Do you have an appropriate app approach?

Mobile apps for produce

Apps offer an ideal opportunity to influence food purchasing and usage decisions

Digital applications (or apps) are well on their way to playing a big role in businesses across various industries. We talk to the people behind existing fresh produce apps to see where the opportunities lie for the fruit and veg industry

It feels sometimes like apps are taking over our lives and anyone with a smartphone or tablet will be using a whole host of them, however much they argued they never would.

App designers would argue of course that they are working hard to make your life easier. Whereas they were once designed largely for music or aiding social interaction, like Spotify and Whatsapp, apps are now weeding out the chaff in the taxi industry with Uber or making grocery shopping effortless with the likes of Tesco’s mobile apps.

They are, undeniably, a very effective way to get into the everyday psyche of consumers, by sending reminders and updates, even when they’re not being used. According to Ofcom 2014 figures, the proportion of people in the UK who use their mobile handset to access the internet is 57%, up 8% from the previous year, with adults spending a scarcely credible eight hours and 41 minutes a day on their devices.

That’s more than a third of their lives!

According to Flurry’s 2014 report on US consumers, app usage grew from 80% of phone use to 86%, a jump from a daily two hours and six minutes to two hours and 19 minutes. In the future usage will only become more intense as younger generations grow up with technology that’s second nature.

“Tablets and mobile are forever changing the consumer landscape, and with Google Glass and smart-watches on the horizon, shopping and searching on the move is now becoming an everyday norm,” says the We Are Apps UK Mobile Insights Report 2013 Q4. “With mobile central to people’s daily lives, its place as an indispensable part of the marketing mix cannot be stressed enough.”

Role of apps in produce

But what place do apps have in the fresh produce industry? Consumers love them and 38% of apps are accessed whilst in the kitchen, offering an ideal opportunity to influence food purchasing and usage decisions. The fruit and vegetable apps out there already seem more information based rather than leading to delivering actual product to the end user, so the possibilities beyond the functional remain endless.

Farmanac, a US app that guides users through types of fruit and vegetables with a seasonal and organic vibe, was first released in 2011 by designer, Abraham Wallin. “I wanted to get people to better understand their food choices and guide them to local, healthy and in-season options,” says Wallin, who, together with Toronto-based developer Eric Fung, is working on releasing an Android version of the app this summer.

“The app needed to be simple and quick for a shopper to use at a grocery shop. That led me to focus on the PLU code on the small stickers on fruit and veg. The code could quickly be used to identify the type of produce, if it was organic and theoretically if it was genetically modified, as in reality food producers in the US don’t identify fruits and vegetables as genetically modified because they’re not legally required to.

“I was then able to add additional elements that could be useful while shopping, such as when produce is in season locally; what its pesticide level is; indicating whether to splurge and buy organic, or if you’re just as safe opting for conventional; how to know when an item is ripe; and how to store your produce once you’re back at home.”

Although Farmanac was launched pretty early in the iPhone apps evolution, Wallin doesn’t think it would be easier to develop today. “The most challenging pieces – tracking produce from farm to market, compiling a single source of data for every type of fruit and vegetable and understanding when certain types of produce are in-season – hasn’t gotten any easier,” he says. “It was maybe better for the app, as the market was less crowded and app buyers had not become as accustomed to free apps, which makes a sustainable business model difficult.”

In the UK, fresh produce grower and veg-box provider Riverford Organics launched an app in 2012 to make sure people were getting the most out of their boxes. Self-confessed “total veg nerds”, the Riverford team played on what they had learnt over the years from their own experiences and customer feedback, and came up with a vegetable ‘fruit machine’ game where you identify what you have left in your vegetable box and receive several recipes for them, as well as a detailed directory of fruit and veg, their uses and seasonality.

“Talking about veg and sharing recipes that make them the star of the show is what we are all about,” says Rachel Lovell, PR manager at Riverford, which was one of the first veg box schemes established in the UK. “We have observed that while customers love our veg and what we stand for in terms of ethical business practices and supporting small scale organic farms, many find life with a veg box difficult at first. It takes a little bit of experience to get through everything, so we designed our app to help them use up every last leek. This means more people stick with us, rather than cancelling as they feel guilty for not getting through their beetroot in time.”

Riverford has had a lot of feedback about how it helps its customers get out of recipe ruts and use veg in new ways, and it has brought obvious business benefits. “We are not motivated by profit – sharing good food is at the heart of everything we do so the more people we can help to do this, the better,” explains Lovell. “This app has certainly helped us in our mission. We have plans to make buying via digital devices simpler and easier, but they are still in development at present.”

Nominated for Toque Magazine’s 2012 Food App Awards, Farmanac was helped by almost instant media exposure when it was launched. One review left on the iTunes store reads: "This is a great app for anyone looking to eat better and feel better. I am a huge advocate of eating local, and eating organic. This app helps the average shopper feel like an insider.”

However, when asked if he could change anything, Wallin makes an interesting point that perhaps illustrate why the latecomers to the app ball have the benefit of other people’s experience to build on: “I’d spend more time thinking through a different business model in order to make Farmanac more sustainable, so I could devote more time to its development,” he concludes.


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