What we can learn from Spain about eating and selling more fresh produce

Professor David Hughes and Miguel Flavián
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In this special opinion for our Sourcing Spotlight on Spain, David Hughes, Emeritus Professor of Food Marketing at Imperial College London, and Miguel Flavián, who via GM&Co helps several Spanish organisations and companies understand and respond to developments on the British grocery market, assess what the Spanish can teach the UK when it comes to eating and selling more fresh fruits and vegetables

The UK has long been a hugely important market for Spanish fruit and vegetables (read this article on PBUK for more). Yet, on a per capita basis, Brits are wimpy consumers of fresh produce relative to their Iberian counterparts. Rough and ready data suggests that Spanish families consume double the amount of their British near neighbours! Why so?

History, geography, climate and food culture are hugely influential:

  • Spain has been blessed with an amenable climate for growing fruit and vegetables, whereas it’s been a struggle in the UK, particularly “Up North” and for fruit. Sunshine helps and it’s no surprise the Costa del Sol is in Andalusia not in Morecambe!

  • Supply availability have moulded dietary patterns and consumption behaviour. The southern Spanish wolf down what we came to call “the Mediterranean Diet” – one that’s rich in fruit, vegetables and olive oil – whereas up in Scotland, you are more likely to see a Scottish male doing needle point than snacking on a piece of fruit!

  • In the 19th Century, we moved into towns and cities which were, initially, serviced inadequately by fresh food distributors. Packaged and tinned foods were cheaper and more convenient. Meanwhile, the Spanish remained peasants and fresh food was just outside their front door. Our incomes improved and we were seduced by vendors of sugary and salty snacks; whereas the poor Spaniards morosely munched on fresh-picked peaches.

  • The “made-by-mamá” main meal is at lunchtime in Spain and is only, now, coming under lifestyle pressure. To this day it comprises a mountain of fruit and vegetables, including a mandatory salad and, of course, all washed down by fermented grape juice. Seasonal eating isn’t trendy, it’s just what the Spaniards do!

  • Then, the supermarket era emerged at a differential speed in the two countries, giving us the present retail structure for fresh produce. The established supermarket chains dominate the fresh food scene in the UK (accounting for 92% of retail market share), whereas in Spain, regional players and “old-fashioned” greengrocers (often configured in small chains) continue to have a significant share of fresh fruit and vegetable sales to consumers.

Boquería Market Barcelona Spain
The famous Boquería market in Barcelona, Spain

The more traditional retail environment in Spain encourages shoppers to purchase fresh produce. Spanish supermarkets account for 70% of fresh produce retail sales but on every street small shops fight ferociously with them for market share, and they can purchase a wide range of produce via vibrant (by UK standards) wholesale markets and can be competitive not least by discounting their own labour costs.

What can we learn from Spanish grocers?

In short, they’re better at retail theatre and customer service:

  1. There’s less pre-packaged produce. Now, we pre-pack for good reason – some shoppers want to nip in and out of the shop without the inconvenience of individual produce selection. OK, but quality retailers the world over can orchestrate a symphony with loose fruits and vegetables that demand to be purchased!

  2. Knowledge of the product is higher in Spain for both the customer and the vendor. This provides the small grocer with a competitive edge and forces supermarkets to respond with staff who can talk with customers about quality, seasonality, new products, etc. Ours do their best but, largely, they’re there to stack shelves and keep the place tidy. In Spain, there is often an assistant who weighs and bags produce and is there, in person, to tell the story of the food, and is looking for customers who might want help with selection. In some stores, the outdoor market ambience can be created by the greengrocer shouting out special offers

  3. Spain is still way ahead on celebrating the seasonality of produce, although the UK has improved enormously. When we talked to UK college students about spring cabbage, most thought the principal attribute of the product was that it was intrinsically bouncy! There’s a push to have the first of the season ahead of competitors – a dangerous game because the result can be the triumph of hope over experience as the long awaited peach is crunchy and tasteless. Mind you, it’s one of life’s commercial conundrums that when produce is at its very best and in peak season – juicy, aromatic, etc. – we tend to give it away!

Mercadona has been Spain’s most successful supermarket grocer in recent years and has upped the ante on fresh foods. Its president, Juan Roig, said: “we made the mistake of thinking we could sell produce as if it is ambient goods and squeeze costs in the store. Big mistake – focusing on customer service, provenance, seasonality and better displays of loose products has worked brilliantly for us”.

In the fresh produce department, there are few brands, tastes vary with the season, appearances may flatter the product (looks lovely, tastes like cardboard) and, in the UK – notwithstanding the tsunami of TV cookery programmes – shopper knowledge of the product is substantially less than in Spain.

So, bite the bullet, invest more in staff training and bring the excitement of the Iberian fruit and vegetable market to UK towns and cities from Glasgow to Gillingham.

Mercadona Spain
Mercadona’s new fresh produce section

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Read other articles in our Sourcing Spotlight on Spain:

UK appeal endures for Spain’s major produce growing areas

Eurobanan sweetens UK buyers with Canary Island bananas and tropical fruit

Canary Islands tomatoes strive to retain 130-year-old UK relationship built on quality

Spain’s Anecoop builds on historical citrus strength to stay ahead in the UK

Unica claims innovation and cooperation are vital to UK success

Persimon: the ‘unexpected hero’ in Spain’s UK supply basket

Supply-chain logistics throw up Spanish transportation challenge

Valencia’s top PGI organisation hopes to launch citrus brand in UK

Catalans look to UK for sales potential in wake of Russian import ban

Spanish gastronomy leaps out of frying pan and into the fire

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