How can we all deal with such predictable unpredictability?
Christophe Jouan of the Future Foundation delivered the 2016 City Food Lecture

How can we all deal with such predictable unpredictability?

Tomm Leighton
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After attending the City Food Lecture 2016, Tommy Leighton offers his thoughts on both the challenges facing the food industry and buyers, and how the sector’s responses to consumer behaviour will undoubtedly shape the food landscape of the future​ 

No disrespect is intended to the participants at this year’s City Food Lecture, but I have to admit to feeling a little underwhelmed by the proceedings at London’s Guildhall in February.

I think the main reason for this was the title of the lecture – ‘What, When and How will we be eating in 2025?’. Even though the pace of change quickens with every year, looking just nine years ahead ensured that most of the information this year’s lecturer Christophe Jouan felt able to impart didn’t seem particularly futuristic, or even insightful. Maybe as the chief executive of The Future Foundation, Jouan was limited to sharing titbits that would not preclude members of the audience approaching him as a future client. It just came across as a reasonably obvious extension of what’s already happening.

I think most of the audience would have guessed that technology is going to drive change in the next nine years. It is fairly well established also that middle-class consumers are increasingly attempting to exercise more control over their diets, that they are eating less meat and seeking other sources of protein, that they want convenience and immediacy and that they respond well to foods that have obvious health benefits attached to them. Similarly, no-one audibly gasped when Jouan mentioned smart fridges, smarter attitudes towards food and the increasingly smart use of mobile technology to purchase food.

Jouan, it should be said, seemed to be suffering with a head cold, so he may well have not been on top form. He did give a good general overview of the different routes to market that are being opened up by existing and particularly emerging players, and he was hamstrung by a title that it would be tough to cover in 10 times the amount of time he had on the stage.

Whatever my perspective this year, the City Food Lecture has become one of the highlights of the food industry year in recent times, and it is always worth being in the audience. By far the most interesting section of the 2016 edition was the panel discussion that followed the core lecture. Sainsbury’s brand director Judith Batchelar told a packed Guildhall that it is becoming harder for retailers to stereotype consumers who are less willing to stay in their pigeonholes. She said that these days, Sainsbury’s cannot predict how its customers will behave at any given time and is developing fleet-of-foot responses.

That type of unpredictability promises to render the whole art of generic medium- and long-term consumer behaviour forecasting far less exact and intrinsically less valuable. I would forecast therefore that you will see fewer conferences with titles like this one in years to come.

It is clear though that the opportunities that exist for anyone who can get themselves ahead of the curve by either seeing or second-guessing what the future holds are still huge. Using data and technology to give the consumers what they want, whenever and wherever they want it has always been pie in the sky stuff, but it is now not only crucial, but also possible for those with the right business model. By creating the correct distribution channels and “tailoring food for the moment”, as Jouan put it in his conclusion, the retail and foodservice industries can position themselves to handle the ever-changing consumer. There is so much further to go, it’s clear – and anyone hoping to drift aimlessly through the next decade should probably get out now.

The way management and their teams in different buying sectors respond to this will shape the food purchasing landscape over much longer than the next nine years. Already, we are moving gradually away from the traditional supermarket model. That does not mean that supermarkets are dead, more that they must continuously reinvent themselves to survive and thrive. Batchelar said this actually starts with the farmer or grower and warned that a two-tier farming system could emerge – split between those who are technologically savvy and tooled up for challenge ahead and those who are not. She said the average age of the British farmer is 57 – and pointed out that the younger generation, who know best how to employ new technological advances, is just not on the farm any more. She also called on the buying sector to support the next generation of farmers in the supply chain, for the future good of the food industry. Hear hear.

This crucial issue does not really tally with the insistence of more than one panellist that provenance will continue to be a driver for the consumer. There is clear faith in our food system and British growers feed off that, but if we have no new generation of people to take the food industry into the next brave new world, will the industry be able to maintain its position?

As well as a lack of young blood, it’s unlikely that Britishness can afford to retain its appeal if we can’t find a way to convince the consumer to alter their general view that food grown locally should be cheaper. HRH The Princess Royal gave an excellent closing address and she herself asked whether either the industry or the consumer actually knows the real cost of food.

Sainsbury’s and everyone else are making a big point of selling ‘wonky’ fruit and veg at the moment, as I’m sure every UK reader of this site has noted. But isn’t this another case that underlines Princess Anne’s point? The aesthetically imperfect produce is being sold as a cheap, second-rate product when in fact it is no more second rate than its admittedly more beautiful brethren being sold for much higher prices on the neighbouring shelf. It might help reduce waste, but the fact that we have conditioned consumers to believe that perfect appearance equates to top quality is the problem. I’m obviously not a grower, though I understand very well that crop utilisation is important. However, I also know that produce costs the same amount of money to produce whatever its final aesthetics, and I sincerely hope that the growers and suppliers of this mis-shapen product are not being asked to foot the bill for an overblown marketing exercise. If they are simply the pawns in the latest supermarket game, then this media-friendly venture could actually damage the supply chain more than it helps it.

Again, the consumer is being encouraged to expect produce to be cheap – the danger being that as we have seen with so many marketing exercises, all that happens eventually is that the cheaper offer is used to drag prices down across the board. For me, this is the biggest challenge of the years ahead. As consumers become smarter about their produce – the industry must surely find ways to ensure that part of their customers’ new-found intelligence is a recognition that someone somewhere has to pay to sustain the level of consistent supply they demand. And that applies to any produce, wherever it is produced in the world.

If we’ve achieved this by 2025, the produce sector will be in much ruder health than it is now and that’s the only way consumers and the people who sell to them will truly find contentment.

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