Can produce address the divide and rule?

Tomm Leighton
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I found the North-South divide depicted in our exclusive Kantar Worldpanel offering this month quite fascinating. For me, it’s a good example of where data appears to offer opportunity, but reality means that opportunity is hard to find

As someone who was born and raised in the Midlands, I will always be a gritty northerner to anyone south of Watford Gap and a soft southerner to those who reside north of Chesterfield. I have a mum from Kent and a dad from the Black Country, but rather than develop a chip on both of my shoulders, I definitely grew up more northern in mind than southern.

Rattle me around a little though and you’ll soon find I’m not a full-blown northerner. However, I’ve lived in and around London for 20 years and been married to a girl from the south coast for 11 years now, but still I don’t think I can class myself as a southerner. Experience tells me it’s pretty fair to assume that I’d probably be saying the opposite if I’d spent the last 20 years in Newcastle upon Tyne – and definitely if I lived in Inverness.

So, the concept of a North-South divide has always intrigued, though never quite enveloped me. Since I left my cosseted Midlands home, the divide has often come up as a discussion point. But I’ve largely been able to act as an interested and, particularly lately, unbiased bystander.

Despite the attempts of many to deny its existence, I think it’s pretty hard to argue against the fact that a divide exists in the nation’s politics, health, earnings and house prices, to name just four key indicators.

Commercially, the differences between North and South are there for all to see too; I can smugly write for instance that the recession didn’t have a major impact on my life living in central London, then Kent (about a mile from where my mum was born in fact), but that doesn’t stop me from sympathising with the huge difficulties that are still being experienced across large swathes of the country. The rise of the SNP in Scotland is in many ways reflective of the ambivalence (I could use stronger words, I know) of the Scottish population to the ‘national’ government, but it is also an uprising that reflects a general feeling that southern England in particular is favoured over Scotland by the decision makers.

I’m not going to wade into that debate here, so to cut to the chase and bring this round to the matter in hand, what is it about this divide that affects the frequency with which people shop for produce? And is there a real opportunity to drive frequency up to the national average in areas outside of the South of England?

While price and affordability is undoubtedly a key differentiator in the volume of produce that people buy in different parts of Britain, and to an extent where they choose to buy it, the major driver of trip frequency has to be density and therefore accessibility of stores in each region. When national or regional retailers across the spectrum choose their locations, they will usually do so on the basis that they can guarantee a certain level of footfall and expenditure per square foot. As an example, only two of the top 100 postcodes for convenience stores in the UK are in the North East of England, according to data from CACI. Forty are in London.

It’s little wonder then, that the produce shopper in London buys produce several times more often than their counterpart in the North East. Because there are so many more opportunities to fit shopping into daily life, parents – to take just one demographic – don’t need to dress the kids, get them out of the house, strapped into the car, take them back out of the car, deal with the histrionics in-store and then repeat in reverse every time they go to the shop.

Can we take the fact that Kantar’s data shows price activity and expanding ranges has had a positive influence on purchase frequency on products such as cucumbers, grape, blueberries and ripe and ready avocados in the South as proof that a similar approach could be a performance driver in the North? The larger retailers are closing stores and abandoning expansion programmes, so you’d have to say that’s unlikely. While shoppers are continuing to buy similar volumes per trip, if those trips are less frequent then – well, you can do the maths…

Nothing in Kantar’s data tells us whether the consumer in the North, the Midlands, Scotland or Wales would prefer to shop more frequently, of course. But divide or otherwise, the mere fact that southern shopping habits have changed so quickly because they have more choice conveniently on their doorsteps would suggest that a similar trend could easily develop elsewhere if it was given the oxygen.

The data also doesn’t break down in great detail the difference between rural and urban areas. Depending on what measurements you use, London has somewhere between eight and 12 million inhabitants – roughly one fifth of the population. That imbalance can skew any data, especially when you consider the wider and relatively uninhabited expanses of the country that are also covered by the same measurement.

But if you ask me if the industry can translate some of the methods that have driven purchase frequency and improve performance elsewhere in the country then I’d have to say yes. The key is not only how that is driven through traditional retail outlets, but how we use online retail, local and regional grocery outlets and other emerging routes to the consumer to reach the potential for growth that the static retail chains are just not able to reach.

Like most things, it’s debatable, but somewhere, someone is getting to grips with this data and trying to attack the opportunity. From a produce industry perspective, I hope there are plenty of readers out there who recognise the role this category can play in encouraging consumers to shop more, perhaps spend more, but definitely engage more with the products you are trying to market.  

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