Is ugly the new black?

Aug 14, 2014

In farmed produce, there’s the good, the bad — then there’s the ugly, and a lot of it. The ugly generally gets rejected, given away, plowed under, or dumped into a landfill for no other reason than being aesthetically challenged. But the big success of a campaign recently launched by a French supermarket chain could be a model solution for supermarkets to profit from this ugly situation.

The supermarket, Intermarché, France’s third largest retail chain, came up with a way to turn the ugly lemons into lemonade. The chain created a separate brand with its own logo, labels and advertising called "Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables." The product line is sold fresh in bins and also includes branded soups and juices sold in containers. The effort was a huge hit as customers agreed that these products may be ugly, but they’re 30 percent cheaper and the taste is just as good.

"During the first two days, the store sold an average of 1.2 tonnes [about 2600 lbs.] of ugly fruit and vegetables. The total number of customers in the store increased by 24 percent," says Intermarché in the promo video. The first month of sales bought in over 13 million customers.

[Image: Ugly fruits and vegetables]

Intermarché launched this campaign as part of the European Union’s declaration of 2014 as the year to fight against food waste.

Here in the U.S., 30-40 percent of edible food is thrown away annually at a cost recently estimated at about $165 billion. The EPA estimates that food waste has increased 50 percent since the 1970s.

And the estimated 33 million tons of food we don’t eat contributes far more than its weight in waste. According to the NRDC, getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and soaks up 80 percent of all fresh water used in the United States. And what ends up in landfills contributes a considerable amount of methane to the atmosphere.

As a call to action, Jonathan Bloom, author of the book, American Wasteland, says in his blog, "So all of you supermarkets out there — especially here in the US! — adapt or even steal Intermarché’s idea. There’s too much at stake, environmentally and hunger-wise, not to try something to trim our food waste. Who knows, it may even bring some buzz to that retailer. After all, ugly is the new black. Ugly is now sexy."

Could an idea like Intermarché’s Inglorious Fruits & Vegetables brand and campaign work for supermarket chains here in the U.S.? Would the economics and scale of U.S. agricultural and supermarket logistics help or hinder its potential success? Is this campaign an effective way of addressing produce waste?

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15 Comments on "Is ugly the new black?"

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Bob Phibbs

Brilliant. Right on trend. We talked about the popularity of farmers’ markets around the U.S. the other day. These ugly fruits and vegetables could be found there just as easily. Brilliant to educate and reward with lower prices.

I can’t see any reason, particularly in larger urban areas, this wouldn’t work. I’d be shocked if Whole Foods wasn’t pursuing this as I type.

Max Goldberg

It definitely could work, and it should work. There is no reason to throw away massive amounts of food simply because it doesn’t look good. Intermarche has come up with a great way to make imperfect fruits and vegetables acceptable to shoppers. U.S. retailers should copy their example.

Roger Saunders

If the price is right—Yes.

The “chip and dent,” bundle of rapidly-ripening bananas, overstock and season-end canned vegetables sales have been a part of the American consumer’s purchase patterns for years.

The leading reason that consumers (adults 18-plus) choose a grocery store is price, with 76.5 percent of consumers saying the pocketbook value is tops in their mind, based on the August Prosper Monthly consumer survey. That figure is up from 65.6 percent holding that view in August of 2007, a short seven years ago.

U.S. supermarkets, offering the opportunity in the right groups of their stores, would find their customers embracing this type of offering. Further, with the consumer saving 30 percent-plus on the produce bill, the retailer would very likely find that their margins would appreciate sharply on this type of move. Produce offerings are often seasonal values to begin with. Setting up effective displays could be the move that the better operators can quickly pull off.

Liz Crawford

I love the idea! But, we aren’t French.

Americans like their consumer goods to look perfect, and I’m afraid that in the minds of many grocery shoppers, produce is just another CPG. They hold it to the same standards as mass-produced items, mostly because they are trained to do so. Our fruits and veggies have been a bit homogenized in terms of size, color and shape. Therefore, inglorious fruit would be like “day-old” bread or irregular jeans. Maybe a shopper will pick it up on occasion, but it’s viewed as a compromise.

