We were fortunate to have Jelger de Vriend present at our event in Amsterdam a year ago:
It was a very well received presentation. No surprise for someone who was Senior Sourcing Manager at Royal Ahold/Albert Heijn and has, more recently, devoted his efforts to finding ways to create systemic change in a way that is designed to help retailers deliver the kind of quality that will increase sales and boost consumption.
Produce has been a business in which knowledge was once passed down informally. One’s first boss taught “the tricks of the trade,” but these tricks were never evaluated in any formal or scientific way. Jelger is looking to create a set of tools that will lead the industry away from relying on the “gut” and, offer a more scientific alternative.
We asked Matt Ogg, Contributing Editor at Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, to find out more:
Jelger de Vriend
Q: Before we talk about developments at your company, let’s talk about what quality really means in fresh produce. How would you define it?
A: Maybe the best way to start is with a simple question: Do you like avocados?
Q: Yes, I’m a big fan.
A: And have you ever bought avocados and thought they were ready to eat, and when you brought them to the kitchen and cut them open, you realized that they weren’t?
Q: Maybe when I was less educated about avocados, yes.
A: I can tell you this is what happens with most consumers. We’re not very educated as consumers — we like to try new things, we buy avocados, the packaging says ‘ready-to-eat’ and then you’re in the kitchen, you’re having a party on Saturday evening and you wanted to make guacamole or a salad, but when you cut the avocados, you realize one is not ready to eat and it basically spoils the fun of the dinner that you had planned.
Q: And sometimes you’ve bought it unripe and waited till what you think is the right moment, but you’ve jumped the gun.
A: Exactly. As a matter of fact, quality is meeting the consumers’ expectations at the moment when they want to consume the product, and I would say preferably exceeding consumer expectations — adding the ‘Wow’ factor to fresh produce.
That’s really where I start, so not from an ‘industry standards’ view of quality, asking are there eight pineapples in a box? Or is there a pound of grapes in a punnet? We need to ask: ‘Are we exceeding consumer expectations around quality?’ And most of that has to do with flavor balanced with shelf life; not maximum shelf life but sufficient. Flavor is much more important.
Q: And because it’s about palate, it’s not necessarily about how it looks or anything like that?
A: Exactly. A lot of emphasis in our industry historically from the retail side or from the grower or supplier side has been on external quality — appearance, defects, and then everything that is needed to make trade possible. Do we have an agreement about how many kilos or pounds are in a box? But that has very little to do with how consumers perceive quality.
The test that you can do as a produce professional is… if I have a product in my warehouse or if I’m a buyer in a retail organization and I need to decide on buying or selling a certain product, would I actually give it to my kids? If the answer is ‘yes’, then go ahead and sell it. If you are not really sure, maybe you should give it another look and think again.
Q: That also comes back to the importance of branding, because if you’ve gone to all the effort of developing that flavor, your berry, grapefruit or whatever product it is still might look the same as someone else’s.
A: Totally. And don’t forget, originally brands were introduced to guarantee a certain quality level; a certain expectation from a consumer. When you bought trousers in the Wild West in the U.S., you wanted to be sure that they were good trousers, and you trusted Levi’s that they would last while you were digging up gold right?
Now in produce, we’ve kind of taken brands for granted in a sense that a lot of emphasis has gone into branding just for the sake of branding, when really the same principle applies. Is the brand meeting or even better exceeding consumer expectations?
Q: And that extends to supermarket branding, which we all know is so common in your part of the world.
A: Correct. A customer of a service supermarket chain in Holland or the U.K. is expecting a certain level of quality. I believe there is a lot of room in produce to still improve on the exceeding side of the experience.
Q: How do you feel quality has advanced in recent years?
A: A lot. I’ll give you a simple example. Historically tomato production, the biggest item in the vegetable department, has been all about lowest cost, highest productivity, etc. So, it has been a classic supply-driven, grower-focused category. Of course, no one in retail talks about it like that, or in the supermarkets, but it had all the characteristics; it was all about maximizing production per square foot or square meter, and there was very little focus on flavor and delivering a product that was meeting consumer expectations.
