Retailers believe consumers will buy wonky vegetables, says Blue Yonder

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There has been a quiet revolution in the fruit and vegetable aisle. After years of physical perfection as demanded by the EU and the consumer alike, finally shoppers are willing to consider buying wonky fruit and veg.

This development matters for the UK’s supermarkets, which have pledged to reduce food and drink waste by a fifth by 2025. The Courtald Commitment 2025 values the waste at more than £19bn a year and it has been negotiated by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) charity, working on behalf of government. Retail is an industry characterized by its fine margins. Even the smallest percentage change can have a significant impact on the profitability and success of a retailer – in today’s market place, these finer details are critical.

Knowing how much of each product is likely to be sold each day, and how much will go to waste, requires careful planning.

The turning point regarding wonky veg and consumers coming round to it came with a TV exposé in January 2016, about the War on Waste from TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Two months afterwards, supermarkets started trialling wonky fruit and veg.

What about the people running the show? Specialists in retail predictive applications Blue Yonder questioned supermarket managers in the UK, the US, Germany and France and found that the more senior the manager, the more enthusiastic they were about whether customers would buy discounted wonky veg. In the UK, 43% of junior managers, 55% of middle managers, 57% of senior managers and 77% of grocery company directors replied “Yes, definitely”.

Blue Yonder questioned 152 supermarket managers from throughout the UK for the survey, from junior managers up to director, in June 2016.

There was a similar response from the US grocery market where Blue Yonder spoke to 300 managers, 91% of whom said shoppers would either ‘definitely’ or ‘possibly’ buy discounted wonky veg.

Meanwhile in Germany there was even more enthusiasm. Blue Yonder questioned 150 managers there and 94% said it would work. Not a single supermarket director in Germany believed customers would turn down wonky veg.

Blue Yonder retail industry director Matt Hopkins says that everyone’s a winner: “In a struggle to remain competitive, grocers find themselves throwing away an increasing quantity of goods on a daily basis. This issue has intensified as customers have become accustomed to having not only a wide variety of choice, but also the freshest selection available. This research reveals 90% of grocery managers feel customers would be happy with discounts on imperfect fruit and vegetables. This has the benefit of overcoming the waste problem in the supply chain, and is clearly of benefit to all.”

Campaigners for stopping food waste are delighted by the developments, each citing the supermarkets making the changes as making great strides. As the goalposts shift towards wonky veg, so they have reduced food waste. Fruit and veg which have been rejected for years for being the wrong size, shape or colour are now being used. One supermarket for example says the wonky veg line it introduced in 2014 saved 34,000 tonnes of potatoes that would have otherwise been thrown out.

In another example, a UK supermarket ceased demanding of its suppliers of green beans that they be ‘top and tailed’ for appearance sake. The supermarket estimates that the change will save more than 135 tonnes of food waste per year. This illustrates how by using markdown pricing, replenishment of goods and price optimisation, retailers can reduce waste.