This article published November 2016. For latest news THIS MONTH'S ISSUE
Convenience retailers looking to expand their fresh foods focus should take a few leaves out of the Simply Fresh book.
The Midlands-based symbol group and retail chain has carved a niche in offering fresh, authentic and locally-sourced food, which meets the needs of today’s time-starved shoppers.
Arguably ahead of its time when the business launched back in 2007, Simply Fresh is now enjoying its time in the sun and it’s not difficult to see why.
A new study by the Private Label Manufacturers Association (PLMA), suggests grocery stores can capture the custom of the newest generation of shoppers, so-called Millennials, by focusing on fresh foods.
Its new report, “How America’s Eating Habits Are Changing”, says fresh and healthy foods are at the top of Millennials’ shopping lists; while prepared and portable foods are also very popular.
These food choices reflect a distinctive way of eating, the PLMA reports. For Millennials, eating is largely unscheduled, it says. They incorporate food consumption—whether meals, snacks or bites—into a variety of everyday activities, ranging from work and play to exercise and commuting, the research shows.
Given the healthy eating trend, it’s possibly no coincidence either that the soft drinks giant PepsiCo has also just opened a new restaurant in Manhattan, serving ‘farm to table’ cuisine prepared by an executive chef, with not a Pepsi bottle or potato crisp in sight.
Simply Fresh was created as a convenience symbol group for aspirational retailers, according to its creative director Davinder Jheeta. Critically, it provides an accessible model, which enables retailers to take advantage of the developing trend for time poor, cash rich individuals looking for food to buy and cook from scratch.
It has turned the notion of a distress purchase, from being a chocolate bar to fresh ingredients for a meal, completely on its head, says Jheeta.
Simply Fresh launched with one store in Kenilworth, Warwickshire. It was pitched as a full basket spend convenience store at the outset. It promoted its fresh messaging and success led to the opening of a second store and the creation of the symbol group. Today there are 86 stores in the portfolio with the majority operated by independent retailers under two fascias: Simply Fresh (20 branches) and Simply Local. According to Jheeta, the Simply Local format is pitched in locations where the business is unable to focus on fresh or stores cannot meet its tough selection criteria.
"We are very conscious of doing what’s right for the store and the retailer. Ultimately, we do turn down some opportunities because ultimately, it would not be beneficial to the retailer’s business and also to the SimplyFresh brand. Retailers have to understand what fresh means to the business and what it takes and we drill down to find out whether the retailer is going to embrace it."
There’s also a 1,000sq ft minimum store requirement, necessary to accommodate the requisite chillers and abundant fresh displays.
“Nobody is going to buy the one last lonely cauliflower on the shelf but if you have 10 cauliflowers, you will sell eight,” Jheeta maintains.
Simply Fresh has learnt the type of locations, which suit the format. These range from villages to high footfall, city centre stores but there are also some surprises, Jheeta says. Typical is the Simply Fresh store in Bethnal Green, an up-and-coming area but an E2 postcode. The retailer approached Simply Fresh. He wanted a branded presence on the high street to educate shoppers, recalls Jheeta. “He was aspirational and ticked the boxes in understanding fresh and he’s bucked the trend. Turnover for the store had been great due to his ability to communicate fresh and encourage basket spend. The biggest factor is the aspiration of the retailer,” he says.
Its enabled the business to grow. “There was a gap and we wedged ourselves in, spread our arms and made the space a little bigger,” Jheeta smiles. “It fits in more places than we thought.”
The trend for convenience and shopping little and often has been another driver in Simply Fresh’s success.
“If you are buying into the fact that people are shopping little and often, then fresh and chilled becomes a bigger presence in your basket because you are not worried about the expiration date since you are likely to be cooking it the same day,” Jheeta says. Simply Fresh also aims to change perceptions too. It’s what Jheeta neatly calls the “betterment of convenience”.
“We need consumers to understand that they can get the produce they want and that there’s no need to worry about the quality of the product in store. In that way, the retailer becomes trustworthy and reliant.
“It’s why our stores are designed around integrity and honesty. We stripped back the windows because we wanted people to see into store and see the ingredients.”
Ahead of the curve, Simply Fresh has its eye on those all-important Millennials too. It has recently opened a store at the University of Surrey in Guildford. At 4,000sq ft, it is Simply Fresh’s largest store to date and the second to feature a new Simply Fresh Kitchen concept.
