As the latest three-year stint of Fruitness, the European fresh produce consumption campaign, draws to a close this month, Alessandra Ravaioli, who heads up marketing and communication at Centro Servizi Ortofrutticoli (CSO) in Italy, reveals to Produce Business UK why the initiative’s organisers are keen to kick-start another series of activities that will re-engage the UK market, in line with the Italian fruit trade’s aim to reinvigorate UK buyers’ interest in the nation's quality offer
“The next step will be to find ways to re-gain the interest of the UK market,” states Ravaioli; explaining that after nine years of point-of-sale activities and advertising programmes in the UK, the project has not taken off as hoped. “We’re already thinking about how to re-start the Fruitness campaign.”
For the UK, Ravaioli reveals the idea will be to pitch to retailers a series of innovative, in-store promotions that communicate to shoppers in a completely novel way.
“We want to use new concepts as a way of creating an experience for consumers,” she states. “They are eager to know more about the food and fruit they are buying and eating. They want to know the story behind the product – what’s the variety, where’s it from, what’s its nutritional value, how can it be used etc.
“We need to create an experience at the point of sale so it becomes much more than just buying fruit.”
Ravaioli says developing interactive point of sale marketing solutions is an approach also being pursued by Italian retailer Coop, which presented its concept 'supermarket of the future' at Expo 2015 in Milan, Italy, as part of the event’s focus on ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life!’
The store featured interactive, digital displays above the shelves in each aisle to give shoppers more information on the products stocked before them; from the source and carbon footprint to the nutritional value and ideal pairing ingredients.
“There was a very positive reaction from people at Expo 2015 [to the concept supermarket],” she points out. “The idea we would like to develop involves presenting a model of conscious consumption in Europe; helping consumers to increase their knowledge of the various products, their usage, the different ways they can be consumed, what to accompany them with, and how to use them in the kitchen.”
Activities to date
The Fruitness initiative started in 2006 to promote fruit consumption in the UK, Sweden, Poland, Germany and Denmark; primarily pears, kiwifruit, peaches, nectarines, plums and apricots.
Financed by the EU, the Italian government and nine Italian fruit producers who cover 30% of the costs, it’s one of the largest fruit consumption projects in Europe, and also addresses issues such as child obesity.
So far, the promotional strategies have included: direct email marketing and informational newsletters sent to a large number of doctors in the target countries, an interactive website with fruit-themed games for younger visitors, a fun smartphone app to show users the virtues of fruit, together with a wide range of in-store promotions, developed in collaboration with CSO's partner companies who co-finance the project.
Overall, Ravaioli says the organisers are very happy with the progress made by Fruitness since 2006. “We feel we’ve won the challenge,” she claims. “In the latter months of 2015 we recorded very positive results regarding fruit consumption. For example, in Italy, fruit and vegetable consumption surpassed that of meat purchases during August.”
Slow progress in the UK
However, although the number of contacts achieved through point of sale programmes and online communications in the UK is estimated at over 7 million people, Ravaioli admits that the project has been slow to progress in this market. This, she claims, relates to the UK’s loss of interest in Italian fruit in general.
“Over the nine years of promoting fruit consumption by means of the Fruitness project, it has not been easy to bring the rules and activities of a European project into stores in the United Kingdom,” she states.
“The activities in the UK started very well in 2006, with initiative likes in-store promotions with the different UK retailers, including Tesco and Sainsbury’s. It was very well received. But over time, the interest from the UK market waned. In the last two years of the project only two retail chains, Asda and Sainsbury's, were involved, in addition to the normal trade.”
In total, Ravaioli says an impressive 5,474 Fruitness promotion days were held in the UK at Tesco and Sainsbury’s, as well as 2,954 days of activities with the general produce trade. In comparison, by 2014 the number of promotional days, which involved Asda and Sainsbury's, fell to 1,600 days.
On a positive note, Ravaioli says it’s worth noting that the UK showed a “high level of interest” in the section of the Fruitness programme that focused on targeting information to doctors.
“We dispatched information to more than 2,000 doctors on the health-giving properties of fruit and the promotion of fruit consumption – the UK doctors were the most receptive on these topics,” she says.
Dwindling Italian fruit supplies to the UK
Although the UK remains one of the biggest importers of Italian produce, Ravaioli claims the loss of interest over the last few years is linked to logistic and organisational problems inherent in Italy’s fruit offer, as well as fragmentation within the industry.
“In the era of the global market, elements such as a country's organisation, its logistics, and the competitiveness of its production costs, are those which make the difference,” she points out.”
Once upon a time, however, the UK was a major market for Italian fruit, according to Pier Luigi Drei, president of Granfrutta Zani, an historical company in the Italian horticulture industry and one of the first to supply the UK from Italy.
