We received notice that Total Produce, the Irish headquartered spinoff of the old Fyffes Banana and Fresh Produce Group which is a partner of Oppy was employing new technology to create a new tool to interact with consumers:
Local Produce To Take Centre Stage As Total Produce Trials NFC / Beacon “SmartStands”
This month will see Total Produce begin trials of NFC enabled fresh produce retail units, or “SmartStands” in Ireland. NFC, or “Near Field Communications” is a technology behind “Contactless Payments”, an innovation increasingly prevalent across European Retail, one allowing for transactions to be processed or information downloaded through close proximity to an enabled Smartphone.
We asked Pundit investigator and special projects editor, Mira Slott to find out more:
European Marketing Manager
Dundalk, Co. Louth, Ireland
Q: What are SmartStands, and how did the concept come about?
A: We’ve been looking at Smartphone produce marketing now for the past two to three years, starting essentially with QR Code scanning, and then how to harness opportunities with NFC or Near Field Communications, the technology behind contactless payments, an innovation increasingly prevalent across European retail, allowing for transactions to be processed or information downloaded through close proximity to an enabled Smartphone.
Compelling market research re-enforced what we already knew, that as an industry we are very lucky in that consumers have a deep and varied interest in fresh produce and in what we do; how our product gets to market, and uses for our product. We identified a consumer need for finding out more about fresh produce, and with that in mind we wanted to figure out the most efficient way to address that need. Obviously, Smartphones are taking over the world.
Q: That wasn’t obvious to many people, even a short time ago…The produce industry hasn’t always been so quick to pounce on new technologies. Have you experienced any resistance?
A: It was funny that when we started delving into this strategy internally, it took a little bit of convincing that everything consumers do going forward would be with their phones. But in five to six months, that became fairly evident to everybody. We built a website and commissioned a series of videos. Industry research showed that consumers would be receptive to short video clips rather than reading.
We set up QR codes and they worked but the strange thing is that when we were demonstrating it to people internally some were skeptical. Then they brought the Smart Packs home, and their children, five and six year olds, were showing them how to scan the QR codes on their Smartphones. It very quickly became obvious where this kind of marketing was going. As an industry, certainly in Europe, there is confusion or a misunderstanding to why produce continues to stagnate and in some countries decline.
We were looking at a new way of approaching the issue beyond posters in shops, to something more contemporary. So we developed a range of Smart Packs with QR codes attached, to learn what was actually impacting consumers and what wasn’t. We’ve all done surveys of why consumers buy fresh produce. What do consumers want to know?
Q: Did you get answers? And were the answers what you anticipated?
A: What people actually scanned surprised us and contradicted commonly accepted research. For example, we’re told over and over consumers have a huge appetite for nutritional information on fresh produce, but when we linked our packs to nutritional information, the scanning was quite modest for the content we put up. Our most popular videos were fruit carving — making a pram or a buggy out of melon, for example, got hundreds of thousands of hits, while our nutritional video failed to attract attention.
Halloween pumpkin carving got massive hits. So we got a general feel of what consumers actually cared about with fresh produce. The information was very valuable. There was no conjecture any more. We had facts about what consumers viewed and statistically valid content.
Q: That said, are most shoppers actually going to invest the time to watch these videos?
A: We did some secondary research and the results coming back to us suggested that the effort associated with QR codes was an inhibitor, and that specifically the physical act of scanning was regarded as a little laborious and inconvenient. Similarly, many of the QR codes were linked quite badly. In a lot of cases in other industries you could scan a bar code and jump right into the website homepage, but that isn’t what QR codes are about at all.
For example, our pear pack, which was one of our more popular videos, had a QR code and we’d advertise the fact it was linked to a video demonstrating how to ripen a pear at home. Consumers had an issue that they’d buy pears that were not ripe, and when they tried to ripen them at home, the pears would just spoil. Our QR code instantly met a consumer need and you didn’t have to go to a home page and then find a link. You could link directly to a video.
