Panellists tell sector to partner up, seize opportunity, promote and persevere
A packed ballroom at The Grosvenor House hears from the Breakfast Panel speakers

Panellists tell sector to partner up, seize opportunity, promote and persevere

Jim Butler
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Chaired by our very own Perishable Pundit Jim Prevor, 12 industry insiders convened on the second morning of The London Produce Show and Conference to share their views at the Thought Leaders Breakfast Panel on subjects ranging from the opportunities that present themselves to retailers and suppliers alike, via developing markets, changing consumer habits and how much political pressures come to bear upon the sector

Work collaboratively

As a packed – and rapt – ballroom tucked into their breakfast, Prevor noted that there were a number of opportunities for vendors in the marketplace, and not just with the Big Four, which he declared have to change. Noting the increasingly important foodservice sector and the wholesale markets, Prevor asked Neil Gibson, produce category manager at Iceland about vendors accessing other parts of the UK market.

Gibson stated that he felt it was the job of UK retailers to make the sector more attractive again by working collaboratively and taking costs out responsibly. Noting Iceland’s ability to be more “fleet of foot” he praised the benefits of the discounters.

Bruce Peterson, president of Peterson Insights in the US and a former senior vice-president of perishables at Wal-Mart, stressed the importance of understanding the wants and needs of the end consumer – the public. “Consumers are not one homogenous group,” he argued persuasively, “and therefore isn’t any one-size-fits-all approach. What is it that these groups want out of fresh produce?”

Act on opportunity

Duccio Caccioni, marketing and quality Manager of the CAAB, Bologna’s agri-food centre and the fourth largest general fruit and vegetable wholesale market in Italy, warmed to this theme. He noted that after years of declining consumption (down 20% since 2000) in Italy there had been a small rise – 1% – in the last year. “People are interested again,” he said. “That is an opportunity and we must act. We must work hard to increase consumption further.” Key to this he said was education, particularly among the young where he disappointingly acknowledged that obesity was a real problem in children.

This was the perfect segue for Oli (son of Raymond) Blanc to speak. He has developed an app, Henri Le Worm, which seeks to extol the virtues of fresh produce to children in a language and medium – digital – they understand. Much like Sesame Street was developed at the end of the 1960s to tackle the increasing literacy problems in the deprived areas of the US, Henri tackles the issue of insufficient education among the very young about the importance of fresh fruit and vegetables.

“The app has been received warmly,” said Blanc. “I know it works, it’s just getting the information out. The cartoon that we are developing will reach the masses. There’s only a positive message about produce.”

Paying the price of sustainability

One of the buzz words in the industry – and certainly it was uttered numerous times across the show – is of course sustainability. Hugo Vermuelen, managing director of Cool Fresh International in Holland, noted the increase in demand for certified produce, such as Rainforest Alliance bananas from Costa Rica, but he pointed out that this rising demand causes some problems in terms of added costs for growers. He felt that if the industry as a whole wants to behave more responsibly, which he agreed it should, consumers should be prepared to pay for this.

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Know your markets

Vic Savenello, president of Allegiance Retail Services in the US, was another to urge retailers to examine and engage with the specific and often unique needs of their customers. “It keeps us on our toes,” he pointed out, before adding: “But it keeps things exciting.”

Andre de Klerk, director of trading and new business development at Capespan UK, concurred with this view. He argued his customers had become more discerning, stating that the appearance had been joined in importance by eating quality.

Peter Gohl, Spar South Africa’s national fresh foods executive, was another who emphasised the importance of thinking local. As it was pointed out by Prevor that Spar had bucked received wisdom by coming from South Africa and buying up divisions in northern Europe, Gohl admitted that Spar was contrary in that respect. “We’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to acquire companies in northern Europe,” he replied. “Our philosophy is to look at the local market though. We encourage our retailers to assimilate into the local markets.”

Peterson pointed out that the idea of a mass market was disappearing, thus again backing up the claims for all in the supply chain to know their markets. “Consumers can get things through a multitude of channels,” he said. “They can get what they want, when they want it.”

Gibson agreed, noting that variety was prevalent. “There’s more choice in the market. Look at the tiering of products. We are being rewarded with quality.” He went onto point out that in one of Iceland’s Glasgow stores recently a promotion on prepared melon and grape was outselling Irn-Bru.

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Left to right: Neil Gibson, Peter Gohl and Andre de Klerk

Patience is rewarded

Sumit Saran, head of international foods and fresh business at Future Group in India, urged western partners to persevere with India. He recounted the humorous tale of planting a bamboo and how the bamboo remained four inches high for four years before suddenly growing in year five. His point was that in the preceding years the plant had been steadily growing roots below the ground. Once it was strong enough its strengths became visible. He said it was vital for effective partnerships in India, and argued it was all about three Ps – partnership, promote and persevere.

The political uncertainty wrought by Brexit, the unrest in the Middle East and what will happen in Russia were touched upon. “It’s not always easy weighing up the risk and reward scenario,” said De Klerk.

Fittingly, the final word of the informative panel was left to Gibson who pleasingly noted that Iceland’s recent drive on fresh produce has been paying dividends. He said: “When we get produce right it lifts the whole store. We’ve found that our customers buy a fuller basket across the whole store. With fresh produce wrapped up in notions of quality it can help the whole profile of the business.” 

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