According to Jheeta, the aim is crystal clear - to educate the next generation of shoppers and appeal to 18-25 year olds who, once they have finished their education, will look at Simply Fresh on the high street and think “I know it already”.
Jheeta reports Simply Fresh is also looking to actively open more stores in the Surrey area so that the campus-based site will raise awareness for the brand.
“The university students will get the experience of the store so, that when they graduate and see Simple Fresh in local towns or on a motorway, for example, they will say they know that store. We don’t want to close the door on anything,” he says.
The first Simply Fresh Kitchen was integrated into a Wiltshire store, which had access to a chef within the team and had therefore developed a model around limiting fresh food waste. They cooked tomatoes to make passata, for example, and scooped out the bread from loaves to use as a ‘soup bowl’; elevating the margin from products that otherwise may have been wasted.
Simply Fresh subsequently explored scaling the model and approached affiliated suppliers to help in the move, developing a base range of products from which independent retailers can pick and choose. The Simply Fresh Kitchen in Surrey is a product of that work and is also geared at educating customers about different fresh foods and recipes to try at home.
The menu includes smoothies, a pick and mix salad bar and pizzas. Products are delivered into store either chilled or in hot boxes, which can be dispensed into a bain marie for heating; all accompanied by a portion control system and appropriate packaging.
It’s an innovative way to ‘upcycle’ products, moving them from being a retail to foodservice item. Soft fruits close to their sell by, for instance, can be cut up and offered in a fruit cup as an ingredient for a smoothie.
Its initiatives like these which are whetting the appetite for other retailers to get on board with the Simply Fresh format. Jheeta reveals the business has just signed up its third Simply Fresh Kitchen concept in a new territory - Belfast, Northern Ireland. And, he reckons the markets in Northern Ireland and Ireland are more inline with the Simply Fresh approach and stance.
Elsewhere, the healthy eating trends the company identified back in 2007 have been more prominent in the south and south east of England to date but there are opportunities to expand in the north east and north west, Jheeta says. The aim would be to secure ‘hub’ stores and recruit satellite sites around them. Such a process also acknowledges that retailers too are time poor and would benefit from visiting a local store in order to appreciate the concept.
Fresh foods tend to evoke fear with convenience and independent retailers but here too Simply Fresh has provided a road map for navigating the potential pitfalls and shrink.
According to Jheeta, it “leans very heavily on suppliers of fruit and vegetables” to educate and communicate facets about products to store staff. Suppliers provide educators in-store to train the team and each branch has a fruit and veg specialist, who passes on that knowledge to the rest of the team.
Simply Fresh has also signed up to the training organisation Upskill People to provide a series of online modules and courses for staff. Jheeta describes it as an extremely accessible programme, which spans best practice, availability, customer service, display techniques etc and ensures staff on the shop floor are equipped with the necessary skills to manage an operation(s).
The store design, meanwhile, has been created to enable the product to speak or rather sing for itself. Indeed it was Jheeta’s agency which developed the initial Simply Fresh brand and the aim has always been to convey fresh food stories and messaging to the consumer. So from the store interiors to the product signage, the look endorses the fresh foods focus. The fascia purposely features wood - a natural and stable element - and the interior design has an earthy quality, which is stripped back and honest. “We are not hiding anything,” Jheeta says. Similarly the colour palette in-store is designed to make the offer pop.
From a layout perspective, product is organised to maximise the shopping trip but without disturbing it or making it less convenient. Metal shelves, for example are interspersed with different materials such as timber crates and there’s an old, aged-oak timber counter, providing a great end of service point. That’s important, says Jheeta, because the only time a customer is likely to talk to somebody in-store is when they are going to pay.
Aprons are also available for store staff to cement the sense of the specialist; while the shop windows shout about about the love of food and community.
That’s important to local shoppers and local produce is another USP for the chain.
“Customers like to know their pound is going to local suppliers,” Jheeta explains.
He’s delighted that Simply Fresh is seen as a trail blazer in the convenience sector - the company has won two top accolades in high profile industry awards this year.
It all comes back to that “betterment of the sector”, which Jheeta referenced previously.
“We hope that in 10 years time, customers will be saying my local store has great produce - it will be the legacy of what we are trying to do,” he concludes.
Simply Fresh offers convenience stores plenty of cues and inspiration for developing their fresh foods and foodservice business. This theme, which Insight has dubbed ‘foodvenience’, was highlighted in a recent article by Joe Bona As competition across all channels intensifies, there’s little doubt that fresh foods and food-to-go will become ‘table stakes’ in convenience retail.
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