We wanted to bring in the next level from secondary research. In terms of talking to consumers, it was the act of scanning that was the problem. And we decided NFC technology could be the solution. Not enough phones carried NFC technology at the time. Also, I think it’s equally fair to say some of the networks weren’t able to download the information quickly and consistently enough.
Q: What percentage of phones carry this NFC technology?
A: NFC is the next generation with the exception of Apple. Practically all the other phones are carrying NFC, which is changing the nature of things. Also 4G networks are being extended across Europe and are speeding up interactions. We thought it a good time to try NFC technology because it removes the main obstacles associated with scanning to QR Codes. With the tap of your phone, you can instantly at point of sale download information about fresh produce and it takes away some of the hassle with QR Codes. That was our rationale.
Q: The Apple iPhone exception leaves out a lot of potential customers. Does that concern you? Isn’t that an important obstacle to overcome?
A: It is a major problem. I’ve been watching NFC for a number of years, waiting for it to be added to the iPhone. That hasn’t happened yet. What’s occurred is the introduction of iBeacon, technology which is a similar technology to NFC for the iPhone. It transmits the signals to your phone when it comes in close proximity, so you’d get the same message as if you tapped the NFC tag. We’re developing use of that technology. It’s a little bit more complicated than NFC, but it’s exactly the same principle. In the interim, our NFC tags are all accompanied by QR codes, so iPhone users can still download our content by scanning these.
Q: Could you tell us more about the pilot program underway?
A: We’ve gone into this technology with units themed around locally grown produce. We focused on videos of local growers. We found the very presence of a video of the grower instills confidence, consumers assume they must have a good story to tell, and the perception is that the product is better, which increases purchases of those products. So it’s not always about scanning and hits.
The way the SmartStand works is simple enough. It’s a question of just tapping the side of the unit and the consumer’s Smartphone takes the consumer to a virtual tour of the farm where the product is grown. We try to keep the video short. Consumers stop watching the video after, on average 3.5 minutes. So you get a quick story about the farm, and it can be changed by season and product. So that’s where we’re at currently.
Q: A couple of things: how have you partnered with retailers? Which retailers are piloting the program, and have you received a lot of interest?
A: As the pilot is rolling out, we have a retail partner on board, but we have started with stands in a number of independent stores. We have a technical learning curve to negotiate in the first instance. We’re at that stage at the moment. Retailers are receptive because it is new. This is something different that is not available everywhere.
It’s a point of differentiation. ‘Meeting’ local growers and being provided with more information on the fresh produce supply chain is popular and well received by consumers, and it’s a good message for retailers as well in terms of emphasing their commitment to local growers in the region. There’s no cost for retailers attached to this, despite, we believe tangibly adding value to their produce department. Everyone has provided great feedback.
Q: So who covers the costs? And what are the different costs involved?
A: We absorb the costs. Everything is relative, of course. You’re sending camera crews out to farms for the videos, and investing in websites and the background technologies, but if you compare that to sending posters and leaflets out to every supermarket you’re supplying, it comes out favorably. It is cost effective in that respect. Of course the stands themselves have costs as well, that’s another side, but even with the bar codes, it’s still cost-effective when compared with many traditional marketing channels.
And there are dividends across the supply chain. In the Irish pilot we’re doing, the growers are very appreciative of it. I think growers wonder sometimes if the consumer understands what’s involved in delivering fresh quality produce, and the process associated with making it readily available to consumers. The farmers genuinely enjoy the process. They take a lot of pride in their work and enjoy talking about their grandfathers owning the land before they did.
They appreciate the opportunity to point out that ‘This is a tough job, we’re here morning, noon and night and we do it for the love of it.’ The consumer wants to know these things, and the retailers are happy to illustrate they’re supporting local growers. It’s a story they are happy to tell because it brings welcoming transparency to the supply chain. It’s very positive. A genuine win win for all the links in the fresh produce supply chain.
Q: Have you tested other unit ideas?
