Welcome to our post-event coverage of the inaugural Global Grape Summit! The event which took place on June 5 in conjunction with the London Produce Show and Conference was a huge success, drawing an international crown of 300 important industry actors delving into the biggest issues facing the sector. This week we will be providing summaries of each of the seven educational sessions in four parts.
This fourth and final part will feature two sessions both looking at different aspects of selling grapes in two key markets - one session on e-commerce in China and the other featuring a panel that discussed retail opportunities in the U.K.
George Liu, CEO, Frutacloud (China)
China may not be the world's biggest table grape import market, but it is rapidly building a taste for seedless and newer varieties, becoming an increasingly attractive destination for many exporters.
George Liu began his presentation by highlighting the monumental growth of the Chinese e-commerce market, which, driven by Millennials and Generation Z, in 2018 represented a 24% share of the total retail market, up from 10% in 2014. Over the same period, the share of online fresh produce within total retail increased to 11% from just 2%.
China - the world's largest table grape producer - currently has established protocols with 11 countries and regions for importing table grapes, he said.
"Even though the quality of domestic production has seen a dramatic improvement in recent years, high-end customers still prefer imported produce due to food safety and new varieties," Liu said.
One important aspect for the industry to know about selling grapes in China is that due to the O2O (online-to-offline) trend - which focuses on greater convenience for the consumer with groceries able to be delivered in under an hour - retailers are transitioning from selling loose fruit to fixed-weight packages that can both be sold in stores and delivered.
"Usually, retailers opt for clamshell or flowpack. In addition, shattering becomes a bigger problem when you consider repackaging and store-to-door delivery," he said. "We now actively avoid varieties that shatter easily, and perhaps this is a suggestion for breeders in the room."
He went on to say that with the rise of e-commerce in China, it is very important for companies to tell a good story about their produce using words, images and videos. The story should also resonate with their core demographic to achieve another level of connection.
In addition, he added that the sheer size of the population in China means that becoming viral on the country's social media platforms can make a product known to hundreds of millions of customers overnight.
• Louisa Read, Fruit Buyer, Marks and Spencer (U.K.)
• Paul Farmer, Lead Technical Manager - Fruit & Floral, Sainsbury’s (U.K.)
• Josh Kann, Senior Procurement Manager, MMUK (U.K.)
• Karen Cleave, Group Technical Director, Richard Hochfeld (U.K.)
Carlo Berardi, Director, Agrimessina (Italy/U.K.)
Global Grape Summit attendees were eager hear what the panel had to say during the session on retail opportunities in the U.K., one of the world's leading and most innovative table grape markets.
The panel tackled a range of key topics, including what they need from their suppliers, how to keep consumers happy, and some of the main challenges they face in today's marketplace.
Paul Farmer of Sainsbury's noted that consistency of supply was one of the biggest challenges the industry is having to contend with nowadays. He said that although a big benefit of new varieties has been their ability to fill market gaps, overall the eating quality of grapes throughout the year usually varies heavily.
"We have this dilemma that in the middle of most seasons ... we've got 10, 11, 12 different red varieties in some of the key weeks. We're not confusing customers, because customers don't really understand it, but are we offering the right product and the right selection in those windows?" he asked.
"And when you have some of these mid-season, high-sugar, high-acid varieties that have really good flavor profiles, and then we go towards some of those newer early season products, that inconsistency of flavor means that we don't get a consistent product.
"Now is a great example, where we've gone from having some pretty strong reds out of Chile, and you move to Egyptian fruit that's low-sugar, low-acid early-season varieties - the customer's probably not going to be as happy with grapes as they were."
He added that many claims that certain new varieties would replace older, more established varieties, have failed to materialize.
"There have been some really big successes, like Scarlotta and Alison in red, for instance, and that have allowed us to extend the season, but there's definitely still more that we can do," he said.
Other important aspects, he said, are that growers meet the specifications of new varieties, and build sustainable relationships with retailers. Ensuring that grapes have a good shelf life, as well as sharing information with everybody along the supply chain, are also critical.
"In order to progress the industry, growers have to share more data with us, and we need to share more data back. Collectively we need to instigate change because if you don't know what's going on you can't measure it, you can't manage it and you can't make improvements."
Louisa Read of Marks and Spencer said that one of the biggest changes in the retail sector recently is the markets becoming "ever more competitive".
"It's no longer just about launching great-tasting products - everything has to be right: the flavor has to be right and the quality, but also the pricing. Pricing needs to stack up with existing products in the range. For example, there's a limit to the premium a customer will pay for a Cotton Candy over other grapes, particularly if they've never tried it before," she said.
"Then we obviously have to consider the U.K. market - the marketplace that we're in and the price outside as well. So there are lots of things to consider, but I think that if you get everything right you can have a really successful business."
Asked how M&S, a high-end food retailer, decides when it can pay a premium for certain grapes, Read replied that generally, the company would only expect to pay a premium if there are "genuine points of difference" in the product compared to the high street standard. She emphasized that it would have to be evident that more work and cost had gone into that product to make it of superior quality.
"I think it's important to understand that we are in a very competitive marketplace. M&S customers will pay a small premium, but we have to remain relevant," she said, adding that the growth of the discounters was a major challenge nowadays.
Karen Cleave of Richard Hochfeld said that it has been a "really gradual grind" trying to "join up" the newer varieties with the current offer.
"That's where the opportunity is. We've got 85 new varieties to chose from, those varieties are now coming in abundant supply, and I think now is the time to put a bit of theater into it, start to range them, and start to teach the customer," she said.
"Customers don't buy by variety, they really don't. They buy by color, but now is the time that we do what the potato boys did - they used to buy whites they used to buy reds, but it got changed."
She added that deciding how to market these new varieties and flavor profiles to consumers is the "retail conundrum".
"There is a need to be more consistent, of that there is no doubt, and I think that comes into brand standards, but it's confusing and we need to try and make it easier," she said. Exchange of information along the supply chain is also critical, she added.
Josh Kann of MMUK pointed out that the recent global production increase has "significantly" surpassed the U.K. consumption increase, which has created numerous periods of oversupply.
He said that one of the ways to manage large supply is through lower prices or promotions, but this, he said, is not sustainable.
"Everyone in the chain needs to make money. So as an industry we need to come up with more new and innovative ways that don't just involve retail price point," he said.
"One of the key things that we need to be doing is engaging kids from a really young age... because they are the consumers of the future. If we want to increase consumption, it's absolutely key to increase consumption without using price as the lever."
He added that the growers who will survive and be successful are the ones who offer a point of difference in terms of varieties, consistency and pricing.
"Unless something drastic happens, there will be a significant oversupply in the years to come," he said.