Picard keeps its cool

  • After Brussels and Walloon Brabant, the French chain Picard has Flanders in its sights
  • They aim to open around ten stores per year in Belgium
  • The Picard group was barely touched by the horsemeat scandal

With 900 stores in France, the frozen foods group, Picard, is often cited as one of French consumers’ favorite brands. In mid-2012 it arrived quietly here in Belgium – in Waterloo. It has since opened seven other stores in Belgium including six in Brussels and one – last Thursday – in Brasschaat. Has it been a success? Frédéric Bobée, managing director of Picard in Belgium, refuses to give any figures, but he says that “Picard’s arrival in Belgium has been well received by customers, enabling us to take an optimistic view today of future development throughout the country.” Picard plans to pursue this development at the rate of “around ten new stores a year.”

What is Picard’s unique selling point?

“We share a market with the big supermarket chains, but in fact there isn’t a great deal of overlap because they don’t really offer the same service as us. We’re more in competition with delicatessens than with frozen food companies. For us, freezing is more a means than an end in itself – many of our customers buy our products to consume the same evening or the next day. Picard offers around a thousand products, whose recipes (or specifications) have been exclusively developed by our teams. Add to that over 50,000 quality tests a year, with a further 3,600 DNA tests added since May and you have the main features which differentiate our brand.” 

What is Picard’s target market?

“In urban settings the de facto clientele is single people and young couples. For them it is convenience that matters. We are also seeing this in the development of local supermarkets. These customers are less and less likely to buy in bulk – they shop to meet their short–term needs. We also have many customers who are concerned about nutritional quality, as they are aware that we have a quality charter with rigorous standards for our products. And then there are families with children, usually from the more comfortable socio-professional groups.”

Are you saying that Picard is expensive?

“No, we are not expensive! Neither our research nor our customers ever tell us that we are positioned as an expensive brand. Partly because we have been going for 40 years and we really know what we are doing. And there are also effects of scale. One of my colleagues has calculated that Picard alone sells more frozen foods in France than Carrefour and Leclerc put together. That obviously puts us in a position to demand quality and pricing levels which we then pass on to our customers. At Picard we spend mainly on quality and testing. We don’t indulge in extravagant spending in our stores or on our advertising.”

Your competitor, the O’Cool frozen food chain, went bankrupt at the end of August. Does that worry you?

“We are different because of the breadth of our range. You can find things in our stores which you won’t be able to find anywhere else. O’Cool was selling large quantities of basic food products to the catering trade. The size of our stores was completely different – theirs were 600-800m2, while ours are 200-250m2. We are much closer to our customers. Our stores are in town centers, or in the suburbs.” 

So will there be no backlash among Belgians against the idea of frozen food stores?

“Belgian consumers have not taken to frozen foods up till now because they have never been offered frozen products in sufficient variety and of high enough quality. Also, consumption of frozen foods is higher in Belgium than in France – 40 kilos a year in Belgium, against 35 in France.”

What impact did the horsemeat scandal have on Picard?

“There was some very limited impact in France, none in Belgium. Whatever the reason behind a health scare, our commitment is to tell the truth. We were among the first to warn our customers and to put a buy-back offer in place.”

Are you saying that the tools that you had in place at the time of the crisis were not sufficient?

“On paper they were sufficient. Our specifications stipulated that it couldn’t happen, because then the only checks we had in place were taste tests. We didn’t run DNA checks at the time. We didn’t imagine we would ever need to do so. We immediately decided to bring in systematic DNA tests on production batches of our meat products. Our batches remain off the shelves as long as we’ve not got the DNA results.”

Have you had to deal with mistrust from consumers?

“It was more a case of people raising legitimate questions than not trusting us. We, like the market as a whole, suffered a drop in sales of meat-based dishes, but we’ve seen that people are starting to come back to us. We’ve returned to near pre-crisis levels of activity.” 

Interview by BERNARD PADOAN

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