The first comprehensive directory for the New Zealand Horticultural Industry

The Field Is Reducing

Sainsbury’s and Tesco are respectively the number two and three UK supermarket operators by turnover. As anyone remotely familiar with the UK grocery scene will attest to, the daily battle for the consumers’ grocery spend is more intense and savage in Great Britain than just about anywhere else. The UK market is still relatively segmented with Waitrose sitting at the top of the pile, attending to the needs of the well-to-dos, whilst German imports Aldi and Lidl are slugging it out at the discount end of the equation, intentionally or otherwise complicating life for the operators trying to cover the middle ground.  The UK supermarket chains come under intense scrutiny in the British media with every commentator being an expert, right?

To appreciate what is going in the UK market requires more than just a superficial understanding of this week’s High Street shopping habit. The causes behind the proposed Sainsbury’s/Asda merger sit a lot deeper. Their origin can be found in the fundamental societal changes mankind is currently undergoing.
The traditional supermarket model is under attack from all sides. Specialist butchers and greengrocers are experiencing a renaissance rather than being faced with extinction as supermarket operators had confidently predicted twenty years ago. Internet shopping means the bricks and mortar stores are seeing reduced foot traffic, less impulse purchases and less money through the tills.

Store operating cost per dollar/pound/euro/yen income is therefore increasing at a rapid rate. The next part of the mix are new entrants like Amazon Fresh who are not encumbered with a costly and cumbersome store network in need of upkeep and maintenance. Unless of course they buy one to understand that side of the business better and treat it as a real time laboratory.

Then there is the environmental lobby who want to ban anything plastic from supermarkets yesterday, which is entirely plausible when one looks at the plastic waste volumes bobbing around in the South Pacific but severely challenges our current FMCG marketing and logistics concepts.
And if that wasn’t enough, the migrations waves experienced by many of the developed nations bring with it the rise of the ethnic entrepreneur who sooner or later hits on the idea that his fellow immigrants would really appreciate an ethnicity based supermarket where they can find the foods they know from their home country without having to fight their way past canned baked beans and spaghetti, kippers and tomato sauce.

Finally, there is the suspicion that the the degrees of sophistication of some of our produce supply chains  are getting in the way of common sense, to the detriment of producer and consumer alike. Anyone who wants that statement explained in a bit more detail can get in touch via the Agribusiness Academy page.

Hall of Mental Cultivation

Translating a pertinent phrase from one language to another is always accompanied by challenges! This sign I saw in the forbidden city in Bejing a few years back though, is one of the better examples and has left a lasting impression with me. “Hall of Mental Cultivation” has a beautiful ring to it. ‘Hall’ – not room or closet or corner but ‘hall’, which immediately conjures up for me a wide and roomy space, yet defined because a ‘hall’ provides warmth and comfort. ‘Cultivation’ takes me down the process road as opposed to the ‘want it now’ attitude, and as a former nurseryman I can relate to ‘cultivation’ just like any fruit or vegetable grower. ‘Cultivation’ talks of effort, of skill and of patience. None of that instant gratification nonsense we are exposed to so often these days.  We could all probably do with at least a virtual version of our very own Hall of Mental Cultivation to keep us on the straight and narrow as the pace of change and the speed at which business is conducted is increasing.

End of an Era

Supermarkets  – Once the only Place to be for the Modern Hunter/Gatherer.  Now just one of many options.

Countdown CEO David Chambers announced yesterday that he is moving on in June. Not an earth shattering event as such. Senior business leaders are constantly on the move, right? Yes, indeed; but there are a few aspects to Chambers’ tenure at Countdown/Progressive that are worthy of consideration. In the first instance, CEOs these days can’t typically point to a thirty-nine year employment record in the business they are leading. In fact, in most businesses someone with such a length of service has no chance to be offered the top job. Secondly, Dave Chambers is likely to be the last participant of the original Foodtown Management training programme who ends up in the top job at Countdown. The early Foodtown supermarket training model of the sixties and seventies was innovative, demanding and future focused, preparing its participants very well for coping with the challenges of modern food retailing and all it entailed.

“Modern” meant something different in those days though. When Chambers joined the training programme, stores were open five days a week, with a late night on Thursday. All store management positions were held by men, automatic replenishment systems were unheard of and computers were something Steve Jobs played around with in his garage. The Internet had yet to be invented, home shopping did not exist and all produce for Foodtown was purchased at the auctions.

We can safely agree then that Dave Chambers has seen a few changes in his career and that is without discussing the various ownership changes at Progressive, the demise of the Foodtown brand in favour of the Woolworths logo/Countdown name, the 180+ stores the company operates today as opposed to the 20+ branches the company had when Dave became a store manager and the many changes he would have seen in his stores over the last 39 years.

