Skip to main content

Gone in Three Seconds


Eight seconds. That’s the average attention span of the modern American, down from 12 seconds in 2000, according to recent research.

But when it comes to capturing the attention of a shopper in the produce aisle, marketing expert Craig Kaufman says supermarkets and suppliers alike have even less time to make an impression and, more importantly, a sale.

“Simplify your message and make it like a billboard that you see, driving down the freeway — something that can be absorbed in three seconds,” urges Kaufman, principal of Full Steam Marketing & Design, the Salinas, Calif.-based agency that represented the Fresh Express brand for nearly two decades.

That message can be as simple as seasonality, says Jeanne Fratello, author of The Jolly Tomato blog, a forum for news and information about food and nutrition, with a focus on kids. Fratello, who was a judge for the Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) 2013 Impact Awards for best produce packaging, has a keen sense of what resonates with health-conscious, food-savvy consumers.

“Here’s the thing that always gets me when I’m shopping in the supermarket, which here [Manhattan Beach, Calif.] is either Vons or Ralphs. If there’s an attractive display that says, ‘In Season’ or ‘New this Week’ or ‘Just Arrived,’ then I’m a sucker for that,” she says. “When supermarkets play up seasonality, that’s what speaks to me. I feel like the produce is going to be fresher and tastier.”

Kaufman sees both sides of the sales pitch, and the win-win of suppliers and retailers fine-tuning their respective fresh messaging.

“Retailers are trying to create a unique shopping experience, and they’re asking suppliers to provide merchandising concepts,” he notes. “I believe that more produce companies should engage in merchandising solutions. Typically, you will see a 3 percent to 5 percent sales lift when you do.”

One easy way to encourage greater fruit and vegetable consumption, says Kaufman, is to promote the USDA’s “Choose My Plate” campaign. “Choose My Plate says half the plate should be fruits and vegetables. That icon should be on every package of produce, because there’s a long learning curve for consumers about what that really means,” he explains.

Packaging Trends

At a time when local farmers’ markets are experiencing a strong resurgence, it’s not surprising that one of the top packaging trends in produce is to evoke earthiness and sustainability.

“Recycled and recyclable is on everybody’s radar,” asserts Kaufman, who points to Monterey Mushrooms’ attractively designed sustainable packaging, a 2011 PMA Impact Award winner.

“For me, the least amount of packaging is the most appealing,” says Fratello. “If everything comes in a clamshell, No. 1, I can’t fit it all in my fridge, and No. 2, my recycling bin is always full.”

As a mom who shops for food and prepares meals for her family, Fratello also wrestles with the message that so much packaging sends to her kids. “They are really emphasizing the environment at my kids’ school, with things like Trash-Free Tuesdays and lots of lessons on the environment, so to come home from the store with all of these boxes and clamshells — it just feels very wasteful,” she says.

Instead, Fratello wants to know what she’s buying. “I like to see the produce and see how fresh it is,” she says, recalling one of PMA’s 2013 Impact Award winners, Los Alamitos, Calif.-based Frieda’s Inc. “Their Meyer lemon bags were very bright and appealing, and you could actually see the lemons inside, which is a big thing for me.

“I’m looking for something fresher and eco-friendly. I like packaging that looks more natural, like these beautiful tomatoes I saw that were packed in a cardboard sleeve,” she adds.

That’s the thought behind the Pure Flavor packaging rolled out by Leamington, Ontario-based Pure Hothouse Foods Inc. earlier this year. The eco-friendly packaging for its Beefsteak Slicer Tomatoes represents a 30 percent reduction in paper usage, while also featuring three rotating recipes for consumers.

Recipes, both on produce packaging and company websites, are another hot trend, notes Kaufman. “Particularly with the growth in cooking greens like spinach, kale, etc., recipes and videos that show how to [cook items] and preparation techniques are really beneficial,” he observes.

“If it’s something more unusual, a graphic on the packaging with serving suggestions or instructions on how to prepare it is appealing,” agrees Fratello. “Like with those little fingerling potatoes … I always forget how long I’m supposed to cook them.”

Product-specific Merchandising

While produce packaging that delivers sustainability, product visibility and recipes/preparation tips rank high with consumers, effective merchandising is equally important to securing sales. For proven merchandising strategies in three popular produce categories — grapes, avocados and sweet onions — PG went to the experts.


When the subject of merchandising grapes arises, John Pandol, a director with Delano, Calif.-based Pandol Brothers Inc., a company that has been in the grape business since the 1950s, makes this impassioned plea: “The Golden Rule of grape merchandising is never set a bigger display than you can properly maintain. ‘Stack it high and let it fly’ is for cans and boxes, not grapes. Know what your personnel can execute.”

Once a commitment to maintaining the display has been made, Pandol says bigger displays, both secondary at store entry and at department entry, are extremely effective. He advises a merchandising mix that features variety, different packaging and color breaks.

“Varieties, organics, multicolor packs, specialty grapes — consider them all either as a monster grape-o-rama, or keep mixing it up during the season,” he says. Pandol also encourages retailers to consider larger displays for a few hours during peak shopping hours, to lend a sense of farmers’-market urgency to the offerings.

