Whatever anyone might write or say about the UK grocery market, it is still inarguably dominated by the major supermarket chains.
It is not a particularly out-there view, however, to say that the purchasing dynamics of the UK have changed dramatically in the last few recession-hit years, both in the way buyers in this country buy their fruit and vegetables and the way it is sold to consumers.
We are watching some of those dominant customers going through unprecedented turbulent times – as the middle ground grocery chains that have had such a spectacular period of growth for the last 30 years are for the first time ever seeing their sales drop and their profits slump. There is no great joy seeing this happen, as these retailers have taken the industry to new levels in the last half a century and were perceived for quite some time as the standard bearers for world grocery retail.
There is a part of me I suppose that believes sometimes what goes around comes around and after years of pummelling suppliers, it won’t hurt the big four to suffer for a while, reassess, restructure and reboot. They are big enough and hard enough to bounce back stronger and not only that, they should.
Of course, the supermarket shelves in the UK are not empty and even though those suppliers have been put through the wringer, not many are actively trying to divest themselves of business with the big guns. Put simply, though, legions of suppliers around the globe have either given up or been on the verge of giving up on the UK for some years and these tougher times might actually pull this market back from the precipice in the long run. It’s undoubtedly going to be a painful process for some, but the realisation is growing that there is more to the UK market than the big four supermarkets.
London has become arguably the most cosmopolitan city in the world in recent years and it now has a restaurant and independent retail scene to match. As articles we have already published on this site show, this trend is now spreading to many of the big conurbations around the country and it has fuelled a revival of the wholesale market scene, which was widely felt to be an endangered species 15 years ago, and massive growth for a band of regional and national foodservice and catering suppliers. Both of these buying sectors are constantly on the search for top-notch product and the source country is rarely as important to them as it might be to a supermarket buyer looking for huge volume at low prices, ahead of any other consideration. That need for volume by nature limits their flexibility.
There are also large expat communities around the country that demand specific products, so we are seeing new opportunities spring up in the UK for growers around the world who may not traditionally have seen the market as an attractive option. The standards are high – one thing that the supermarkets have undeniably brought to the UK market is a consistency of product that has pricked the consumer conscience to the extent that fresh produce of lower quality is in short demand. GlobalGAP is seen as the minimum requirement by almost everyone and as supermarkets have put their own higher standards in place over the years, so foodservice suppliers are now following.
Even in the more difficult times (some might say particularly in those times) there exists opportunity for growers and suppliers who can continue to deliver high-quality product that meets the need of their customer to satisfy consumers. While firms lose chunks of business and some struggle to continue, it is never as simple a scenario as ‘everyone’s a loser’; there are always winners in the perishable food marketplace.
Even in the UK market that has become obsessed with price – there are many pockets of opportunity – the key for buyers is to recognise them and then find suppliers who can fill their needs. For suppliers, as always, the most important thing is to be in a position to be found by the buyers or their supply partners.
While I would be a fool to predict who and where they will be in 2015, history tells us all too well that come the end of this year, there will be plenty of success stories alongside the odd tale of woe.
It was the fast-paced evolution of this market and the need for UK buyers and UK and international suppliers to find each other and identify each other’s potential that encouraged the Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC) and Produce Business to launch the London Produce Show and Conference in 2014 - and then for us to further launch this publication for buyers of fresh produce last month.
This year’s London Produce Show & Conference will take place at Grosvenor House, a JW Marriott hotel on Park Lane, London, on June 3-5.
Last year, 128 exhibition booths and their hosts covered virtually every category and a huge number of the countries that provide produce into the UK market. The exhibitors represented 41 countries and we attracted 1150 visitors from 46 different countries.
Retail, wholesale and foodservice buyers from not only the UK, but Scandinavia, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Canada, the US, South Africa, the Middle East and Russia added to the international flavour and spread the opportunity to create new business far beyond the British border. Every buyer had the time to cover the show floor and was also presented with networking occasions that allowed them to share and learn, build new relationships and perhaps not least enjoy the sumptuous surroundings of the venue in the midst of industry friends and colleagues.
This year’s event promises a similarly enriching experience. The venue provides the ideal backdrop for a relatively informal and convivial atmosphere that exhibitor feedback tells us was conducive to building relationships and importantly, doing business.
We can do a lot online these days, but it is only by meeting and exchanging ideas that the most important relations and biggest decisions come to pass. That is an important reason for exhibiting at and attending London Produce Show and Conference.
I look forward to seeing you there.