With produce purchases in decline in the UK and Brits still only eating three portions of fruits and vegetables a day, the matter of how to get consumers to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables is a growing conundrum our industry is eager to resolve, particularly as the ‘war on sugar’ gains traction. So, last month Produce Business UK attended the FPJ Live conference to learn what some high-profile European food sector experts believe UK retailers can do to engage and encourage shoppers
In setting the scene, James Walton, chief economist at retail analyst IGD, describes the retail store as the “key environment” for influencing consumption behaviour and purchasing decisions.
“Retailers in general are putting a lot of effort into getting the fresh produce section right because, generally, it’s the area of the store shoppers see first,” he explains. “But a third of shoppers admit to yielding to temptation when making decisions in store; they go ‘off plan’.”
Bearing that in mind, Walton and other European food industry pundits say there are a number of strategies retailers can implement to sway shoppers in the right direction of buying more fruit and veg.
Below, we highlight some of the suggested approaches from Walton at IGD, in addition to NFU’s Ali Capper, Charlie Hicks of Total Produce, Oyvind Brisa from Norwegian retailer Bama, Branston’s James Truscott and Bert Barmans at Zespri Europe.
Allow shoppers to form a personal choice
Walton points out that most Brits believe healthy eating is their own personal responsibility, especially the over 55s. “That’s important to remember,” he says. “Industry initiatives should be based around forming a personal choice.
“The downside is a lot of shoppers say they’re struggling to eat a healthy diet,” he continues. “Only four in ten are achieving it. A lot treat themselves, and a small proportion don’t care.”
The problem, Walton notes, is that research indicates consumer motivation for further sway is low. “We have to explain the need for change and healthy eating but we have to get the message and tone right so not to alienate consumers.”
Apply consistent messaging
Furthermore, Walton claims a lack of trust is likely holding consumers back from making certain, healthier food and drink purchases.
“More than half of shoppers say they don’t believe the claims made by food companies,” he says. “And, most consumers are ambivalent, rather than trusting. We need consistent messaging.”
Use choice editing and reformulation
With consumers wary of messaging and open to temptation, Walton suggests choice editing and reformulation remain the way forward in terms of influencing healthy purchasing decisions.
“Shoppers are supportive of this [approach],” he adds. “And the work already done on salt gives us a model of how cross-industry collaboration can work. Industries are now being encouraged to do the same with sugar. But there is only so far you can go.”
For the fresh produce industry, Walton believes this could be achieved by introducing more health beneficial products into the produce category, like nutrient-dense Beneforté broccoli. Or, instead of reformulation, the industry could encourage shoppers to replace unhealthy items with fruit and veg.
Increase availability in strategic locations
In the meantime, Walton notes that both retailers and the food industry at large also need to make fresh produce more available in locations where less healthy products are sold.
It’s a suggestion backed by Ali Capper of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), which recently issued guidelines on how the industry should enable consumers to make better food choices in its 34-point recommendation report.
“We’re not putting fruit and vegetable options in front of people in obvious places,” Capper claims. “And in convenience outlets, fruit and veg is often swamped by packaged, convenience foods.”
Fortunately, from a retail point of view, Walton suggests a greater availability of produce is already on the cards. For instance, he believes supermarkets are likely to copy the positive steps made by the foodservice sector in terms of turning products like fresh food, salads and soups into a much more aspirational and available offering.
Produce available in the form of juices and smoothies is also growing, which is widening the reach for shoppers to increase their daily fruit and vegetable portions, while making the category more attractive overall.
Make produce an affordable alternative
Another approach offered by Walton is for retailers to challenge their shoppers to tweak what they would traditionally use to prepare meals, like substituting carbohydrates with vegetables.
“Vegetables are playing role in convenience and they aren’t calorie dense,” he notes. “Retailers can also use technology to communicate the affordability of produce, nudge consumers, associate fresh produce with fitness and exercise, and increase shoppers’ food skills.”
Add value to produce
Furthermore, he says the industry needs to find ways to add value to the fruit and veg category; pointing out that what seems to resonate with shoppers is the story that’s attached to a product.
“They want to know who grew it, where it came from, and how it got here,” he explains. “This is a fantastic way of adding value to a product that could so easily be a commodity item sold on price.”
Charlie Hicks, UK brand manager for major importer-distributor Total Produce, agrees British consumers want provenance. “We offer short films on our website, with some showing chefs visiting the farms and taking produce back to restaurants to cook – it links our growers and our customers,” he says.
Whether you’re a retailer or supplier, Walton claims the big question around value is how to ‘de-commoditise’ fresh produce.
“Food consumption is going down in the UK, and if we want the industry to survive we need to find ways of adding value,” he says.
“Price is an obvious barrier to purchase. But why are retailers giving away produce to kids? It only teaches them not to value produce. Instead, we want people to pay at least the same amount but get more enjoyment. Produce need a little bit of joy and magic attached to it.”
Improve food knowledge
Regardless, barriers to purchasing fresh produce remain, and Walton states a lack of food knowledge is often a major reason for poor diets.
