Do you know your onions? Amy Lanning sat in on MBL's first masterclass in selling fruit and vegetables

Musgrave Budgens Londis staged the first of its new fresh produce training courses for Londis retailers last month, following the rollout of its fruit and veg central supply service. This now gives all Londis retailers access to quality-controlled, traceable and pesticide-screened produce backed by regular promotions.
A dozen retailers attended the course, which was held at Malpas Farmers Market in Malpas, Cheshire, and hosted by Londis retailer Nigel Owen and trainer Michael Green. Their goal was to find out how to maximise sales of fresh produce. And, boy, was there a lot to learn.
The course kicked off with a presentation on why the category is so important to convenience stores. HIM data shows slippage in the number of shoppers entering a Londis store intending to purchase fruit and veg compared with the number of customers who actually bought it. And Londis is bottom of the rung when these fruit and vegetable basket penetrations are compared with other retailers. Fresh produce appears in 30% of baskets in Budgens stores, 16% in Co-ops, 9% in Spar stores, 4% in independent shops, 4% in Premier outlets and 3% in Londis, making the c-store average 6%.
When Londis shoppers were asked what factors are most important when buying fresh produce in c-stores, freshness was number one at 50%. Quality was next with 31% of the votes, and price came in at 8%, hygiene 5% and brands only 1%. The opportunity is huge as 63% of Londis shoppers say they would buy fruit or vegetables from a Londis store.
After the statistics it was down to the nitty-gritty and what legal requirements are needed for displaying produce. These are: price (per kg for loose produce), weight, description, variety, classification and country of origin. Failure to display any of these is breaking the law. "Classification and country of origin labels are the most important things people learn when they come on these courses," Green pointed out.
All labels must show the classification of the product - this may be Extra Class (usually reserved for the likes of Harrods), Class 1, or Class 2. Most c-store produce will be Class 1, with the exception of onions, which are never Class 1 because it's virtually impossible to keep their skins intact during storage.
Green explained what makes a Class 1 Cox's apple: the flesh must be free from rotting or deterioration; there can be a slight defect in shape and colouring; the stalk may be missing as long as the break is clean; and slight skin defects must be no more than 2cm long, cover no more than 1sq cm and slight bruising must cover no more than 1sq cm. A Class 1 Cox's apple must have a minimum diameter of 55mm; no more than a 5mm difference in diameter per case; a minimum of 10% red colouring; a maximum of 20% net-like russeting (brown, rough texture around the stalk); a maximum of 5% heavy russeting; and an allowance of 10% of the apples per case not meeting Class 1 but meeting Class 2.
When it comes to handling and storage of fresh produce, Green told his students: "Stock rotation is very important and you must be careful when handling product. Check the quality on delivery and if it's not good enough complain to Londis and we can track it back to the supplier."
Quality checks should also be made twice a day and everything except potatoes and onions should be chilled. "If you have limited chilled space, don't chill hard core fruit and citrus fruits," said Green. "All salad and soft fruit needs to be chilled. Bananas should ideally be stored at 14°C, while prepared salads need to be chilled below 5°C."
Green also stressed the importance of being able to demonstrate due diligence. "You should record temperature checks, cleaning, date checks, price checks, code checks and point of sale or shelf-edge label checks. Basic due diligence could be a food hygiene course certificate."
The legal temperature for all fridges is 0-8°C - 0-5°C for fresh meat and best practice. Temperature checks should be made and recorded three times a day. "When challenged you can only demonstrate due diligence by showing completed paperwork, which should be kept for 18 months. Lack of adherence could result in substantial fines, a criminal record and damaged reputation.
"Price checks should be completed weekly and recorded, code and shelf-edge label checks should be completed daily, and it is illegal to sell something with an expired use-by date. And it is good practice to avoid selling products with an expired best before or display until date."
While many retailers will be wary of throwing money down the drain, an element of wastage is inevitable. "You need to have 5% wastage or you won't be getting the potential from fresh produce," said Green. "About 4% should go on reductions and 1% should go in the bin."
To control wastage, Green recommends that retailers check codes daily, have a price reduction procedure and amend orders regularly. "Price cuts should be straight to half price. Research shows that if you reduce by a quarter, you'll end up with more wastage."
The final part of the course covered merchandising. Best practice includes chilling all produce (except potatoes and onions), grouping categories together, using clear shelf-edge labels, making seasonal changes and keeping the fixture clean. "Tilting shelves shows produce off best, and the best way to display bananas is to hang them, or display with either end facing downwards," said Green.

Retailers' feedback

May Whittingham, Bridge Garage, Llanfair Caereinion, Welshpool
"We were already stocking fresh produce before attending the course but we came home with a lot of new knowledge, especially on the legal requirements. You really have to be more aware of labelling, cleanliness and general good housekeeping these days.
I took away a lot of things from the course that I didn't know before. It made me realise the importance of displaying produce in a chiller cabinet so we are now undergoing a bit of a refit
to introduce a chilled cabinet for fruit and veg. We had a one-metre ambient area before so we're going to be a lot bigger. I think we're now much better equipped to increase our produce offer."

Phil Goodwin, Hixon, Staffordshire
"I found the course very useful because I wanted to learn how to market and merchandise fresh produce. All the legal stuff was good, and learning about what goes in the chiller and what doesn't was useful. I found all the labelling requirements such as country of origin very interesting and how you should change the display on a seasonal basis. We've recently taken the Londis produce range so I feel a lot more motivated now to push that forward. It's an area that needs a lot of development because there's big demand for it."


The British asparagus season runs throughout May and June, and in the past two years asparagus sales as a whole were up by almost 60%, with more than double the number of British households adding it to their trolley in 2006 compared with 2004.
Customers will be looking for asparagus with firm, green spears and tight, crisp tips. They can be stored in the fridge for a few days, but the best way to keep asparagus fresh is by placing it in a jug or vase with the stems in water in the fridge. It should always be stored in the dark.
Because asparagus is grown in sandy soil, it should be washed well to remove any grit before cooking. White ends should be trimmed or peeled and stems shouldn't be overcooked. A little resistance should be felt when the spear is tested with a knife.