominees, the winner is voted by the thousands of visitors to Fruit Logistica, who have opportunities throughout the show to examine and taste the products and cast their ballots. Therefore, the first place recognition becomes even more significant from a consumer marketing standpoint…

A: That was a project we were working on for 10 years, scouring the world to find the right partner to work with to get this pepper to us. We had been in discussions with Syngenta and worked closely with our supplier and Syngenta to get it to market. This is a perfect example of how important it is to think in long term investments. Otherwise suppliers won’t be willing to give it their all.

We’re asking for the creme of the crop, which goes for all of our products, from a cucumber to our biggest juiciest cherries in the UK. We literally can highlight differences.

Q: How would you describe your customer base? Does your messaging target different segments?

A: We do have a customer range. For quite some time, our customers generally have been more affluent and older than the general population – these are people who are familiar with our enormous heritage. Our company had its 125th anniversary two years ago. We have a grand following.

Some of our product is seriously iconic. The original Percy Pig, like a fruit gum candy, is literally enormously iconic. Percy Pig has its own Facebook page, and a costumed Percy Pig character visits stores and schools. There are Percy Pig cakes, and Percy Piglets and friends, just to demonstrate how iconic some of our products have become.

We have a loyal customer base that shops very frequently but accounts for a very small part of UK product sales. We have a massive peak at Christmas. M&S is considered the special place to go for meaningful occasions. So we have customers who may only go once a year for Christmas dinner. Our Food On The Move program is all about the lunchtime customer, the office workers. We have a huge customer base that only comes in for that one time.

It is a challenge to appeal to a customer base more broadly. One thing we’re trying to turn around at the moment is our reputation for higher priced food. When we ask customers, not just M&S ones, how they view M&S, first is quality and second is price, and they think of M&S as expensive.

We just launched a massive campaign to get customers to understand we carry a wide collection not only just the best quality but great prices on good value products. They may still pay a difference but they are getting a great eating product. We guarantee they will eat every single one of those grapes because they are all perfect. They won’t have any rejects to throw away.

To further our strategy, we introduced the Simply M&S range, rebranding all these products from standard spaghetti to basic cucumbers. We won’t charge you more to add a premium.

Q: Is it working?

A: It’s starting to have some resonance with customers. We are receiving a lot of feedback now from customers saying they assumed Marks & Spencer was really expensive, but it’s not as expensive as they thought. We’re doing promotions for meal packages, where a customer can get a main meal with a bottle of wine for 10 Pounds every other weekend. We’re offering people a solution with guaranteed good quality and food they can’t get anywhere else. It’s not about price-matching; it’s about quality and price, looking at value.

Q: What thoughts would you like to impress on attendees at The New York Produce Show? And what do you hope to discover?

A: As a definitive retailer in the UK, I hope through my presentation those in the audience can better understand why and how to market products with the consumer in mind. We’re all about comprehending the needs of our customer. Hopefully, people will go away from the conference thinking that when they are in the UK, they must visit Marks & Spencer because what we do is revolutionary.

I haven’t visited the U.S. for quite awhile and will enjoy discussing with my peers a variety of issues from working with suppliers to intensive audits and to form new relationships.

I’m really looking forward to speaking to the student group. Being a young person in the produce industry and a young female in the produce industry, this is not something you frequently come upon. I’m the first female executive here in fruit. A lot of people may be inspirited by that. The average age in produce in the UK is 60. We need more young people in the industry,

It does involve working all hours and is challenging and fast-paced. For me, this makes it very exciting. I would absolutely love to talk about the opportunities with the students. They are our future.


How exciting and inspirational a woman such as Zeina must be to young college women thinking of a career in our industry, how much progress has been made because chains such as Marks & Spencer have committed for the long term on production innovation, food safety, sustainability, etc.

We are exceedingly pleased that Zeina elected to join the industry in New York. Everyone is always busy, everyone has other things to do, so for an individual, and a company to be willing to commit time to help enhance the industry is really worthy of praise.

Even more it is worthy of coming to hear and to be part off.

Please join us for The New York Produce Show and Conference and the Global Trade Symposium. You can register right here.

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