A: We do have a second type of unit. It’s what we call Fresh n’ Ready concept for convenience stores. The products in the units link to recipes and competitions. The idea is you come to market in the evening, and tap on the unit to get quick recipes and then you can buy the fresh produce and ingredients needed to prepare the recipe when you get home. The options on how to use the SmartStands are endless. It’s up to your imagination.
Q: How long have you been running the pilot? And have you been able to measure results?
A: We’re only three weeks into the pilot. Obviously the very presence of the stands and the extra shelf-spec that entails is going to impact sales so it’s going to take a little bit of time to assess progress; comparing sales, total shop, monitoring traffic and assessing consumer perceptions and sentiments towards the stands.
Q: What are the key lessons you’ve learned so far in this roll out process?
A: Everyone in the fresh produce industry will be aware of the phenomenon in market research; where we ask consumers are you eating more fresh produce? You never hear the answer, no, I love chocolate. It’s very rare consumers justify why they’re not eating fresh produce. Because these technologies are real time and require the consumer to interact, it gives us a genuine insight into their motivations.
Something we’ve learned when we’ve commissioned new content and are constantly re-watching the videos is remembering that we’re also consumers. If you asked me if I would sit at home and watch a 3.5 minute video on nutrition, the answer is no. We’ve learned what enthuses people, like the pear video, so they can enjoy juicy ripe pears at home and avoid the negative experience of biting into hard ones.
It also has to be fun, and have some entertainment value to it. We were a little conservative when putting these videos together initially, but we learned quickly. People have such limited time and are possessive as to how they spend it. It’s a valuable commodity and they won’t waste it on anything which doesn’t genuinely interest them.
While we’ve made and we’ll make more. The insights garnered are invaluable. We’re confident at least that if we do make mistakes they’re new mistakes rather than repeating failed strategies.
And there are practical learnings which have nothing to do with fresh produce. Our first videos were five to ten minutes long, and they didn’t hold people’s interest. You learn the optimum video time and how you lead into it. You learn the tricks to captivate the consumers and hold their interest. There’s also a learning curve to make it easier for consumers to access the information.
Q: Have you targeted messages to different consumer groups and demographics, getting kids to eat more produce, for instance, or capturing the attention of busy mothers?
A: We included a game we developed on our TOP Fruit Hub App with the idea that parents hand the Smartphone to the kids while shopping to keep them occupied and also educate them on the fun of eating fresh produce. That was the logic behind that one, but I suppose we are going for the core shopper at the moment. And if we crack that shopper, we’ll be successful and can extend our reach to a broader demographic base.
We are hitting a younger demographic at present. With the Smartphone adoption, the younger generation is more user-savvy and understands the technology in ways that older people haven’t.
Q: So SmartStands in the produce department could end up being quite a novelty there…
A: Fresh produce can be perceived as old fashioned. Often it is perceived as lacking the persona in store of the confectionary department, or the aisles of processed foods and soda. It’s often perceived as the boring department and just not sexy. We like the idea of the experience with NFC, of consumers being in the fresh produce department, where they least expect to find technological innovation — you wouldn’t put those two together, and SmartStands capture their attention.
We believe that consumers will react to produce companies incorporating these technologies precisely because of atheir interest in our products. A farm visit is eminently more appealing than watching a video, of say a gluing facility. We’re fortunate as an industry in that respect. We believe in this path, keeping up with the technology and investing in it because we see it will work.
The most important thing is that it’s not about the technology. It’s about content. The content is king. It really doesn’t matter if it’s NFC or Beacon or a website. It matters if you can deliver something to the consumers that interests them. I absolutely believe that our research these past three years has given us insight into that. And we will continue tweaking, watching the consumers, taking their feedback, to better our communications and give them what they want.
For me, the technology is a means to an end. The important thing is that we get the content right. The consumer doesn’t care how we got it. Our job is to get it to them easily. It doesn’t matter if it’s the most incredible technology known to man. It’s a waste of time if it does not lead the consumer to where they want to go.