And the Dutch I think played a particular role in that. We’ve been the masters of maximizing tomato production, and there were historically good reasons to do that, but over the past 10 or 15 years there has been a really interesting shift going on. It started with the smaller tomato types — the cherry tomatoes, plum tomatoes, where you started to see that the segmentation of the tomato assortment around flavor accents that really started to pay off.
The focus initially in those smaller tomato types was on better varieties. And as that happens, consumers picked up. They came back to stores and started to buy more of these tomato types. This has resulted in a shift where I’ll increasingly see choices being made by growers, suppliers and retailers based on those flavor characteristics.
If you add the convenience element to that, a much bigger focus on flavor and, of course, that they are healthy as well, that basically summarizes the development of tomatoes in the past 10 years.
Q: Yes, well I remember being in the Netherlands for the Amsterdam Produce Summit and visiting an Albert Heijn. I was impressed to see how they had snacking tomatoes and snacking baby bell peppers in little punnets where you would normally see chocolates and sweets.
A: Absolutely. That is really something of the past seven years. And the beauty of it is this development continues. As a company, we are monitoring the quality of tomatoes continuously in retail in supermarkets, and we noticed what started as a development in the smaller tomato types is now advancing into the bigger tomatoes types — the round tomatoes, the vine tomatoes, the cocktail tomatoes.
Q: Often you hear people talk about how tomatoes or many fruits and vegetables ‘tasted better in their day’ — this is particularly people from the Baby Boomer generation. They might have had a tree in the backyard that produced the ‘best’ fruit, and ‘you can’t get anything like that anymore’ because everything became focused on size and appearance. Do you think that a lot of the shift towards flavor has been overly oriented towards sweetness as a measure of flavor rather than the whole balance of flavor characteristics?
A: That’s a good question. I think the end result is often higher sweetness or sugar content, but then you also need to recognize where we come from. Tomatoes from Holland 20 years ago were called ‘waterbombs’. In the German market, there was a boycott 20 years ago and a lot of German consumers still try to avoid Dutch tomatoes because they were called waterbombs.
So, we’ve gone from very little flavor — everything focused on the lowest cost, i.e., the lowest retail price — and now we have a greater emphasis on flavor in our products, and to a large extent that means increasing the sugar content. We’re not selling a product like Coca Cola, if you compare that in sugar content. Our produce is nothing like that, and we come from a period where flavor was almost the last thing you really cared about.
Q: Does this development make you think the basket of fruits and vegetables will taste different in 15 years’ time?
A: No, I would say my feeling is that there’s a lot to choose with what we currently have in terms of varieties. There is a lot we must do around production; a lot of buttons around production that you can push to increase the flavor, but that does not alter it in such a way that it’s not recognizable anymore. We just need to make flavor in the mix more important, and that’s what we’re seeing everybody’s doing right now.
Q: We’ve gone a bit philosophical here, but going back to the practicalities of it all, what do you think some of the most common mistakes are being made in the fruit industry around quality?
A: Again, the overemphasis on just meeting trade specifications that are designed to be able to trade with each other, and not thinking about what is necessarily most important for consumers.
There is a research company in Europe called GfK. For years they have been analyzing what is the key reason for a consumer to choose a certain supermarket, and you would think it is things like lowest price, best promotions, proximity, but really the Number One reason why consumers choose a supermarket is good quality.
It shows the importance of focusing on that quality aspect, and consumers don’t care about whether a cucumber costs 29 cents; if that cucumber does not have good flavor, you think you wasted your money and your time. There is no lowest price point where you’ll think it’s acceptable that flavor is not good. Even if you paid five cents, consumers would still feel cheated if they had a bad tasting product, whether it’s a peach or nectarine or whatever.
Q: Are there any other categories that have very much inspired you in how they’ve improved flavor?
A: The biggest developing categories in retail are the ones where flavor is the most obvious button that is being pushed — the whole berry category… if you talk about developments in strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, it’s all about flavor and quality consistency.
