More picking produce online

By David Porter

Bay of Plenty shoppers are showing an increased willingness to buy fruit and vegetables online, say owners of local companies in the online fresh food business.

Gate Pa-based The Fresh Market set up two years ago, Katikati's The Onion Vegie Place launched in February, while Auckland's has continued to expand from its Auckland base and set up a Tauranga operation in June.

The online operations have contrasting origins. The Onion Vegie Place has been owned by the Noble family for more than 50 years, while The Fresh Market was founded by David Stewart, who has been a greengrocer for more than 30 years and moved to Tauranga in 1987.

Foodbox, now in its fifth year, was started by Jenny O'Donnell and her partner Peter Smith from scratch as an online retailer, drawing on experiences in the United Kingdom and a desire to promote increased raw food consumption.

All the companies report increasing acceptance of online shopping for fruit and vegetables and say they have a cadre of repeat customers.

"There's a demand for it and certain people use it all the time," said Mr Stewart. "The biggest thing is the trust issue. We are very careful about the produce we use."

Scott Julian-Shaw, who manages Growlink's online operation, said, "A lot of people don't have time to go shopping. The response has been very good - everyone who tries us seems to become a repeat customer."

Ms O'Donnell said Foodbox's business would not survive without the loyalty of repeat customers. "So long as we keep customers happy, then it grows."

Increased acceptance of online shopping was a key example of how customers could and did change, said David Hughes, emeritus professor of food marketing, Imperial College, London, during a recent visit to Tauranga. "They may not want to do the drudge shopping after work and would prefer to do it online."

Mr Hughes said online shopping was expected to make up 20 per cent of all grocery sales in the UK by 2020, a trend that had resulted in major retailers such as Tesco deciding not to open new stores.

New Zealanders generally have embraced internet shopping. More than half of the population (54 per cent) aged over 18 years are shopping online, an increase from 38 per cent of New Zealanders five years ago, according to a June survey by Nielsen. New Zealanders spent $3.7billion last year via the internet. Nielsen expects to see two million New Zealanders shopping online by the end of 2013 and spending to rise to $4billion. The most popular products and services are airline tickets, clothing/shoes/accessories, books/magazines, entertainment tickets, and travel related services.

However, fruit and vegetables are a highly perishable commodity and maintaining quality is paramount in retaining customers.

Growlink's Lee Noble said that The Onion Vegie Place had been thinking about going online for several years. "We felt we had to move with the times," he said. "But we went slowly - I think now is the right time. Two years ago we would have been too soon. Customers are ready now and they are embracing it."

Mr Noble said Growlink had been surprised that about half its online customers were aged over 50, but noted that most people had the smarts to use a laptop or PC, and in many cases they were having their children order online using mobile phones.

"We find it has increased our business overall rather than cutting into the existing business at the shop," he said. "Word has got out, and in some cases we have had old customers who had forgotten about the Onion Vegie Place are now coming back and visiting us at the shop as well."

Ms O'Donnell said Foodbox had shifted two staff to Tauranga to open up operations there to source and service local customers. The company also delivered to Hamilton and Waiheke Island.

"Our motivation in setting up Foodbox was that we wanted to supply the freshest food possible and we thought we could do it better than supermarkets by using an online environment. Our passion was raw food. We felt that more energy in the distribution industry should go into distributing raw food rather than adding value in other ways."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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