Total Produce’s Hicks agrees; saying British consumers still lack education about food. “Why aren’t we teaching food in schools from an early age?,” he asks.
To address the issue, Walton highlights examples in other markets. For instance, North American retailer Loblaws has introduced nutritionists into its stores. “They look like food doctors and wear white coats,” he explains.
In a few years, he believes in-store robots will also become commonplace, and could be used to spread positive, healthy eating messages. “You can already find them in Carrefour stores in Spain, for example,” he adds.
Work with growers and suppliers
Oyvind Brisa, trading director at Norwegian retailer Bama, points out that fresh produce consumption is going up in Norway, while in the rest of Europe it’s going down. What has worked in Norway, he claims, is largely thanks to closer cooperation between growers and retailers.
“Long-term relationships with growers and suppliers is key [for a retailer],” Brisa states. “When we decide to do something we have the distribution and commitment from the retailer all the way back to the growers. I think it’s the main reason for our growth. It’s something fruit and veg really deserves too – it’s a product group that needs fast rotation and proper development.”
Because of its close relationships, Bama often develops ideas together with the growers in order to bring products or concepts to its retail shelves.
“When a retailer is dedicated to the same idea [as a grower], you have the distribution for it – it’s a dynamic partnership,” he says. “In my mind, it’s the long-term thinking from the owners [of Bama] and our integrated value chain that has given us these possibilities [to grow].”
James Truscott, managing director of Branston – a private label supplier of potatoes to the UK retail sector – agrees.
He says: “Better conversations between suppliers/growers and supermarket staff are needed. We’ve sent leaflets to staff with videos of conversations with growers [to provide information about our products]. We enjoy long-term relationships – they foster innovation.”
Focus on fresh
Another area of success for Bama in Norway has been the retailer’s focus on local production and fresh products, which has had a knock-on effect on growers’ performance too.
“Around 60% of our production is located within two hours of our distribution centres,” reveals Brisa. “We promote local growers and farms, as well as seasonal and speciality fruit and veg.
“We do this hand-in-hand with Norway’s largest cooperative of farmers – some 1,139 growers across the country. We’ve carried out 88 different projects over the last few years, and the value for them has really risen. In the last 10 years this strategic alliance has allowed them to generate an additional £50m [in revenue] a year.”
Tap into marketing campaigns
Bert Barmans, general manager of Zespri Europe in Belgium, encourages retailers to work with marketing agencies on promotional campaigns; explaining that European supermarkets’ involvement in Zespri campaigns has been a win-win for both sides, as well as kiwifruit consumption.
“Belgian kiwifruit consumption is nearly double [the level in] the UK – we’ve invested a lot more in [marketing across] Belgium but it clearly pays off,” Barmans notes.
The difference, however, is that retailers in Europe seem to be more open and willing to collaborate, compared with their UK counterparts, according to Barmans.
“For example, we found a receptive partner in Norway and we worked together. If we can combine [marketing] force with retailers [distribution] it can be mutually beneficial. You end up with good rotation, no quality problems, a good price and margin. It’s absolutely a win-win.”
Bama too has reaped the benefits of joining forces with national healthy eating and activity campaigns. Last year this led to the introduction of a new concept for the retailer, called Eat, Move, Sleep.
“We work with an ‘eat well’ association and the national football association in Stockholm,” Brisa explains. “Our campaign addresses national and global issues like obesity and the lack of sleep and exercise.”
Benefit from brands
In addition to the power of marketing, Barmans at Zespri believes brands are essential to growth. “But you have to deliver on your promise, or you’ll be out,” he warns. “It keeps you sharp and you spend a lot of money and time on it, but it pays off. It gives you recognition.”
Bama’s Brisa also believes a recognisable brand can help promote consumption – as long as it combines with product quality.
“When we have a brand with a consistent quality day-in, day-out, every week and month it creates trust in the store. The consumer gets to know the brand and the customer is willing [to purchase].”
Indeed, Barmans says taste is extremely important, first and foremost. “You can talk about a product’s health benefits, but that’s not the idea,” he says. “The idea is they’ll eat your food because they like it – it’s a core driver of purchase and repeat purchase. If you don’t have great product, you’ve got a bit of a problem!”
Engage with consumers
At the end of the day, Hicks at Total Produce says good supply is as much as about the produce itself as the information behind it.
“Engage with your customers,” he says. “We love Twitter because it’s instant. We use it to promote our lines. Embrace technology too! Making video is not expensive. Most cameras have good HD recording quality. Or you can record directly on an iPhone or smartphone via an app. It’s not difficult either. YouTube is full of tutorials.”
Do market research
Ultimately, any initiative a retailer chooses to use to encourage fresh produce consumption should be backed by market research into their specific shopper requirements.
“Know your consumer,” advises Barmans at Zespri Europe. “The more you know, the better you can target them. It starts with understanding the market and that requires research. Zespri has invested heavily in market research in the last three to four years and it absolutely pays off.
“Every market is different and each is at a different stage of development, so you have to tailor your activities. It keeps you focused and allows you to pursue the most lucrative growth opportunities.”