Greek Olive Oil Producers Struggle in China

Greece, one of the top olive oil producing countries in the world, is looking east for new opportunities. Olive oil producers and distributors are eyeing China’s immense market. However, they are finding that their quality products are not an easy sell. For several in the business, their recent efforts are proving to be disappointing, yet they remain hopeful.

The Potential

Vassilia Fragaki, the president of Cooperativa Sitia, one of the largest olive oil cooperatives in Greece, said the potential in China is alluring. “The sales potential is great. So we made a decision that we needed to build our efforts in the Chinese market. It has been very interesting for us so far,” said Fragaki. Fragaki added that efforts over the past few years have involved substantial preparation including everything from translation, creating a strategic marketing plan to hiring Chinese representatives based in target cities.

Recently, Fragaki joined a marketing trip organized by the Greek olive oil conference and exhibition group, Eleotexnia. In November 2013, along with several other Greek producers, Cooperativa Sitia’s team aimed to broaden contacts and present their olive oils at the Shanghai Food Exhibition. Fragaki said results have yet to be seen but the effort has been “worth it so far.” “We’re beginning to unfold the secrets of the market. I feel at this point we can continue to take small steps and by next year we can think about moving on to bigger steps.”

Changing Plans

Nikos Monahoyios of Ergofood Greece isn’t as hopeful any longer. He attended several Chinese food exhibitions where he quickly learned that Greek participation and marketing support was low. He felt he found a great opportunity to showcase his Greek brand and quality Greek olive oils. However, he admits he faced disappointment.

The Chinese may have a growing upper class interested in products like ours but they can’t find the top quality. Their market isn’t reliable and they’re not trained enough yet to select authentic high quality olive oil and wine products.” Monahoyios, who also exports Greek wines, said in China products like Greek olive oils are purchased “mostly to show off among friends and gain social status.” “In our opinion the Chinese consuming behavior isn’t mature enough. They want to follow the Western consuming culture and habits but their only criterion in their choice is price and not quality.” He pointed out that recent research showed that most of the French wines sold in China are not actually French but just have a French label. He believes the same can happen with olive oil. Monahoyios said that one Chinese company suggested that he even change the numbers on acidity levels, even though, he said, they didn’t know what the numbers meant. “Of course we denied working with them.” Meanwhile, at exhibitions, Monahoyios was thrilled that Chinese traders loved the taste and quality of his olive oil. “They were saying that it was the best olive oil they tasted but when they were asking about the price the first reaction was that it was too expensive.” After his efforts, Monahoyios is giving up. “I’m honestly so disappointed from the Chinese market after all these negative experiences with the Chinese consuming behavior and perception that I can say now that I am not aiming in this market any longer.” Monahoyios will focus on the U.S. market instead. “Consumer perception is more advanced,” he said. “I can see now why there is a wide effort from several Greek companies trying to promote the Greek olive oil and its quality, especially over the past few years.”

Up and Down

Stelios Vytogiannis of Foodrinco introduced his Greek extra virgin olive oils to the Chinese market two years ago. He had also hired a local Chinese sales and marketing associate to promote his products. “The language, time difference and culture all play a role,” said Vytogiannis. “There is room in China, of course, but it is difficult to get access.” To describe his frustration he compared his attempts in China to another Asian market. “In Korea, I was able to ship products and create a good business relationship quite easily in less than two months. My experience in China has been an uphill battle.” Vytogiannis said everything seemed grim when his Chinese associate stopped answering his phone calls and emails. Their business relationship came to an end. That blow to his investment, he says, didn’t stop him. “It’s our third year trying and we’ve already invested so much so we must go on. We’ll find someone new to help us in China. We are determined to get some results.”

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