Groceries - Abel & Cole delivers at last as demand for vegetable and fruit boxes soars

The 25-year-old organic groceries delivery brand appears to have turned a corner.

Organic vegetable and fruit boxes, once the preserve of middle-class consumers, is a sector that is showing serious potential, if recent figures from organic-box delivery firm Abel & Cole are anything to go by.

Last October, the 25-year-old business was acquired by the William Jackson Food Group, which owns the Aunt Bessie's brand. This heralded a brighter future for Abel & Cole, which had been struggling for several years prior to the acquisition due to a downturn in consumer spend. However, last month it posted an impressive set of financial results, with sales growing by almost a third to £46.5m in the year to 31 August 2012, compared with £35.7m in the previous 12 months.

While this hints at a promising future, the outlook is still tough, with competition from rivals such as Riverford as well as supermarkets. In the London area, Tesco recently introduced Soil & Seed, its own take on the delivered organic produce box.

Abel & Cole founder and director Keith Abel says it aims to grow the core business through increasing customer recruitment, improving retention and increasing average order value.

Yet against such a competitive backdrop, how will Abel & Cole not just survive, but firmly take the high ground?

We asked Charles Coleman, director at DeliSante and a former head of marketing at fresh-produce manufacturer and supplier Natures Way Foods, and Jason Lawes, chief creative officer of Stuff. He is a former creative partner of The Red Brick Road, where he was responsible for the Tesco account.


CHARLES COLEMAN, Director, DeliSante (and former head of marketing, Natures Way Foods)

Abel & Cole has managed a fantastic turnaround for a brand that was on its knees just a few years ago. It is doing many things right, with a focus on building a loyal customer base, reducing costs and driving efficiency.

The premium organic food market has slumped by 5.5% to £1.64bn over the past five years ('The Organic Food Market Research Report', Jan 2013). The outlook appears bleak as customers retrench into value; Abel & Cole also operates in a fiercely competitive market, with rival organic box brands and local farmers' markets to contend with, let alone the multiples.

The plan

- Build greater trust and integrity. Think about investing in an Abel & Cole Farm to underpin the brand's provenance and legitimacy without undermining existing suppliers.

- Bring the brand to life. Develop concept Abel & Cole convenience stores in London to test the 'click and collect' revolution.

- Give the brand personality and broaden the customer base by sponsoring a 'hero' chef - someone with strong organic credentials such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, for example.

JASON LAWES, Chief creative officer, Stuff (and former creative partner, The Red Brick Road)

I spent most of the past 12 years writing Tesco ads, so you could say I'm familiar with grocery brands. But there's something about Abel & Cole that doesn't fit the stereotype. Weirdly, it feels more like a luxury-goods or lifestyle brand.

In fact, it has more parallels with another brand I did some ads for, Stella Artois - premium-quality, niche, but growing rapidly, and, at its zenith, not the cheapest in the market. That is something I think Abel & Cole could learn some lessons from: it turned out that selling Stella at the same price as Foster's was a turn-off.

The plan

- Don't be distracted by what the supermarkets are doing; you are not competing with them. Someone once told me that for Tesco to sell only free-range chickens it would need a farm the size of Scotland, so clearly it can't compete with you either.

- Continue to behave like a niche retailer: the brand's best chance of entering the mainstream is not to try to do so.

- The artisan feel and attitude of a small producer is what will remain most appealing about the brand.


£46.5m - The company's sales in the year to 31 August 2012

£27m - Reported annual loss in 2010

Sources: Abel & Cole, Companies House


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