Listening to customers and providing what they want is at the forefront of Total Produce BV’s Dutch business strategy. At the beginning of the year, Lennart Visser, the company’s sustainability and marketing manager highlighted key trends that seemed set to determine the future of the produce industry. His predictions have proved to be correct with sustainability and communication leading the way
“We have to look at new ways of understanding the consumer, collecting insights on new products and services,” Visser says. “I think this is going to be even more important in the future. It is a customer journey. We are talking to the end consumer buying the products in order to see how we can help our customers who are selling the products to them. Everybody wants to get a focus on the consumer and listen to what they want. We are looking at different ages and demands, listening to the differences.”
Developing effective social media links are a key feature of this strategy. Social media is the main way by which many consumers now impart information, sharing experiences with products and services. Bad experiences can quickly go viral and have a detrimental impact on businesses. On the other hand, social media campaigns can be extremely beneficial enabling businesses to talk to a wider range of consumers easily and effectively.
Developing a dialogue with consumers over social media especially Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest is regarded as important. As an increasingly significant method of communication, Total Produce BV believes it is essential to be a pro-active participant. To do that, Total Produce BV is focusing on gaining assistance from the young people leading the trend as Visser explains. “We are seeking to set up ways to talk to youngsters and include them in the consumer chain. We are offering internships where they can work with us on different topics dealing with social media.”
Contact with end users is also being sought by even more direct means – tasting, trying and discussing products. “We want to do more tasting panels. We have a small booth we take with us to events. This is an opportunity for consumers to taste products, give opinions and we get feedback from the end consumer on all the aspects that will help our customers and ourselves in future. The consumers give reactions on packaging, taste, texture, and provide insights. We collect this information because we need to oversee the entire consumer chain and know about all customer requirements.”
The results of these consumer discussions can already be seen within Total Produce BV’s product range. “Consumers told us they were looking for new experiences, new tastes and convenience,” says Visser. “They wanted watermelons that had no seeds, but great taste and great texture. We came up with the mini-watermelon that has all these features. It is selling very well. Another product is Dino Melon, which is unique to us. Dino is a white honeydew with green stripes on the outside.”
Such product innovation helps to distinguish Total Produce BV from its competitors. By thinking creatively, it is developing new markets and new consumer links. Demand for mainstream staples such as apples, pears, bananas and oranges will always be present but many consumers are open to trialing other lines and there is increasing interest in experimentation when it comes to food.
“We are seeing growing demand for niche products,” says Visser. “Our customers are asking for new products. You have to imagine, and innovate within the product portfolio. It may be just small adjustments to existing products or new ones like Dino melons or mini-watermelons,” says Visser. “As part of this focus on innovation we are looking at ways of ripening products faster while maintaining texture and taste. We are introducing tree-ripened papaya fruit from Jamaica. The taste is outstanding. We are one of the few companies that can import Ugli® fruit – the taste is really good. These are niche products and there is a growing market for them.”
Dino melon: exclusive to Total Produce BV
Total Produce BV regards communication as essential to achieve successful product innovation within the fresh produce sector. “We seek feedback from everyone,” says Visser. “We are testing products in the market in order to see if they work. We work in collaboration with others to develop products. With the Dino and mini watermelon, we worked with the seed company and growers who thought it might be of interest to us. We try to contact as many people as we can within the chain. We believe we need to collaborate more and more, being transparent with information and sharing it.”
This is one of the reasons why Total Produce BV regards participation at The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference as extremely important. “This is a completely new show, much smaller than the one in Berlin and it is a great way of getting in touch with other groups, other people with creative ideas. We need to see how it works, get to know the other groups, learn more and be seen,” says Visser.
Transparency of information is an integral part of the process. “Consumers want to know the story behind the products,” says Visser. “There is a demand for transparency of information, of documentation and where products are from. This was a trend we noticed at the beginning of 2016 and it is continuing. It is a customer journey, a desire for information.”
Practical action on sustainability
Linked to this is the issue of sustainability as Visser indicates. “Sustainability was a buzz word two-and a-half years ago, and is developing fast. It’s now about sustainable markets. People are asking about sustainability and customers want it together with clean transparency. Retailers are asking because everyone wants to see sustainable compliance. Young people see it as very important, and you have to involve them in the process, telling them where food is coming from, the farms, wholesalers and distributors. Companies have to be responsible. As a group, we have global standards for sustainable compliance.”
As part of its focus on sustainability, Total Produce B.V has been taking practical action to deal with transport issues. Traditionally, the thousands of containers of fresh fruit imported each year were sent by road to the company’s warehouses. Since 2011, the company has been steadily changing this procedure to enable the containers to be transported by barge from the docks. It now moves 86% of containers from the docks to the warehouses by barge. The intention is to develop this concept further and increase the number of water-borne shipments further inland to other destinations.
Minimising distances and increasing the amount of local produce is a concern that Visser has noticed becoming more apparent in some of the markets served by Total. “Local produce is very strong in Germany and the Nordic countries,” he says. They give priority over local food compared to that from overseas. The Nordic countries are also very keen on organic produce and organic development to serve the market is growing rapidly. It is a challenge for producers to shift to growing organically as it takes time for the soil to convert. There is going to be much more demand for this produce and enables us to see differences in the market. Organic is less important in the Benelux countries we serve than in the Scandinavian ones. We are global by nature and we try to fill gaps in the market.”
Quality under scrutiny
Product quality is another feature that has been coming under scrutiny. Total Produce B.V has created a unique mobile laboratory that can, if necessary, be transported overseas to undertake research on location. Constructed within a shipping container, the lab can be easily moved from place to place and is fully equipped with equipment that can simulate features such as transport and storage. Among the facilities within the lab are systems in which crates can be used to replicate different atmospheric conditions for fruit storage. This enables Total to deal with the lack of suitable research facilities in production countries, although so far, it has only been used within the company’s own premises.
“The mobile lab is one of the ways in which we are trying to innovate. Innovation is our vision. The lab is used at present, in product checking and testing within our premises and on our products. This is a way of understanding product behaviour and maintaining consistent quality. It helps to assess optimum taste and ripening,” says Visser.
For Total Produce in the Netherlands, sustainability, innovation and communication are set to continue as key themes for the foreseeable future. Responding to these themes, and taking full advantage of all that they offer in terms of product and business development is essential for its long-term success. By working with other companies in the chain of supply and taking advantage of innovative opportunities, Visser believes this is a process that will be beneficial for everyone from producer to end consumer.