What Can We Learn from the Spanish about Eating and Selling More Fruit and Vegetables?

We Brits are wimpy consumers of fresh produce relative to our Iberian neighbours – rough and ready data suggests that Spanish families consume double the amount that we do! 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. Look, sunshine helps and, no surprise, the Costa de Sol is in Andalucia not in Morecambe!;
  • supply availability moulded dietary patterns and consumption behavior – the Southern Spanish woofed down what we came to call “the Mediterranean Diet” – rich in fruit, vegetables and olive oil, whereas up in Scotland, you were 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. 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; the poor Spaniards morosely munched on fresh-picked peaches;
  • the “made-by-mamá” main meal is at lunchtime and is only, now, coming under lifestyle pressure in Spain comprising to this day 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 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 (92% retail market share), whereas in Spain, regional players and “old-fashioned” green grocers (often configured in small chains) continue to have a significant share of fresh fruit and vegetable sales to consumers.
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The famous Boquería Market in Barcelona, Spain (Fotograph http://www.aspic.es)

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 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. You see the same in many Asian countries where the “wet markets” hold on tenaciously to market share for fresh foods, particularly fruit and vegetables.

What can we learn from the Spanish grocers? In short, they’re better at retail theatre and customer service:

  • first, 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!;
  • second, 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;
  • we’ve improved enormously in the UK on celebrating the seasonality of produce but we’re still a long way behind the Spanish. Talking to UK college students about Spring cabbage, we noted that 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 as 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 they were 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. Bite the bullet, invest more in staff training and bring the excitement  of the Iberian fruit and vegetable market to Glasgow and Gillingham.

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Mercadona’s new fresh produce section (Source Mercadona)

This post first appeared in Produce Business UK as part of their Spain Sourcing Spotlight Series.

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About the authors
Prof David Hughes: Around the world, David speaks to senior agribusiness and food industry managers about global food industry developments that are and will affect their businesses and industry. Energetic, engaging, humorous and insightful, David gains the very highest evaluations at seminars, conferences and Board level discussions in every continent he visits. Miguel Flavián: works for several Spanish organisations and companies to help them to learn from the developments of the British grocery market and improve their business back home.
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