Lisa Shopping

Food Explorer #2: A South African food scientist goes shopping abroad

Lisa Ronquest is one of South Africa’s top young food scientists. After leading the R&D team for seven years with Mars Africa in Cape Town, she’s now ensconced in The Netherlands in a new global food R&D role for the multinational. Keen to to share her impressions and insights with FOODStuff SA readers and her South African food industry compatriots, she’s started writing about her experiences, and we’re proud here to publish the second of her essays on her big move. This time, Lisa goes shopping!

SHOPPING – my first experience. This shouldn’t be too hard. We head to the closest Albert Heijn store, the largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands, to get some essentials. Albert Heijn was founded in 1887 and is known for its focus on quality at both a store and product level. We walk through the automated turnstile and enter a small (in South African terms) store.

I am immediately bombarded with choice, variety and Dutch labels. Convenience is the order of the day as the rather large and established frozen pizza section and enormous range of washed, chopped, diced and sliced variations on fruit and vegetables offerings, suggests. There is a dedicated aisle for different cuisines to help shoppers choose dinner options as well as mini-markets within the store offering sushi, pre-made meals etc.

Albert Heijn milk aisleThe dairy aisle was simply overwhelming and just trying to find conventional milk a good ten-minute affair. Navigating language differences, pack formats and different variants I finally settled on the product that had the most on display figuring that it had to be milk. I was luckily right.

If I thought this Albert Heijn dairy aisle was big I was in for a shock when I visited a French market! Quite paradoxically, the French, who are majority scratch cookers and take great pride in the cooking experience, seem to like shopping at large faceless hypermarkets. But these are so unlike ours in SA where bulk prevails.

The diary aisle here was 100m-long stretch of open fridges displaying every imaginable format of cheese from various parts of Europe. Round the corner was the cold meats section, again an absolute global wonderland of preservation styles and formats. I couldn’t resist and shopped for bulk packs of Brie, Camembert, La Vache QuiRi and Parma ham – just because I could!

Lisa Kraft Mac Cheese aisleI notice in different markets that there is often a ‘hero’ packaged meal that is synonymous with the nation shopping there. For instance, the baked beans aisle in the UK have formats and varieties of baked beans we have never seen before and the same could be said for Kraft Mac & Cheese in the US. The original Kraft Mac & Cheese concept has been extended to wholegrain pasta, various cheese and flavour varieties, bulk family packs formats, microwavable versions including microwavable pots, to a deluxe range with extra crunchy toppings. A world of Kraft Mac & Cheese dominating the pasta aisle, as a shopper you simply can’t miss it!

The Costco Experience
Still across the Atlantic Ocean, on a business trip to the US, I came across the Costco chain. Costco is an institution, according to my American colleagues, who are all devoted loyalty card members. ‘If Costco doesn’t sell it, it’s not worth having’, is the line I heard voluntarily from many people I spoke to.

Costco shoppingOnce you’re a member, you can buy clothes, household furniture, sports equipment, food, personal care items and even petrol. Costco buys in such large volumes that they are able to sell Levi jeans for $20! It’s described as a ‘treasure hunt’ as Costco is constantly changing their product lines and you feel compelled to buy these great deals as you may not get them again.

Their stores are enormous and emulate a warehouse in design, but once you enter the high quality and desirable brands blow you away, notably the fresh meat and fish aisle that was jaw dropping, and cheese and ‘champagnes’ on offer from all over the world.

The loyalty cards in Europe and the US are simpler and more impactful when I compare them to what we have in SA. In the Netherlands, the Albert Heijns Bonus card provides discounts on certain items. These are immediate on presentation of your card at the till and evident on the bottom of your slip. Instant gratification works better than receiving a voucher week’s later like Clicks Club card or only seeing the cash back into your Discovery credit card a month after purchasing at specific partner stores.

While in the US, I visited Whole Foods, the natural and organic food chain with a particular focus on sustainable agriculture. The store decor matches its name – wooden store finishes, craft display stands which created a feeling you were picking packaged foods from a tree, at just five times the price!

The items for sale were so exotic like green ramen noodles made from bamboo shoots, sprouted brown basmati, vegan Alfredo sauce and creamy vodka pasta sauce, I wouldn’t quite know what to do with them! It did remind me of how retail is tapping into the food market trend that is sweeping across the developed world as well as back home.

Every Friday in our little suburb just outside of Rotterdam, there’s a fresh food market reminiscent of how food used to be traded in the past with an enormous array of fresh produce, baked goods, cheese, fish and meat.

On the opposite spectrum, $1 and €1 stores are popping up all over the developed world, a result of the financial crash in 2008. Shoppers have become ever savvier and are looking for affordable alternatives. What is the opportunity for a R10 store in South Africa where the majority of South Africans are cash strapped?

I had heard so much about the power of own label in developed markets, and it certainly is a reality. These are not dumbed-down versions of big brands – side by side, you would consider them to be the real thing and, as a new shopper, I could barely tell the difference. Full-colour pack photography, innovative and functional packaging and excellent product delivery are the norm. You can get private label products from tea bags to toothpaste, and everything in between.

The labourer shopper
Back in Albert Heijn, while other shoppers were drinking the free filter coffee on offer, I slowly continued my choice-and-language-hampered expedition. Fortunately, my kids had found the interactive TV station and were nicely distracted. So, now to pay.

Entering the queue I was already anxious as I observed many other shoppers adeptly using self-scanners. This was exacerbated when I found I was in a line that didn’t take money or credit cards. What? I could only pay with a local chip card, which I didn’t have yet? Fortunately, the young till assistant quickly called her manager to sort it out. Once this was resolved, I had to remember to have my bags ready (which you have to buy as per SA), and quickly pack them myself ahead of a now impatient queue.

Consumer involvement in the shopper experience is vastly different from SA. From having to scan your own goods to packing your own bags, the transfer of supermarket labour is moving to the consumer. Quite a challenge for a newbie like me. How spoilt we are at home, with someone to weigh your fruit ‘n veg, pack your bags, put them in a trolley, and even push it to the car and load it up for you!

Instead, time to walk home with bulging, awkward bags and grumbling four-year old twins!

About this column

Lisa RonquestLisa Ronquest is currently Head of Product Development – Global Food R&D at Mars Inc, based in The Netherlands. The intention of this column is to be both a personal and professional account of a South African food scientist exploring life and work in a developed market.

You can contact her at [email protected].