If you look at the development of avocado and mango, it has really taken off when we started to ripen mangos and avocados, making sure that when consumers eat it, the fruit is ready to eat with just the right flavor. If you look at the grape category and all of the developments there with varieties that are taking place right now, those are all choices that are being made around flavor and consistency. Those are the categories that can grow easily 10%, if not 20%, in turnover every year in retail.
So, the proof of the importance of flavor is right in front of us — we don’t need to do scientific research. It’s right there — the categories that grow the fastest are those that are making the biggest improvements in flavor right now. Just look at blueberries and where that’s come from, it’s almost ridiculous how that’s grown and continues to grow.
Q: Consumer education is also an important issue. For example, from different markets around the world, I have heard misconceptions where people think a passion fruit is bad just because it’s wrinkled, or that avocados aren’t ripe unless they’re green. How proactive do produce marketers and retailers need to be to actually get these messages across to consumers so that they understand what makes a good product and what indicates the right time to eat it?
A: We briefly spoke about branding. In an ideal world when something has a brand, whether it’s a supplier brand or a retailer brand, as a consumer you would sufficiently trust that what is being sold in a supermarket is the perfect product. Our problem is that that’s not the case, so we’re asking the consumer to continuously think with us, ‘is this avocado really ready to eat?’
I think that’s the wrong starting point. I think by definition an avocado should be ready to eat, and if it requires some additional information about ‘leave this for the next two days and then eat it’, then we should communicate that.
This is only in fresh produce and does not happen in other grocery departments at retail. In produce our starting point is different, oddly enough, but that’s how it is. Often, we need to take consumers by the hand and explain a bit more about the product, especially if it’s about how an avocado that’s ready to eat turns brown.
I worked in retail when we moved from the greenskin avocados to Hass, and really what we did for quite a long period was communicate on the packaging that when the avocado turned brown, it was actually good. That was a simple way for us to communicate with consumers and convince them that this was the right thing.
What is more worrying is something else. We need to educate consumers, but more importantly we probably need to educate the personnel in the stores. When you’re a consumer and you don’t know avocados are ready to eat, preferably you would ask somebody. We used to have those people in stores; the produce experts who would be able to tell you what to do with a product and when it’s ready to eat.
But we’ve kind of lost that. There are reasons why that is, mostly cost pressure, but the education of store personnel I think is fundamental to bringing back the feeling of trust that when you as a consumer can talk to somebody who has a bit of understanding about fresh produce and can help you.
Also, in our head offices in retail and on the supplier side, there is in general not a course or a program that you take where you’re being educated about fresh produce in such a way that it really helps you to make educated decisions about fresh produce.
Education in fresh produce, in general, is a big part that is missing. People tend to learn on the job about fresh produce. Often, we start in the warehouse, learning by doing, and then over time we get into positions where we get to decide huge contracts with suppliers without ever having had a decent education about quality or about fresh produce. I think that’s the reality of our industry — there is not a master’s degree in the fresh produce trade or fresh produce quality.
Q: And when it comes to lifting the game of quality of produce at retailers or suppliers, holding their hand much as you would with consumers… is that part of what your company Innovative Fresh is all about?
A: Yes. We came to realize that we all have opinions about fresh produce, but there’s very little data in fresh produce about the performance of fresh produce for consumers. So, both on the retailer side and grower-supplier side, we often make huge decisions about which variety to choose, when to end the season, when to start the season, and often those decisions are not based on data.
That lack of data is something we started to work on 10 years ago to monitor the quality of fresh produce in supermarkets. So really the way consumers perceive fresh produce when they buy it — not when the product is in the warehouse or in the field, but when you buy a product. What are you experiencing?
We generate data, monitor the quality of fresh produce on retail shelves, and make data available to retailers or fresh produce companies.
There are two things missing there. One thing is the education part. You can generate data, but when people don’t know how tomatoes are being produced or the quality requirements for a specific product and what you can do to improve it, then you’re just providing data and not really using the full set of tools to make a difference for consumers.
So over the past 12 months, that education side we’ve developed together with a partner offering 200 courses in quality in fresh produce that really help to lift people’s knowledge levels to help them make decisions, not just at store level because that’s an ongoing process where people need to be educated better, but also at head office level — educating the tomato buyer of a retailer about tomatoes. That’s how deep it goes.
