Walk into pretty much any ethnic supermarket in London and you'll be confronted with an impressive array of beautifully displayed fruit and vegetables that look as fresh as the day they were picked - often thousands of miles away in the very countries from which its target shoppers originated.
Pop into your local independent c-store, on the other hand, and you're more likely to be greeted by a limited display of shrivelled spuds, overripe bananas and wilted lettuce that look as though they've been hanging around for ages - the sort of tired fare that epitomises the distress in distress purchase.
For all the talk of needing a strong fresh offer, the independents are massively underperforming in the fresh produce sector, holding just a 0.8% share of the market and well under-indexing their overall grocery share of 1.8%. So why are so many independents still ignoring such a lucrative category? What lessons are there to be learned from ethnic retailers? And who is getting it right?
On the face of it, turning down the potential trade uplift that comes with a strong fresh produce 0ffer makes no sense. With 99.8% of households buying into the category and evidence of shoppers switching to premium produce varieties, increasing their fresh offer should be a no-brainer.
Average prices rose 6.7% last year, with even "unsexy" categories such as potatoes and greens recording nearly 10% increases in value in 2007. Overall consumption of fruit and vegetables, meanwhile, has risen steadily over the past decade, with value increasing 4.6% to almost £8bn in the past 12 months alone [TNS].
Unfortunately, understanding the size of the prize is not the same as grabbing hold of it. Fresh produce is difficult to handle, highly perishable and requires more advanced order planning and stocking strategies than other categories. And while the major multiples can mitigate some of the logistical problems entailed with sheer buying clout, the independents have no such luxury (see right).
The independents lack the scale to compete effectively with the multiples, believes Kevin Hunt, manager of Lancashire-based Spar affiliate Lawrence Hunt & Co. Its stores stock core fruit and vegetable lines only and operate in a particularly competitive region, with Tesco Express, Sainsbury's Local, Somerfield, Booths and other c-store operators all vying for business.
"Even as part of Spar, it's tough to get a credible fresh food range," he says. "We would struggle more if we were a non-affiliated independent. A supplier doesn't want to drive to a store to deliver 15 cases of fresh produce when he can take 1,500 cases to supply a multiple."
If life's tough for affiliated independents, it's tougher still for the non-affiliated, says Hunt. Stores may only receive deliveries three times a week, making it difficult to present a fresh and appealing offer to consumers. If a small store is only turning over £250 of fresh produce a week then it is extremely vulnerable to competition from bigger rivals. "If you do get a Tesco Express opening up nearby then it's fresh produce that gets clattered first," notes Hunt.
With the space devoted to the fresh produce fixture in c-stores typically limited, careful range selection is vital. Another way in which independents could compete more effectively with the multiples is by differentiating their offer.
Many ethnic stores try to appeal to local communities by offering produce not typically available in multiples. Yasar Halim supermarket in Palmers Green, north London, does a roaring trade in fresh produce despite operating cheek by jowl with a large Sainsbury's less than five minutes' walk away. Kolakas, kohlrabi and purslane are among the ethnic vegetables it sells.
"We have a buyer that takes two seven-tonne trucks to Leyton market every day at 4am and delivers most of our fresh produce back to us by 8am," says manager Mevlit Sahin. "The rest of it we have flown in from Cyprus three days a week. Because we sell many ethnic products that aren't available in Sainsbury's we attract Greeks, Turks, Polish and Lebanese as well as the English."
Standard independent c-stores may not have the benefit of a diferent target market, but that shouldn't stop them trying to improve their offers even if only to fend off criticism from the health police, says Hunt.
"It would damage your business not to have a fresh produce offer. You need to have at least 10 lines," he says. "It's difficult but you must do the best you can, because if you have a poor fresh produce offer then in the customer's mind you are a poor retailer."
It is possible for independents to compete with the multiples in the fresh food category, believes David Sands, managing director of the Scottish independent c-store chain of the same name. The chain, which operates 24 stores north of the border, has tried to differentiate itself by offering seasonal produce and prides itself on the fact that it sources locally grown produce that has been picked that morning and delivered straight to the store.
