Association of Convenience Stores chief executive James Lowman acknowledges that consistency throughout the sector is an issue. "There have always been some fantastic examples of convenience stores offering great fresh produce, just as there have been some poorer performers who have struggled to get their offer right," he says.
However, he is optimistic that things are changing. "We have seen more awareness of the opportunities in fresh produce and a greater tendency to see wastage as an investment rather than just a cost," says Lowman. "If retailers are improving their sales, they will inevitably have to over-order to ensure availability and quality. Clearly, as the fresh offer becomes established, it is important to control this wastage, but a c-store with no fresh wastage is probably also out of stock too often for customers' liking."
Florette UK marketing manager Elaine Smith agrees that some wastage is necessary. "Unlike larger retailers, where fresh fruit and veg is seen as a profit-generating 'shop-front', c-stores have a very different approach to fresh fruit and veg listings," she says. "They prefer to order less - or even avoid listing fresh products at all because the associated wastage has to come off tightly managed profit margins."
Fruit & veg aficionado Vic Grewal, who owns Grewal's Budgens of Chorleywood, Hertfordshire, is equally frustrated. "Many c-store retailers don't really have the right attitude with fruit and veg. I get disappointed when I visit other stores and availability is poor," he says. "Some people are so concerned about wastage that they are under-ordering and their shelves are empty. There's no point in having one or two products on shelf - it needs to be full - and you have to accept that there will be some wastage."
He speaks from experience: "When I bought this store three years ago we had 3.5% wastage across fresh and chilled, but by the end of the year overall sales had shot up by 60%, so it was worth it."
And, of course, there are ways of ensuring that unsold produce doesn't make too much of a dent in your wallet. "If it looks like there might be wastage in my store, I try to take fruit off the shelf the day before the expiry date, prepare it into salad bowls and sell it at the deli counter," says Vic.
He adds: "If worse comes to worse, you can always take the produce home for your family."
He advises that c-stores new to selling fruit and veg must give it a chance to succeed. "If you've never sold fruit in your store before, then you need to give it eight to 10 weeks minimum to take off," he claims. "Even if it doesn't work straight away, this may well be due to how and where you display it, so be prepared to experiment."
Tricks of the trade
Florette has a few tricks to impart when it comes to improving sales. "Communicate with your customer," urges Smith. "Ensure pos material is highly visible and well positioned around relevant fixtures and that any promotion is clearly highlighted."
Fruit and veg is also an area where a brand, such as Florette, can really be leveraged, she adds. "It can be used to inject some colour, personality and innovation to the c-store shelf, as well as emotionally, in terms of reassuring the consumer in product quality, thanks to brand awareness and advertising support."
And, above all else, freshness is key, claims Smith. "Our own consumer research highlights that the salad consumer judges freshness firstly by the appearance of the leaves themselves (whether there are any brown or limp leaves); then whether there is a long use by date (since 80% will not use the product on the day of purchase); and, thirdly, the fridge life, as consumers want the reassurance that the product will stay fresh ready for when they come to use it."
The company has also discovered that a product's texture is vital to its perception of freshness. Following research among bagged salad and wholehead buyers, Florette has launched a new mix - Deliciously Crunchy, which contains Little Gem whole leaves and Red Batavia.
The company's research has shown that consumers are passionate about crunchy leaves because they perceive them to be extra-fresh. "Incorporating a whole leaf into the bag creates a strong point of difference on the shelf, because it isn't something that is currently available in the crunchy sector," says Smith.
From a retailer perspective, freshness can only be achieved through regular product maintenance and stock rotation. "It's all very well stacking up the fruit, or filling your shelves with bagged salad, but if you're not rotating it, it's no good," says Vic. "Some customers like to dig deep into the pile and you don't want them to find a mouldy product. I make a point of doing stock checks regularly to make sure that this doesn't happen."
And Vic's final words of advice for ensuring the success of your fruit and veg category is to really listen to the needs of your customers. "Budgens has a policy of buying British, but sometimes people aren't worried about that; they just want a specific type of fruit regardless of where it's from," he explains. "For example, many of my customers enjoy red apple varieties, which are grown abroad, so once a week I buy some products from a market instead of our main supplier. If the demand is there, you have to be flexible."
l Source regular suppliers
l Maintain good stock rotation
l Create an exciting display
l Watch out for rots
l Contrast colours
l Communicate to customers using shelf barkers
l Keep produce under bright lights
l Place apples next to bananas as they release ethylene, which speeds up the ripening process
l Let your supplies run low
l Store product at temperatures above 38°c
Florette's new Deliciously Crunchy claims to offer consumers a different kind of crunch. While other bagged salads get their crunch from cabbage and carrots, Deliciously Crunchy instead contains Little Gem whole leaves and Red Batavia.
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English Apples and Pears chief executive Adrian Barlow has this advice on selling apples.
"It's very difficult to get the right mix of varieties given the space restrictions many retailers have. The main apples to go for are Gala, Braeburn and Cox when in season (late September until early April). Although they aren't grown in Britain, Pink Lady should also be stocked. If you have more room, then it's worth considering newer varieties such as Cameo, Kanzi and Jazz.
"It's really important to separate different colours of apples as the colour will attract consumers to the category. There's also huge interest in local produce, so highlighting that on shelf barkers can be very valuable."
The opportunities for c-store retailers to cash in on fruit and veg sales are set to grow, following the fresh produce industry's pledge to focus more heavily on the convenience sector.
"While the big four supermarkets still represent the prime focus for a large number of suppliers and growers, there is a growing recognition that, in order to spread risk and increase profit potential, the net has to be cast wider," claimed the Fresh Produce Consortium at its Re:fresh conference in London on May 28.
The group admits that convenience stores have been overlooked by fruit and veg suppliers, but claims that it is keen for suppliers to engage more proactively with c-stores in the future. "With convenience stores at the heart of the community, they are well placed to carry the message of
5-a-day," the Fresh Produce Consortium says.
The Association of Convenience Stores chief executive James Lowman concedes that, in the past, suppliers have ignored convenience stores to a degree, but he is confident that things are set to change. "With the convenience sector growing and the trend moving towards people shopping more frequently and topping-up on a more regular basis, there is a huge opportunity for everyone in the fresh produce supply chain to benefit," he says.