Q: When you talk about 200 courses, is that 200 times the course has been run or 200 separate courses?
A: No, they are 200 individual courses.
Q: Wow, that’s a lot.
A: Yeah but don’t forget, if you’re talking about avocados, you can literally speak for a day about avocados and the avocado supply chain. If you talk about the cold chain of the fresh-cut category, you could talk two or three days about that; if you’re talking about the food safety risks of the fresh-cut category, you can talk for five days about it.
Q: Have you been doing this in all the countries where you operate?
A: Yes, so we do it together with a partner. They’re an education partner, and they’ve been doing this for 25 years and have all the experience across the entire fresh produce range, so it’s a fantastic way we think to elevate the level of knowledge not only at retail and the supplier side, but also at the store level to get people better educated.
Q: And how does your program InQuality tie into that?
A: InQuality is a combination of three things:
It’s better decisions based on data rather than opinions;
It’s educating people and making sure that when they have data they can make better decisions;
When you identify something needs to be improved, you also have to take action and do it.
That is also where we support companies, because we’re all busy, particularly if you’re in the produce area of a big organization. We often find that people need help with that. We support people to help them improve that experience with their products right there in stores. That is a unique integrated concept that is extremely powerful to drive the experience of consumers in fresh produce.
Q: Would you be able to confirm which markets you are running this InQuality program?
A: InQuality was started in Sweden. We are rolling it out in Germany now, and we also run it historically in Holland but not yet as InQuality. And then we’re also active with individual elements in the U.K., Belgium, Denmark and Norway, so seven countries.
Q: That’s an interesting choice of countries. May I ask why you chose Sweden to start it off?
A: Sweden is logistically a very challenging country. It’s very big; 2,000km from north to south, and that means you need to control store operations across a huge area, which means the quality challenges in Sweden are probably some of the most extreme in Europe. When you drive a truck from Spain to the south of Sweden in Helsingborg, you’re still only halfway because after that you still need to distribute to stores, and some can be 700km north of Stockholm.
These are extreme distances, and as a result we think the opportunities to really drive the improvement of quality perception of consumers are big in Sweden. And it’s proving to be that. We’ve been in Sweden for two years now and the way it’s been rolled out has been fantastic.
Q: We have covered a lot of ground, but is there anything else you’d like to add in terms of overarching ideas around quality?
A: If I could summarize it, we all want to increase the consumption of fresh produce — everybody, whether you’re a supplier, a grower or a trader. Anything that increases consumption is good for the entire industry, and the best way to increase consumption is to exceed expectations around fresh produce.
Q: As a journalist you never know how an interview is going to go, so thank you for exceeding expectations today as well with your insights! We look forward to hearing your presentation in New York.
A: Thank you too.
In store, it would nice to have more and better trained staff — but we are not going to get that. At headquarters and procurement desks, it would be great to have staff with a better understanding of produce, but we are going to get the opposite.
We once ran an interview with Bruce Peterson, founder of Walmart’s produce program, in which he discussed the transformation of what retail giants valued — from previous years where industry experience was prize to today’s world of credentials gained through spreadsheet analysis. You can read that piece here:
Bruce Peterson, Founder Of Wal-Mart Produce Program, Will Urge Industry To Rage Against Mediocrity, Value Experience Over Education, And Merchandise To Wow The Consumer At The London Produce Show And Conference
So we will never again be able to expect the VPs of produce to grow up in the industry and acquire great produce knowledge.
So, we need the kinds of data and information systems that will allow the likes of Amazon or Walmart to take the guy who was in charge of electronics, put him in produce for a rotation on his way up the ladder, and somehow have him succeed.
Que up Jelger de Vriend!
So, come to New York. The Global Trade Symposium is co-located with The New York Produce Show and Conference, and you can engage with Jelger on the tools that will build this new produce industry — and, with a bit of luck, even manage to boost consumption.
The New York Produce show and conference Web site is here
Let us know if you need hotel rooms here.
You can register for the event here.
And feel free to email us here if you have questions or need help.
Come to New York. Be a part of the future being created. Help us see how far the industry can SOAR.