Sure, heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables look irregular, and this is considered a good thing (validating “authenticity”). However, the heirloom varieties are largely bought by people who believe they are trading up, not down.

This is a good concept, but which would need a lot of U.S. market research to justify.

Gene Hoffman
Gene Hoffman
3 years 1 month ago

A great number of consumers want cheaper farm products, particularly those who like to cook from scratch. They aren’t bothered by dirty carrots and such. Intermarche’s program is workable in U.S. supermarkets for early entrants. As the program spreads the economies of scale, logistics and product fashions would come into play and result in a lot of Inglorious products hogging out “clean” produce. That would introduce new waste in the system and that would not sufficiently assist in addressing the produce waste problem.

Ian Percy

This is a great example of an old, but not often tried, marketing strategy: “Paint your biggest problem in bright colors!” I remember years ago painting a pipe that ran up through my apartment a bright orange, which was so cool it made other people wish they had the same problem.

That worked with Chiquita Minis and the undersized bananas re-branded for kids’ lunches. “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” is absolutely brilliant branding and of course it will work for supermarkets. Even food snobs will eventually be won over. It’s time to stop apologizing for what nature produces.

Doug Fleener

Love it, and I think it can benefit farmers, supermarkets and consumers. How can a win-win-win not win?

Al McClain
Al McClain
3 years 1 month ago

What a great idea! Intermarche should be congratulated. Will it work in the U.S.? Maybe. Our consumers value uniformity and may be put off by the odd appearance of some of the produce. On the other hand, a retailer with a quirky personality might be able to pull it off with a fun educational campaign. This could be a great fit for Trader Joe’s or maybe a way for Target to jump start their grocery business. I really hope it works, because we waste WAY too much of everything in this country.

Ben Ball

I have often railed in these blogs against “pseudo-organic types” who have no clue what a potato looks like coming out of the ground, how to separate a pork chop from a pork loin or that most tomatoes have black spots on the skin.

It’s time to tip my hypothetical hat to the French for this one. It’s brilliant. It’s right. It’s economically correct. And it should be embraced by U.S. consumers with open arms.

George-Marie Glover
George-Marie Glover
3 years 1 month ago

The Intermarche campaign was obviously well-thought out and planned before being implemented. Grocers would be advised to do the same before launching in the U.S. However, it is definitely an idea worth pursuing.

Those consumers who already buy a large amount of fresh produce are most likely to adapt. After all, most of us use vegetables sliced and diced. It doesn’t change their taste or appeal cooked in a dish. It may also encourage those who steer away from buying fresh because of the cost to buy more produce. It will less likely appeal to those who are looking for convenience.

I would definitely buy ugly fruits and vegetables for 30 percent less.

vic gallese
3 years 1 month ago

Absolutely! It is akin to “private label” in the perishable departments. Might not be a Whole Foods strategy, but good for ALDI! Might be great for the regional supers trying to stay competitive and differentiate from the nationals.

Somebody has to try it, if it’s not already being done in the US.

Ralph Jacobson

With the rise in popularity of farmers’ markets in the U.S., and the long-time tradition of these markets in growth regions of the world, I believe this is a great idea. If the product is of good quality in taste, but just not in appearance, supermarkets should definitely take advantage of this campaign. Shoppers of traditional farmers’ markets are already accustomed to seeing less-than-pretty products for sale.

James Tenser

Great, awareness-shifting campaign for the grocery shopper. It made me smile while offering a great lesson about curtailing food waste in an increasingly crowded world.

Sure there’s beauty in ugliness—especially where lower prices and equivalent nutrition are the formula. Those dirty carrots sell themselves.

At first I thought it made more sense to transform this produce into high-quality products, like the juices and soups that Intermarche used so successfully for sampling. Or would that eradicate both the image and the price advantage?

Kai Clarke

Perhaps. Although as the author even points out, just growing and getting the produce to the supermarket is very expensive. Perhaps the real success would be in better growth and handling of fruits and vegetables to avoid this issue in the first place.

Gajendra Ratnavel

This is a great idea. I noticed this at Whole Foods the other day. They were using the ripe avocados for guacamole and selling the guacamole in-store.

They always have the ideal ripeness of avocado, and now we know how they can afford to do this. This and they charge a premium.


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