Too many store owners become obsessed with what the multiples are doing and spend too little time thinking about their own offer, believes Sands, whose view is that it is better to have a small but high-quality offer than try to compete with the multiples with a larger but possibly poorer-quality offer.
The management team spends more time discussing fresh produce than any other category, he says, not because it has an overwhelming percentage of sales but because Sands believes customers judge the store's fresh food quality on the strength of its fruit and vegetables.
The retailer is one of a number of Scottish retailers to have benefited from the Scottish Grocers' Federation's Healthy Living initiative to improve the nation's diet and more importantly fresh produce sales (see right). Critically, the government-supported initiative provides merchandising advice and materials.
"It's a very challenging section," he admits. "Our stores that perform best know it is essential for the fruit and vegetable displays to look fresh and inviting, whether it's 6am or 10pm."
Though most of David Sands' stores receive daily deliveries of fresh produce, Sands does not feel this is critical to success. Instead - along with keeping the display looking good - you need to be able to trust your suppliers to bring the best quality produce to store quickly.
Sands uses a Fife-based wholesaler who he encourages to source as much produce as possible from local growers. The two companies meet regularly to discuss ideas and produce and see what they can introduce to improve their offer. "The wholesale team goes to the markets and we trust them to buy the right products. We give them total discretion," he says.
Another retailer that gets it right albeit within a different context, that of the supposedly dying "greengrocer", is Bill's Produce Store, which has two outlets, in Lewes and Brighton.
Like David Sands, Bill's makes a virtue of the provenance and seasonality of its produce, areas owner Bill Collison acknowledges the multiples have woken up to in the past couple of years. In an effort to stay ahead of the game, the retailer is now looking at growing its own produce.
But where it really differentiates itself is in the way it handles its waste, believes Collison. Bill's currently sources fresh produce from local farmer suppliers. Any not sold are used in the in-store cafe to make dishes that can then be sold to customers as well as jams, smoothies, juices and other products.
Poor quality fruit and vegetables are extremely damaging to a store's reputation, explains Collison. "If something is not good enough, we process it or get rid of it, because otherwise it messes up the whole look of the store. It damages your image."
Even for the independents with less of a focus on fruit and vegetables than Bill's, wastage minimisation should be prioritised, believes Nisachill buying controller Andrew Hirst. "It is all down to in-store practice - ordering little and often and managing the fixture effectively," he says. "While fresh produce has a short life, stores should not experience wastage higher than any other category if it is cared for."
Getting produce to store quickly and in good condition is fundamental if independents are to compete with the multiples. Luckily, improvements to the wholesale supply chain have made it easier for independents to succeed, says Steve Fox, director of retail at Booker.
The way the wholesale sector supplies fresh food has moved on significantly in the past few years, driven by new in-truck technology, accurate stock monitoring, just-in-time methodologies and improved traceability, he says.
Booker, for instance, sources a full range of fresh produce from local markets on a daily basis, and can offer customers virtually any item of produce they want in the volume they want.
To ensure fresh produce arrives at stores in a good condition, Booker invested £3m in a fleet of chilled vehicles 18 months ago, which brought about improved stock control and better quality preservation.
Another way retailers can minimise spoilage, and flag up a product's provenance at the same time, is by ordering pre-packed produce as opposed to loose. Sales of fresh produce to Booker's Premier retailers have doubled since last November as a result of an increased pre-packed offer. "On pre-packed it's much easier to prove provenance, or to introduce promotions, than it is for loose," he says.
Despite advances in logistics and packaging and growing consumer demand for healthier fare, many independents are still trailing their ethnic cousins and the multiple c-stores when it comes to fresh produce. Those that don't raise their games soon could find themselves in trouble, says Association of Convenience Stores spokesman Shane Brennan.
"The growing trend for top-up shopping means those stores that are not selling fresh produce are increasingly out of touch with what customers want," he says.
And, it seems, in need of some fresh thinking.n