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Pundit’s Mailbag —
More On Lousy Fruit:
Where’s The Management?

Our piece, Lousy Fruit Undermines Consumption, brought along this letter, evidence that the problem we identified is an international problem:

The world is changing! We used to have a group of experts spread across the land who tasted the product if they knew there was opportunity or risk to build or lose sales on it.

With structural change in the industry and the retail sector, economies of scale mean individual stores may lose the battle to survive even if they have a passionate and skilled Greengrocer. Remember them?

There is a massive opportunity to build sales, generating new business rather than chasing a declining market on a downward price spiral. But our ability to take advantage of this opportunity must be built on skilled staff and good management.

Of course we need to incorporate all the new technologies, respect the environmental health and safety issues and address all these issues and more in regard to due diligence.

But above all we need to instill in the retail sales staff passion and enthusiasm for the product and pass that on to the consumer.

Most products such as chocolate have a hefty marketing budget. For fresh produce this money may be better spent on training and education — both of the retailer and the consumer.

Blood sweat and tears go into getting the product to market, and often it now becomes just another product competing for space with the crisps and booze.

The proposition is simple, managing it is not, or we would all be doing it making good profits and improving the health of the population.

A few simple rules drive the category:

  1. If you wouldn’t buy it yourself it should not be on the fixture.
  2. The product must be of good quality.
  3. The product must be priced fairly.

The rest is flim flam and excuses for which the retail sector is to blame.

Anyone in the industry would probably pick oranges and peaches as taste opportunities to build sales.

The problem is that short term profit on an item such as peaches means that retailers both buy and display peaches underipe at the start of the season. Consumers pay a premium to get this early fruit and are disappointed when they don’t ripen properly.

Consumers then informally boycott the fruit, come back to the item halfway through the season and enjoy them. Then 2 weeks after they should have been taken off sale at the end of the season, consumers end up with a mouth full of cotton wool. This results in year-on-year sales declines rather than sales growth.

Oranges can be sensational but consumer expectations built on experience are often very low, which does nothing for the industry and its potential.

There are lots of clever people driving the industry now so why do we struggle with “simple” products like Fruit & Veg?

— Jim Cooper
Founder and Lead Consultant
Fresh Solutions
Staffordshire, United Kingdom

We very much appreciate this thoughtful letter. Jim’s bio gives his background this way:

Fresh Solutions founder and lead consultant Jim Cooper has more than 25 years experience of fresh produce growing and retailing in the UK and in France. After college, he joined his family greengrocery business, taking time out to work with farmers in Brittany and start his own market garden.

Over the years, he has extended and transformed the family business into a thriving neighbourhood store, majoring on fruit, vegetables, salads, herbs and packaged groceries, but also selling freshly baked bread, wine, cooked meats, cheeses and other fine foods. In 1995, he won the Midlands region award for Building a Better Business in Retail.

At the same time, he has expanded his career away from the store. For several years was National President of Field Fresh; a group of some 200 retailers. He is founder-director of Fresh Produce For All, a social enterprise whose mission is to re-introduce fresh produce into communities that have forgotten what it is like to have good quality, affordable fresh fruit and vegetables available on their doorstep.

Particularly intriguing is that Jim has been involved with a program called “Shopwell”, which is part of a larger “Eatwell in Sandwell” program — the concept for Shopwelll goes like this:

Some 50 retailers in Sandwell are being recruited to the Shopwell scheme, so there should be a shop near you selling top quality fruit and vegetables at affordable prices.

We’re helping shopkeepers display their fresh produce attractively and we’re training their staff so they can help you make the right choices.

Certainly an interesting idea; the listed shops don’t include any of the large multiples we are familiar with in the states but seem instead to be a way of helping independents and getting produce a more prominent spot in some non-traditional venues.

Increasing the availability of produce is one almost certain way to boost consumption.

And we do think Jim’s assessment — that a lack of passionate produce managers is a real problem — has much merit. In fact Jim’s notion that despite efforts in growing and packing, fresh produce “…often now becomes just another product competing for space with the crisps and booze” reminded us of nothing so much as Tesco’s Fresh & Easy subsidiary.

We wrote a piece in Pundit sister publication, PRODUCE BUSINESS, entitled Merchandising Disconnect, in which we wrote: “Fresh & Easy forecloses the possibility of great merchandising by transforming produce into another packaged good.”

Wal-Mart, which as we’ve discussed periodically rejuggles its procurement efforts to enhance produce quality, is typically missing the point. Its retail execution is what trips up this behemoth.

Yet our shopping trip pointed to other obstacles as well. On the merchandising side, stores need to honestly discuss certain things with consumers and they seem unwilling to do so. Our complaint wasn’t so much that the imported peaches were inedible — we assume they will ripen if treated properly — it was that the merchandising display didn’t make that point.

We also can’t help but feel that the produce manager with the clementines was more concerned with his weekly shrink numbers and gross margin numbers than with long term effects on consumption. For that, by the way, we do not blame the manager. He is responding to precisely what he will be evaluated on.

If he pulled those clementines and dumped them, he might well be asked why shrink was high or gross margin or gross profits low this week. If he pulls them and five years from now his consumers are eating 5% more produce every day because of him, nobody will ever know.

That is a significant problem.

Many thanks for this input from across the Pond.

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