In those days, Foodtown stores did still have fully functioning butchery departments, with half beasts getting delivered to every store for processing each day. Today, stores are serviced via a centralised meat processing plant and the stores are void of butchers. A little known side benefit butchery departments provided their store managers with was instant security. When power cuts occurred, butchers were positioned at the checkouts, complete with meat cleavers and other suitable utensils to ensure that full supermarket trolleys did not start rolling out of the doors without their content having been paid for.

Chambers’ produce managers in his early store manager appointments in Foodtowns Kelston, Grey Lynn and Greenlane, were skilled in completely stripping and rebuilding mirror back displays, long before refrigerated cases became the norm. As head of produce during some of those years, I was in and out of our stores on a regular basis and knew all our stores managers. Dave Chambers stood out from the crowd even then, as a skilled professional with an appetite for knowledge and learning, an engaging persona, a willingness for constructive dialogue to achieve conflict resolution, a passion for food retailing and well respected by his staff – something he did not take for granted.

Dave, I wish you well in wherever your new journey takes you to.

Hans Maurer

Berryfruit in the Supply Chain

There is nothing more enticing than walking into a room in which you know you are going to be cooped up in for several hours to discover that the catering fairies have been kind to you and put a plate of your favourite fruit on the menu. Strawberries and blueberries. Yum. What happens to me though is this: I see the fruit, I like the look, I anticipate the taste – and then I often get terribly disappointed when the taste I anticipated fails to materialise in my mouth! It does not stop there either. Next comes a quick mental assessment of why I am disappointed in the taste of whatever just passed my tongue. Typically a few options come to mind, such as product being immature when picked, chill damage, too much time taken between harvest and my mouth, rough handling and so on. That in turn takes me back to how I think the fruit ought to be tasting in order to keep me from getting disappointed.
When I think about all of this some more, I get to the only conclusion possible. Fruit – and not just berryfruit either – is meant to be eaten when the fruit is ripe. Best way to eat fruit is straight off the tree or from the plant as that represents the greatest chance to get a ripe piece of fruit. We live in the days of complex supply chains though, all aimed at optimising the supply and demand equation, at best from local grower to local store, at worst across a couple of continents and half a dozen time zones. Picking fruit ripe is therefore not an option unless one is prepared for ‘fruit salad’ at the receiving end. In the absence of that option, more attention ought to be paid to technology solutions that could be put to use to achieve a more consistent ripe and flavour-some experience for consumers. That is the only way to ensure demand for fruit remains strong and grows.  The way the kiwifruit industry deploys NIR technology and the way the Avocado industry can differentiate its offer at the Point of Sale are good starting points.

Another Year Has Passed

Quintessential New Zealand

Quintessential New Zealand

I drove to Cape Reinga in November with a German visitor who was keen to see where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea. We would have been able to see that spectacle of nature an hour earlier than we did, had it not been for appalling weather and a couple of sheep farmers who decided the conditions were just right to shift their mob a couple of kilometres up the road. On State Highway 1, in the teeming rain and amidst tourist drivers with bloody big camper vans and bugger all limited experience in driving these safely on the road.

One does not get to see too many mobs of sheep being moved about these days any more. Sheep numbers have halved since I arrived here thirty-six years ago. And if the current wool prices are any indicators, then the national sheep flock will continue to decline. Meat works used to be a dime a dozen, with one  being found in just about every provincial settlement. Gone as well. Progress. Dairy. Really? Milk powder prices, ok? Are they? Nope. And then there is Horticulture, agriculture’s little step sister – at least that is how we could be forgiven for feeling in the produce industry. We have a Minister for Racing and a Minister for Mine Re-entry and a Minister for Seniors, excluding Veterans because they have a Minister all of their own. A Minister for Children but also a Minister for Child Poverty Reduction because that is apparently a different matter altogether. And alongside the Minister for Agriculture, we will now have  a Minister for Forestry, a Minister for Fisheries, a Minister for Biosecurity and a Minister for Food Safety.

Where is the Minister for Horticulture then? Missing in Action by the looks of things. Yes, Horticulture is about growing stuff, so simplistically put its a bit like agriculture, isn’t it? There we are chaps. Problem solved. Just get on with it.

Well, alright then – but couldn’t we at least get a Minister for Not Building New Housing Developments on Prime Horticultural Land? Man, we do need one of those because if we keep on covering our prime growing lands with concrete, we will not be able in the long run to feed our people with New Zealand grown produce.  Unless of course we switch to urban horticulture .  But hang on – we haven’t got enough houses for all the immigrants we are letting in- and more to the point, our children, who have the audacity of wanting a place to live as well. So what do we do?

The terms ‘government’ and ‘strategy’ are not the easiest of bed fellows, unless, of course, ‘re-election’ is being strategised. Our three year electoral cycle does not help to focus the politicians on anything other than finding short term solutions. But somehow we need to cut through this Gordian Knot we are tangled up with, as trouble is looming beyond the horizon.

On that note, I wish  you and yours a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year  – which hopefully includes a reflective period of sorts.


Hans Maurer  aka Sauerkraut