Quality standards drive mango growthIndustry Best Practice
A firm quality standard can deliver increased sales and market growth but must have clear customer benefits and cross-industry backing, the mango industry’s experience shows.
Establishing a universal quality standard has been a game-changer for the mango industry, driving a consistency of quality that has won retailer backing and promotion, and crucially volume and dollar sales growth.
Four years on from the rollout of the standard there has been a 30 per cent increase in volume sold and a 50 per cent increase in returns and the focus has moved from reaching a standard to a best practice culture of hitting it every time.
Central to the success, according to Robert Gray, chief executive of the Australian Mango Industry Association, has been putting the customer eating experience first and having whole of industry engagement in the standard.
“It is important to find out what the consumer is not getting that they want,” Robert said. “One of the big drivers for an apple is the crunch. People eat mangoes for their taste. It is really important that they are getting the best tasting mangoes.
“The standards also have to be commercially achievable by growers and you have to engage all stakeholders. You have got to have the retailers’ support, the packhouses and the growers’ board standing tall that they back it personally.”
Back in 2013–14 mango customers were not getting want they wanted, sales were down, and the retailer feedback was blunt.
“In the end of season reviews they were telling us ‘you guys have dropped the ball, there are poor sales and variable quality, we’ve lost confidence and we will be spending our marketing on other summerfruits’,” Robert said.
“It was a kick in the pants that we needed to do something different. This was about regaining the credibility of the mango industry. To do that we had two moments of truth. We needed good front of store displays that were bold with good colour, and customers had to be wowed by the taste.”
In pursuit of that consistent ‘wow’ factor, the mango industry undertook consumer research in 2014–15 to investigate the relationship between consumer satisfaction and parameters such as dry matter, brix and the brix acid ratio to give a greater understanding of the preferences and quality thresholds for mango flavour.
“The results showed the importance of getting the ripeness and maturity levels correct,” Robert said.
Armed with insights into what consumers wanted, the mango industry developed a minimum quality standard backed by testing to ensure all fruit delivered would meet this expectation and ensure repeat sales.
Requiring growers to deliver fruit to a firm standard or have it rejected unsurprisingly raised concerns and opposition. Robert said providing extension to support growers, encouragement and setting the bar at a commercially-achievable level had helped growers meet and support the standards.
Publishing individual results provided an added focus on hitting the mark.
“It’s tough when you start having commercial engagement,” Robert said.
“The consumer research showed what the dry matter and sugar levels needed to be a good eating experience, and our role was then getting them hard wired into the spec and the same for everyone. Then it was how do we bring it to life, how do we get industry focused?
“We set standards quite conservatively. At the bottom of the scale was consumers weren’t happy, next was that it was good, the next was excellent, they wouldn’t even look at price, they’d buy it, but we set it at the minimum – it’s about encouraging people to do better.
“We communicated what was going to happen and how we could help. We put on new regionally based IDOs to focus on forecasting and decisions to pick. On-farm dry matter testing using hand-held, non-destructive near infrared (NIR) technology was used to ensure mangoes were picked at the correct maturity to deliver a consistently good eating experience.
“We substantially increased resources to growers, funded out of levies. Those roles are still there but the percentage of their time in support is declining and they are now developing best practice systems, with the aim for growers to be doing it themselves.
“The thing that really got people’s attention was publishing results. Initially we weren’t proposing to publish, we were going to measure only, but at the first meeting the growers said let’s be serious about this, why don’t we print names and scores.”
Victorian-based Rudge Produce Systems was contracted to do independent in market testing, and – for some retailers – testing at receival at the distribution centres (DCs). The testing was originally paid for by industry, transitioning to retailers paying half and then finally to those retailers wishing to continue testing paying for it themselves.
Robert said different retailers had different approaches to testing with some asking their suppliers to have systems in place to meet standards, and some requiring testing prior to sending.
In the first year (2015–16) testing results were published, without any minimum set and retailers began discussions with growers. The second year (2016–17) results were published relative to the minimum standard and retailers used that as a basis to communicate to suppliers short of the mark ‘you really need to meet these or next year we won’t take your fruit’.
“In the third year (2017–18) we implemented it,” Robert said. “We were having a very high level of conformance by the time it got to the pointy end. That’s important, you have got to have time to lift your capability. The amount commercially rejected as out of spec that year was probably under 10 per cent.”
Robert said having the retailers’ support had been key. “It was fertile ground,” Robert said. “Retailers were unhappy with the product we were supplying we weren’t operating in an environment they thought was hunky dory and they didn’t want to be the baddies, the one knocking the fruit out when their competitors were saying it was ok. We had a science-based approach, and they wanted the benefit of offering good eating fruit.
“All our retailers have grown their mango category over the time frame and reduced the time in the supply chain. Keeping it moving is critical and we now clear each week so there is no back up.”
While working to put the wow back into mangoes, Robert said the industry also worked to ensure retailers had all the information they needed to plan retail promotions and displays, including a detailed crop forecast.
“Mangoes have got to be sold, you can’t store them, Robert said. “So, the supply line is very volatile. It makes it hard for retailers to plan.
“Managing the display side was very much about information flow about when does the season start, when are the peaks and what are the volumes. We publish our crop forecast and communicate it loud and clear to anyone who wants to listen. We believe in transparency, it drives confidence.
“We used to have a forecast that was unreliable, sampling some growers, doing some flower counts, based on a lot of assumptions. Now it is forecast information from every grower, a grower by grower accumulated picture. We still have issues of how accurate grower forecast is, but we are working with them on that.”
Lessons for apples
The citrus, table grape and avocado industries also apply minimum quality standards and in Western Australia growers are leading the way in apples. Pomewest set state minimum standards for Granny Smith, Gala and varieties sold as Pink Lady in the past two seasons, also using a public reporting of test results.
APAL Industry Services and Export Manager Justin Smith said mango industry experience had valuable insights for the apple and pear industry as it looks at a number of strategies towards the long-term goal of improving quality.
“The mango quality program has clearly demonstrated that when consumers build trust in a category they return again and again,” Justin said. “Over time this enables the retailers and growers to benefit from higher prices, as demand and satisfaction with the category grow. Australians have so much choice these days across all fruit categories and the snacking options, we must deliver consistent and high-quality fruit to remain at the forefront of consumers buying.
“We are currently exploring options to improve visibility right along the supply chain to further support the industry’s performance, success and long-term viability.”
So embedded has the culture of meeting the standard become that Robert said reporting the results had ceased.
“We did if for five years, and we’ve now stopped,” he said. “The retailers are managing it and we are putting all our energy into building best practice.
A Building best practice management capacity project kicked off in 2017–18 formalising processes ranging from forecasting, decision to pick, ripening and spraying.
In the 2019 and 2020 seasons this included working with Escavox to monitor temperature throughout the supply chain from picking to the retail shelf. Growers were given free access to trackers to monitor their consignments.
“One of the key areas we identified in the best practice project was temperature management across the supply chain,” Robert said. “Mangoes need to be kept cool. To get a compelling case to adopt we wanted to highlight the current state.
“Most of our energy is now going into best practice resources, about how we get people to do the right thing every time and when new people come in ensure they have good tools to make sure they do the right thing from the start.”
Time is ripe for getting maturity right (AFG Autumn 2020)
Lessons learnt from the Pomewest quality and maturity testing program (Post Harvest, 2020, presentation Nardia Stacy)
Harvest timing key to consistent quality (Apr 2019)
Harvest with customer requirements in mind (Feb 2018)