UK market offers opportunity for the prepared and challenge for the unwary

Steven Maxwell
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For overseas exporters hoping to gain access to British grocery retailers and wholesalers, the UK market comes with its own particular challenges which have to be understood fully if companies are to be successful in getting their products onto supermarket shelves and restaurant plates. It is only by learning about the peculiarities of the market that new exporters can hope to make an impact 

Overcoming barriers

Mike Harpham (pictured left), managing director importer Univeg UK, which works with all the major UK multiples with the exception of Asda and Lidl, believes that barriers in the form of regulatory requirements made the UK a challenge compared with other European markets.

As well as regulations covering food safety, plant health and marketing, Harpham says exporters to the UK also have to meet retailers’ own particular standards. Univeg UK carries out around 600 grower audits every year to make sure its suppliers are meeting the norms required by supermarket customers.

“Every retailer conducts business in a different way, such as IPL and Asda with their own direct sourcing model,” Harpham says. “You’ve got from one extreme the discounters, who tender their business. And at the other, premium retailers such as Marks & Spencer, and that’s more of a collaborative, transparent relationship that you build up in the longer-term.”

Harpham says the challenge for exporters seeking to access UK retailers is to “do their homework” and understand which market is right for their proposition.

“You can’t adopt a one-size-fits-all approach – you need to decide which products you’ve got and which market you are targeting,” he advises.

Keep communicating 

Effective communication with growers is essential to make business work and this can be particularly challenging if producers are located on the other side of the world. SH Pratt Group supplies and ripens some 25% of the UK banana market and works with growers in Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Commercial director Simon Trewin (pictured second left) says the company has tackled the issue of communication by putting its own people at source.

This is especially important when it comes to planning banana imports, which typically takes place over a long time-scale. “To have bananas in the final week, we’ve got to be planning eight or nine weeks in advance in terms of harvesting the fruit, then three weeks shipping time, some time in the port and then a six-day ripening cycle,” Trewin says. “So planning is absolutely crucial to get the right volume of bananas to our customers on time. If we fail to plan properly, our business fails.”

Managing quality is also a tough task, which can Trewin emphasises can only be accomplished by having an effective technical team in place and a continuing dialogue with growers.

Trickle-down effect

And at the other end of the chain of supply, understanding consumers is just as important. “Food is exploding in the UK,” says Charlie Hicks (pictured right), UK wholesale and foodservice brand manager at Total Produce, which principally supplies professional kitchens. “It’s all over the television, restaurants are booming. We’re excited about new grub and this is a fantastic thing. And it trickles down.” He says that any exporters looking to tap into this increasing enthusiasm for food must not just understand the client, but also the client’s customer; the consumer. “As an example, in 1992 we were bringing in rocket from Italy, which no-one had heard of,” he says. “We started the year bringing in 10 kilos a week and finished it bringing in a tonne a week. That was trickle down from four chefs, and suddenly it took off.”

Hicks urges exporters interested in the UK market to try and identify food trends by looking at British newspapers and television whenever they can, as well as to use social media. “Twitter – what a fantastic tool – chefs love it,” he enthuses. “Follow the chefs on Twitter.” 

Honesty the best policy 

Similarly to rocket, the exotics arena has witnessed its fair share of products take off and become mainstream and many once-niche tropical lines now fall into this category. However, with only around 20% of niche exotics exporters accounting for 80% of the sales and profits in the UK market there is clearly an arduous undertaking for any new comer to try and break onto the scene.

Peter Durber (pictured second right), managing director of Tropifresh, which is based on New Spitalfields Market there is still a growing market. “How do you be part of that 20%?” he asks. “It’s about doing your homework, knowing your market, looking at the key drivers of success in market and being honest. Long-term honest relationships go a long way.”

These four industry insiders were all speaking at Supplying the UK Market workshop at The London Produce Show and Conference 2016 in June.

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