If someone walks into your shop and has a question, you want to answer it more quickly and better than your competition. I laugh, thinking back as a kid when I’d go into a shop and see an unusual piece of produce, and it would involve going to a library to find out what it was. What a transformation all these years later.
Q: Now consumers are inundated with product information over the Internet, and in store signage and promotional materials. And of course, store merchandising and décor varies greatly based on the retailer. How do SmartStands fit in with all this?
A: SmartStands are a way to differentiate retailers and empower the consumer. It’s not about bombarding them with information they don’t want. If you want to see where product is grown, you can; it’s there if you want it. There’s also an environmental and efficiency aspect, alleviating the need for printing booklets to go in every pack describing how the tomatoes or apples were grown or distributing countless leaflets that create waste.
We have to craft a message consumers are receptive to and that’s the real challenge. We have videos with thousands and thousands of hits and videos that have five hits. It’s about consumer power, and telling us what they want to know. We will follow their lead.
Q: How unique is your SmartStand venture?
A: I’m not familiar with anyone else doing something exactly like this. I’ll see the technology in media sites and for movie posters at bus stops showing trailers for a local movie while waiting for a bus, but I haven’t seen it applied at the retail level.
Q: How do SmartStands fit within the Total Produce umbrella? And how did you become so committed to the project?
A: I’m a lifer at the company, 19 years so far out of college. I started as a fruit and vegetable merchandiser, and the experience you gain at that level is something you never lose.
In our company, there is a culture embracing drive and passion for produce. We’re building something here. It’s a great industry to be in, promoting fresh produce, but we’re also a very realistic company, which explains why we went down this route. We’re thinking at every stop light, trying to figure out why people are not buying produce. We’re walking into retailers, trying to work with them to promote fresh fruits and vegetables, in this instance by introducing innovative marketing technology.
The SmartStand is a practical solution, yet it is consumer-oriented, the best of both worlds. When talking to marketing people in other industries, they ask, “Why aren’t you throwing money into TV advertising, and I say, ‘it’s not built into the price of an apple or orange.’”
We try to do things better and cheaper and that’s not easy. SmartStands just might be an example of how we can do that. If we can condition consumers to tap their phones, this can take off.
Technology is very important. Years ago my friend, Stan Silverzweig, and his wife, Mary Zenorini Silverzweig, produced a video series for in store use called “A Minute in the Kitchen with Mary” — in the video Mary would spend one minute giving quick tips for using each item. In controlled experiments we could prove that playing the video caused sales to boom. In real life usage it was much less successful. Why? Because in real life the produce clerks hated the old continuous loop of the video, hearing the same thing 60 times each hour, and they would turn it off.
A little thing, like having to scan a QSR code is enough to kill an innovation. But the technology is improving and the executives at Total Produce are doing a smart thing by trying to see if it has advanced enough to transform the way the trade interacts with consumers.
Mr. Dolan correctly identifies content as the challenge. What, precisely, do consumers want to know about their produce? As he reports, having real data on what people actually choose to do, what they choose to watch, etc. is very different from interviewing consumers and asking them to say what they want.
Mass consumer advertising is difficult for the produce industry and not just because of margins. Even a market such as America, where brands are common, no brand is in every store with one product. In packaged goods, every store sells Heinz Ketchup or Kellogg’s Corn Flakes or Campbell’s soup. So if their advertising is effective, people can go into the store and buy the product. In most cases, even if produce advertising is effective, consumers can’t get that specific brand at their store. So the industry needs cost effective ways of talking to consumers.
We hope Total will continue to experiment and gather data. For example, although the hip idea is that everyone wants things local, one wonders if consumers wouldn’t be just as interested in hearing from multi-generational farmers from more exotic locales.
This is closer to the beginning than the end, in a generation the chips may be embedded in our heads not our phones and pre-programed to seek out content that we are interested in. Who really knows?
But in an ancient industry such a fruits and vegetables, it is nice to see the latest and greatest technology being trialed. The folks at Total deserve a tip of the hat.