For the past few years, in response to rising consumer demand, retailers have introduced a plethora of “fresh-focused” store formats playing up the produce, meat/seafood, deli/prepared food and bakery departments, often at the expense of perceived lower-value sections such as center store and frozen foods.
But how long will this interest in fresh last, and how can retailers prevent it from growing stale?
Following are five key pieces of advice to retailers to maintain a booming fresh offering. Although some comments refer to one category in particular, many observations are applicable across departments.
1. Stay on Top of Health and Other Trends
Since fresh products are so closely connected with consumer perceptions of better health and nutrition, retailers need to strike the right balance in communicating these properties to customers, so that they’ll be encouraged to incorporate more and varied fresh items into their diets.
“When promoting fresh food, retailers should be careful not to lecture or pressure consumers into eating healthy,” notes Dionysios Christou, VP marketing at Coral Gables, Fla.-based Del Monte Fresh Produce. “They should promote the nutritional value and many benefits that the products can bring to consumers and their families. Consumers like to have free will when making shopping decisions, and negative promotional tactics or comparisons to other products may make them feel forced and turned off from a particular message and/or product.”
Kathy Means, VP of industry relations at the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association (PMA), urges, “Use programs like [PMA/Sesame Workshop partnership] Eat Brighter! to attract attention and make it easy for kids to want produce — parents will thank you!”
“Following a successful test, we expanded deli offerings in many of our stores by adding a salad bar stocked with ready-to-eat healthy and flavorful salads, prepared proteins, healthy side dishes, and an improved assortment of entrées, meals and side dishes,” observes Diego Romero, corporate communications manager at Phoenix-based Sprouts Farmers Market. “We will be looking to incorporate many of these offerings into a greater number of stores in 2017 and beyond.”
Retailers must always bear in mind, however, that fresh isn’t only about better-for-you items. “The holistic approach to produce will continue as consumers see produce as more than just a health solution, though health remains important,” Means points out. “It’s family favorites and traditions. It’s convenience and time saving. It’s fresh and new, even adventuresome at times.”
That being the case, it’s crucial that retailers not fall behind when it comes to retailer attitudes and preferences.
“Innovation in product development and marketing promotions will be key components to the continued growth of [produce],” says Christou. “Retailers must always stay current with consumer trends, needs and shopping behaviors.”
“Stay current on trends,” similarly advises Means. “Fruits, vegetables, herbs, etc., are often the key to making a cuisine what it is, so highlight those opportunities to customers.”
2. Light It Up
Another sage recommendation is to make sure that the products look as good as possible by presenting them, quite literally, in the best light.
“When it comes to merchandising, different colors can convey different feelings and moods,” explains Margie Proctor, marketing and design specialist at Conyers, Ga.-based Hillphoenix. “Warm tones, perceived as more pink-red tones of light … can impart a fresh, warm look to baked goods and a pleasing appearance to pink and red meat products.”
Meanwhile, she notes that temperatures “on the opposite end of the spectrum … can help impart a cooling visual [that] emphasizes the white and green in fresh vegetables such as lettuce and green onions, as well as the shining scales of a freshly cut white-flesh fish. The lighting you choose may even affect food spoilage and nutrients.”
3. Borrow Ideas
When promoting fresh food, grocers shouldn’t feel locked into marketing and merchandising strategies from their own retail channel — or even limit themselves to retail ideas at all.
“Think of your own experiences at other retail outlets: You appreciate suggestions, whether from a display or an associate,” notes Means. “Make that work at your stores — it shows respect and understanding for your customers. People like to shop at a retailer that ‘gets’ them.”
One creative example: “Book-stores have ‘employee picks’; why shouldn’t your stores have something like that?” she asks. “It could be favorite fruits or vegetables, their own recipes or prep tips.”
Further, adds Means, “The impact of foodservice and food culture (cooking shows, new restaurants, etc.) does seep into retail — take advantage of it.”
4. Keep it Simple
As with many things, simpler is better when it comes to fresh. “Avoid vast assortments in prepared foods,” counsels Jill Tomeny, senior manager, category solutions at Stamford, Conn.-based Daymon. “Focused programs help drive turn and freshness. There are ways to sell the same item in multiple formats — such as in the hot bar, in the service case and prepacked in the cold case — that hit on all shoppers’ needs but maintain streamlined offerings.”
This strategy should extend to allaying any concerns that consumers may have about preparing items. “Cooking can be scary for a lot of shoppers,” acknowledges Tomeny. “Be sure to tailor the complexity of any culinary offerings — such as meal kits — to the needs and skill levels of shoppers. Do they want to cook meals, or merely assemble? Make sure any in-store education or demonstrations focus on approachable techniques.”
Additionally, better organized departments will ensure that customers find what they’re looking for faster. This can mean rethinking traditional category management approaches.
Alan Hiebert, senior education coordinator at the Madison Wis.-based International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA), notes that “we’ve seen at least one chain that has begun locating the specialty cheese department next to the dairy case, often next to the wine and craft beer. From a traditional category management and store layout perspective, some chains may not think it makes sense. IDDBA research, however, has shown that … positioning the two together can help strengthen the relationship between the two, increasing sales of both and helping shoppers fill their needs efficiently.”
“Make it easy for consumers to shop your department and use these products, whether that’s fast meals, understanding how to use new items, fresh takes on old favorites, whatever,” counsels Means. “Be the consumer’s solution. They’ll keep coming back.”
5. Create a Worthwhile Experience
Above all, retailers must strive to make their fresh departments as inviting as possible.
Del Monte Fresh’s Christou says that “retailers must adopt various tactics such as eye-catching promotional items and merchandising activities that entice and educate consumers. This might include development of seasonal POS for shelves, in-store demos, and improved labeling information about product usages for different occasions. Recipe cards and coupons can also help boost engagement.”
Hiebert likewise believes that “stores should avoid being passive purveyors of fresh products. Engage shoppers through in-store associates, through digital and social media, and through signage. Though shoppers won’t be looking for an immersive experience every time they’re in the store, the more exciting and engaging the store is, the more likely they will be back.”
All of this engagement, however, needs to result in the consumer’s conviction that the shopping trip was well worth it. “Our investments in deli are designed to deliver more value to our customer,” asserts Sprouts’ Romero. “Value is our ultimate goal.”
Finally, grocers have to realize that the fresh departments can work in concert. “Don’t just put a fresh program out there and hope it will sell,” cautions Tomeny. “Retailers need to develop marketing programs that tie together all perishable departments, tell a story and ultimately become the obvious choice for customers.”