June 19, 2014

Understanding your customers’ needs

Michael Worthington, Chief Executive Officer of PMA Australia-New Zealand, says the produce sector is ripe with fresh opportunities for fruit and vegetables growers of all sizes – as long as they keep pace with their customers’ changing needs.

 Fruit and vegetables are good for us. Everyone from the government to the local doctor is telling us to eat more. Even popular TV shows now entice us with exciting new ways to prepare them. So how can growers make the most of all this positive word of mouth?

Michael Worthington is the Chief Executive Officer of PMA Australia-New Zealand, an affiliate of the global Produce Marketing Association working across the entire fresh fruit, vegetable and floral supply chain. He believes the key is for growers to do as much research as often as possible so that they really understand what consumers want and can provide products too match.

“There are many ways to get a better understanding on what customers are saying and doing,” says Worthington. “All of the bigger companies and growers’ associations do a certain level of consumer research. Sales data is a good indicator of volume sales and whether the price point is right. And focus groups are increasingly popular, where growers can talk directly to consumers about their preferences and what they’d like to see in the future.”

A push for convenience

The new way to enjoy fruit and vegetables seems to be ‘the easier, the better’, especially with younger consumers. Over the past decade, a push for convenience has seen ‘difficult’ products – like pumpkin and oranges – lose out to snack-type lines, such as blueberries, raspberries, mandarins and prepared or semi-prepared vegetables. And here there are opportunities ripe for picking.

“The good news for growers is that people are prepared to pay more to get exactly what they want,” Worthington explains. “Packaged salads, for example, cost up to 10 times more per kilo than the individual ingredients.”

While taste sounds like a given, in the past it’s been sacrificed for visual appeal. For example, Worthington says the industry got a wake-up call when consumers stopped buying strawberries that were bigger and better-looking but had little flavour. Since then, a lot of work has gone into developing tastier varieties.

Both consumers and retailers are also on the lookout for what Worthington describes as ‘pizazz’.

“Retailers use the sensory appeal of fresh produce to capture foot traffic,” he says. “They also know that people are attracted by things that are new and different, so they’re constantly looking for high-quality, colourful and innovative products.”

Point of sale promotion

Generic industry advertising rarely achieves the cut-through needed to generate sales. Targeted promotions for specific types of fruit and vegetables have been more successful but, as yet, few growers are in a position to market a proprietary brand.

“Typically, growers rely on retailers to promote their produce at the point of sale, so it’s important to find the right fit,” says Worthington. “For example, I advise smaller growers, and particularly those producing speciality lines such as heirloom vegetables, herbs or micro vegetables, to form a relationship with local retailers and focus strongly on the locally-grown angle. But, if you’re growing a commodity line such as oranges, apples or potatoes, it might be better to align yourself with a larger grower or a consolidator who has a supply contract with the bigger outlets.”

What most growers now face is an ongoing challenge to anticipate consumer needs, find the right price point and then guarantee continuity of supply. However, Worthington is confident the industry has never been better placed.

“Consumers, often inspired by cooking shows, are craving better-tasting, easy-to-access fruit and vegetables,” he says. “Growers shouldn’t let up on bringing them to market.”

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