“Changing channels”

09 March 2017, 06:31 am
Dairy Dispatches by George Paul

It is one thing to make great cheese, another to import great cheese, to handle, store and pack great cheese, but in the end it’s all about who buys it

So much has changed in the past 40 years that very few really remember the past ways until their memory is stirred. It was truly so much simpler, the buying and selling, the cutting and wrapping, the ability to influence the shopper, diverse routes to market, many of those being local.

Less than 30 years ago, 27% of all retail cheese sold was via the counter service route. Today it’s less than 6%.

Much of that can be accounted for by the rise of the big retailers, with more than two decades of dominance, the corresponding loss of more than 30,000 small independents, and subsequently the accountants’ dislike of counter costs in the big operators.

The growth of prepack, and its convenience for recent generations, the rise of fast food, grab and go, and the loss of specialism. Even now it changes again, as discounters and high street bargain shops bite chunks out of grocery and the big retailer versus discounter war intensifies.

At the same time, however, it’s true that a strong legion of independent specialist food retailers have emerged and most have become iconic outposts of good food, difference, and possibly most of all knowledge. Slow food fights back against fast food blandness and farmers markets, and farm shops appear to more than thrive using some of the long established approaches of the past.

The challenge for all those in cheesemaking, retailing, distribution and food service is to stay in tune with the consumer and hence the opportunity of growth. For without growth there is no long lasting future. Any business that believes otherwise is frankly already writing its obituary. Standing still is a terminal disease.

This may seem a statement of the obvious, however doing more of what you have always done may not in every case be enough, as the world now changes at lightening speed.

The word ‘Brexit’ is now so tiresome to the ears, but whatever its direction to success or challenge there will be years of adaption and change to consider. Will European cheese carry a 40% levy if we trade at WTO rules? Will the booming exports to France and Europe crash as the same level of duty is applied to UK produce, and how will that affect maker and exporter? Sterling languishes currently, though maybe the Euro will have the same opportunity soon, and how will shoppers react to the inevitable price rises?

But Brexit alone is not the only mover and shaker of change. Milk has thankfully risen from its appalling lows, and in that some have taken the opportunity to use it as a price hike moment, despite milk still being cheaper than it was two years ago, when many gave no reduction. But again, maybe the ceiling is being found quicker than expected and with milk price now effectively standing on, maybe a good spring flush will see weakness again.

Online buying continues to be a favourite of the coming generations, who get their news, influences and entertainment via social media and all the modern day channels which many other than the young are oblivious to. These are the buyers of the future, and this tide is rising.

It is wrong to believe that the current no change status in consumer spending, although it’s actually flatlining, will necessarily stay as buoyant as that. Uncertainty, inflation, wage constraints amongst others are good enough causes to keep purses tight shut, and the danger for some products is to outprice the market which in turn may be an opportunity for others.

Exports have been a success story, and British food does enjoy a good well earned worldwide reputation, albeit some pretty poor examples of life quality compromise are to be found in many markets. But trade agreements here too may be in flux for some time, and interruptions in a whole series of markets even temporarily damage some prospects, even in the USA.

It will be the pace of change that will be the major challenge in the coming few years, and new approaches, new partnerships, new packs and products, new routes to market, new thinking will be needed to enhance and maintain the hard work and investment so many have behind them.

Change is now an everyday behaviour, and it need not be dramatic, damaging, costly or change the core proposition, but change it should and must. Whilst the traditional and younger customers who face us and engage may be saying what we want to hear, there are thousands changing channels and it is no surrender of principle, or practice or integrity, to seek to capture them or face a blank screen.

This trades ability to regenerate and be relevant, and to be resilient is the hallmark of a fierce independence to sell the best, to be the best in any channel, and I suspect everyone is already doing it.

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