“In the 1980s and 90s Italian fruit was very popular on the UK market,” he explains. “But after that volume started decreasing each year.”
Drei claims the contraction in supply came down to a number of factors, mainly cost-related, such as labour and prices.
“We invested in a very high quality product – and excellence comes at a cost,” he adds. Today, Italian fruit costs more than standard product.”
Although the UK is still a major purchasing partner for Italian fruit, Ravaioli confirms that volumes are constantly dropping year-on-year among the main fruit supply categories as new competitors have emerged.
At the end of this article, you can view a brief overview of the UK’s fruit import trade that illustrates the decline in Italian supply.
Is the UK missing a trick with Italian produce?
Despite the dwindling figures, however, Ravaioli is quick to point out that Italian produce is still appreciated by many markets and perceived as “a guarantee of quality”. So, with the ongoing improvements to the quality of Italy’s fruit supply, as described by Drei at Granfrutta Zani, perhaps UK buyers are missing out on a premium offer from Italy?
“Consumers want great tasting products, and producers have to provide those products but that comes at a cost,” Ravaioli says. “Attempts are now being made to reverse the trend [of Italian fruit exports declining to the UK], by highlighting the quality of Italian produce – a merit which remains indisputable.”
In terms of its varietal offer, Ravaioli says the focus over the last few years in Italy has been on flavour and organoleptic quality.
“There have been excellent results in terms of the consumption of various products, such as pears, apricots, melons, watermelons and plums,” she reveals. “Italian quality is a mixture of tradition, territoriality, experience and innovation – a combination rarely found in other countries.
“Another of Italy's strengths is its biodiversity,” she adds. “In terms of its fruit production, we offer a wide range of products not matched by other countries. We also have a very rigorous system of checks and certification for our products, based on the principles of integrated production, where Italy is the European leader.”
To demonstrate the added value of its quality offer and to garner a higher price, last summer Granfrutta Zani launched a premium brand called Solatia – the name given by poets to the Romagna area of Emilia Romagna.
“Sole in Italian means ‘sun’ and in Romagna we have a very suitable climate for the production of stonefruit,” explains Drei.
In addition, Granfrutta Zani is producing a new club variety of plum, for which the firm has spent the last 10 years investing in research, that Drei believes will be of interest to UK buyers.
“It’s very sweet at 15-20 brix,” Drei notes. “At the moment production is very small. We harvested the first fruit last year and marketed it from June to September under a premium brand called Metis. Our objective is to include the UK among our export markets.”
UK imports of the main fruit lines traditionally supplied by Italy:
Data provided by CSO
Between 2012 and 2014 the volume of kiwifruit imported into the UK averaged about 31,000 tonnes (t), in line with the average for the previous years.
The main supplier country used to be Italy, accounting for 12,000t in 2014, down from about 15,000t in 2010 and 2011.
During this time, there was an upward trend for Chilean kiwifruit imports, which now supplies the UK about 7,000-9,000t, except for in 2014 when the country's crop was small.
This is followed, in order of importance, by European suppliers, led by Belgium, whose volumes rose from over 3,000t in 2010-2012 to more than 4,000t in 2013-14.
Similarly, Greece's market share in the UK has grown; increasing from less than 600t in 2010-11 to 3,000t in 2014.
In 2012, the UK’s pear imports totalled almost 164,000t, up from 130,000t in 2010 and 140,000t in 2011.
The main country supplier is the Netherlands, whose volumes continue to rise – up from 50,000t in 2010 to 89,000t in 2014.
Belgium is second-largest and its supply is also on the up. Some 25,000t were sent to the UK in 2014, compared with 18,000t in 2010-2012.
Imports from South Africa are falling, meanwhile, with supply decreasing from 23,000t in 2010 to 16,000t in 2014.
Portugal ranks fourth; supplying about 15,000t, which is slightly lower than in 2010-2011 due to the small size of the 2014 crop.
Italy supplies about 4,000t, a figure which has been more or less constant over the last five years.
Peaches and nectarines
In 2014, UK imports of peaches and nectarines reached almost 85,000t, up from an average of 67,000t in 2010-2011.
The biggest supplier is Spain, accounting for 65,000t in 2014. This continues the upward trend already seen in previous years, when volumes averaged about 40,000t during 2010-2011.
The trend for Italy is heading downward, with just 5,000t exported in 2014, compared with 11,000t in 2010-2011.
During the last two-year period (2013-2014) UK imports of plums were about 59,000t, a reduction compared with 2011-2012 but more than the 54,000t recorded in 2010.
The biggest supplier was Spain, whose volume rose to 24,000t in 2014, against 18,000-20,000t in the previous years.
South Africa follows as the counter-seasonal supplier, marketing about 15,000t in 2013-2014.
Italy ranked third with 10,000t, which marked a very slight reduction from 2010-2013, when volume was over 11,000t.