Getting chilled and fresh right is tough for indies. They’ve got to stock the right products and avoid wastage, while simultaneously ensuring availability. To compound matters, margins are low.

Luckily, help is at hand for those operating under a symbol fascia. Symbol groups now offer myriad initiatives to ensure their members can make a profit from the category and play the multiples at their own game.

With people spending less on their weekly shop in the big supermarkets and doing more of their grocery shopping locally, shopper demand for chilled and fresh produce in c-stores has never been higher. However, the reality is that the multiples’ continued encroachment into the sector has also played a big part in this.

These days, shoppers expect to find a similar, if smaller, range of fresh and chilled lines at their local c-store to the one they would find in a supermarket. According to Him!, fruit and veg is the number-one category shoppers would like to see a larger selection of in c-stores, closely followed by meat and fish. However, shoppers also said the number one category they wouldn’t buy in a c-store was fresh meat and fish, with fruit and veg third. Some 21% said they wouldn’t buy fruit and veg in a symbol c-store only 22% thought c-stores were a credible place to buy fruit & veg and a mere 10% thought so for meat and fish.

With their multi-billion turnovers and buying powers, the supermarkets have been able to offer a full range without having to worry about margin - and have undoubtedly turned a harsh spotlight on the fresh and chilled ranges offered by their symbol fascia rivals.

The symbol groups need to level the playing field, says Him! insights director Jill Livesey. “Key footfall driving categories for top-up shopping missions are milk, bread, fruit and veg and other chilled dairy,” she notes. “But it is range and price perception of fruit and veg that are currently the key barriers to topping up in c-stores. Range needs to move beyond ‘distress’ to ‘every day mini green grocer’.”

“It is range and price perception of fruit that are currently the key barriers to topping up in c-stores”

Jill Livesey, insights director, Him!

The good news is that symbol fascias are raising their games. Spar and its wholesalers have been making the fresh and chilled categories in stores work much harder since the arrival of MD Debbie Robinson in September 2011, for instance. Last March, it launched an ‘Inspiring Growth’ strategy to dramatically improve fresh food and meal occasions in stores, including meal deals. And in November, it rolled out a ‘Fresh For Less’ initiative, which saw mobile display units introduced into stores so retailers could offer five fresh fruit and veg lines at £1 each, as well as price-marked packs.

One Spar retailer who has embraced chilled is Kevin Hunt, MD of Lawrence Hunt & Co, which has 28 Spar stores in the north of England. He has been trialling Spar’s next-generation c-store format, which majors on fresh and chilled, at his store in Penwortham, Lancashire: “It’s now been a full year since we’ve been pushing fresh and chilled and the results have been great, especially now we’ve got dedicated resources.”

The store includes a new fruit and veg selection complete with items you wouldn’t expect to find in a c-store, such as coconut and grapefruit, as well as a wall of chilled cabinets offering staple chilled lines and meal deals. A centralised sales replenishment system from his Spar wholesaler James Hall & Co has been a real help, adds Hunt. “CSR has taken all the nonsense and emotion out of ordering in the business,” he says.

Booker, meanwhile, offers both own-label and branded chilled lines to its Premier retailers, including its exclusive Farm Fresh fruit & vegetable and Butcher’s Market meat range. It also has dedicated greengrocers at depots to help retailers identify the right range, as well as to advise on storage and display.

“Fresh and chilled is more important than ever for independent retailers, as shoppers increasingly expect c-stores to have the highest standards and to offer a full range,” explains Booker’s sales director for retail Steve Fox, adding that dedicated greengrocers aren’t the only help on offer to retailers. “Booker also has its Retail Best Sellers booklet, which has a section on chilled and fresh, updated every year with the latest sales info and trends. This has resulted in chilled and fresh delivering double-digit growth within Premier.”

Other wholesalers have been rolling out new fresh and chilled ranges. Last month, Bestway launched a 12-strong meat range for independents, for example. “Our butchery sales are in strong growth across the group, but most of our meat sales are to caterers,” says operations director David Gilroy. “We wanted to design a range for our retail customers to help them keep pace with the changing face of convenience.”

Musgrave GB’s Londis fascia also got a new core product range of fresh fruits, salads and vegetables earlier this month. The 35-strong range is price-marked to both simplify the offer and emphasise value. Fresh category sales for Londis grew 15% last year. “We’ve chosen the essential products most shoppers want, we’re offering compelling prices with price-marked packs and we’re providing supporting marketing materials,” says Musgrave GB MD Donal Horgan.

There are also exciting developments on the way for indies operating under Costcutter’s numerous symbol fascias. They can expect a fresh and chilled boost following the formation of The Buyco buying alliance with wholesaler Palmer & Harvey earlier this month.

The Buyco is working on a new three-tier own-label range under the good, better, best names of ‘Independent Trader’, ‘Independent’ and ‘Independent Specialist’. This will include an “extensive chilled and fresh proposition”, it promises. In a brochure on the launch of The Buyco last month, P&H and Costcutter said: “Fresh and chilled, so often categories that are difficult to get right, are at the top of the shopping list.”

Top of the shopping list is where chilled and fresh needs to be. Too many stores are still reliant on categories where growth opportunities are limited. They need to wake up and smell the fruit and veg. As Fox puts it: “With the increasing presence of the mults in the c-store channel, standards need to be better than ever and having a good fresh & chilled offer is integral to this.”