Grape packaging that supports proper merchandising has been wildly successful, observes Pandol. “The new bags, made from a variety of materials that have better clarity and more rigidity, have taken the produce department by storm,” he says.

Why? “My take is subliminal messaging,” he continues. “There is a subliminal message to the produce clerk: Set the bags out nicely, like they were gift bags. The message to consumers: The handle on the bag is here for you to pick me up.

“The beauty of the stand-up rigid plastic bags is, store personnel, even with little training, tend to stack them one or two high, neatly arranged,” adds Pandol.


In a category with as much excitement as avocados, the opportunities to maximize merchandising impact abound.

Both retail and volume sales of this sultry fruit continue to climb. “Total volume at retail is up 13 percent versus a year ago, and total dollar sales are up 14.4 percent,” notes Emiliano Escobedo, executive director of the Irvine, Calif.-based Hass Avocado Board (HAB), who adds that this growth was achieved even with a slight price increase to $1.04 per unit, up from $1.03 the year prior.

This growth, according to Escobedo, is across all regions, in both highly developed markets like California and less developed areas such as the Northeast. “The Northeast experienced 25 percent sales and volume growth. The Southeast experienced 24 percent volume growth and 21 percent dollar growth,” he notes.

Even California, a mature avocado market that is almost twice the size of the entire Northeast market, experienced 2.5 percent volume growth and 7.8 percent sales growth in 2013 as compared with the previous year.

Several factors are fueling demand, Escobedo says. A healthy supply to support growth is one reason. “There is also a positive association with avocados and their nutritional/health benefits. People are finding they have permission to use avocado in many ways,” he notes.

With the goal of better understanding the mind of the avocado shopper, HAB recently conducted a study on shopper motivations. The study found that prominent displays influence purchases, as do the quality and ripeness of the avocados.

“Ripe avocados drive sales,” Escobedo declares. “But there is a big question among consumers as to what is ripe. So proper signage — a callout that the avocados are ready to eat or ready to eat soon — is very important.”

While the study also found that shoppers are willing to pay slightly more for avocados because they are a unique item that’s not easily substituted, Escobedo advises creating a “healthy promotional schedule” that plans for discounts that drive sales at specific times throughout the year.

Where the most significant opportunity with avocados lies, Escobedo says, is with bagged product. “A lot of retailers have the idea that bringing bagged avocados into the store will cannibalize sales from bulk, but research consistently finds that this is not the case,” he assures.

“People who buy bagged avocados buy them for different reasons than the consumers who are buying bulk,” he explains. As bagged avocados tend to be smaller in size than their bulk counterparts, they appeal to shoppers who consume an avocado a day. They’re also popular with consumers with large families and with those who like to serve guacamole to party guests.

In another research study, the board found that bulk avocados accounted for more than 94 percent of dollar sales and 80 percent of volume in the category during the past three years.

“This research tells us that there is a huge opportunity to grow share of sales with bagged avocados, especially in markets where people are used to buying avocados and are comfortable buying four or five because they know they will eat them,” says Escobedo.

Additional sales opportunities are available on the bulk side as well, he adds. Offering a variety of sizes — jumbo, large, medium and small — will maximize sales. Also, remember to spotlight the variety by noting buzzwords such as “Hass,” “organic” and “local.”

“Multiple sizes have been shown to increase sales by double digits, compared to just a single size, when combined with attractive price points and colorful promotional signage,” concurs Maggie Bezart Hall, VP of trade and promotion for Avocados from Mexico, the promotion group of the Fallston, Md.-based Mexican Hass Avocados Importers Association and the Avocado Producers and Exporting Packers Association of Michoacán (APEAM), in Mexico.

“I was taught a phrase as a young and upcoming marketer in the industry many years ago by a very wise mentor, Dick Spezzano: ‘If it is not in the stores, the consumer can’t buy it.’ And we know that full, large displays of avocados attract the consumer to purchase,” asserts Hall.

In tandem with offering a variety of avocado sizes and price points, she recommends educating produce personnel on selection, nutrition and usage ideas, “to help the low to medium user gain confidence in their avocado selection.”

Avocados from Mexico is hoping that two upcoming promotions will further drive demand for the luscious green fruit. The first, “El Mejor Partido” (“Best Game Ever”) will celebrate the 2014 World Cup by creating a soccer-themed program encouraging consumers to make avocados part of their celebrations. The program, which runs from May 12 through June 30, will span a targeted 800 stores in key Hispanic markets, including Texas, Chicago and the East Coast.

The second cross-promotion — “Summer Salads Celebration” — will be available to general market retailers and consumers in the Midwest and East Coast in June and July. A partnership program with Avocados from Mexico, The Pork Board, Hidden Valley Ranch and Dole Salads, the campaign will feature multiple coupon offers and recipe ideas to drive salads throughout produce, meat and center store departments.

Sweet Onions

While seasonality is something consumers immediately connect with stone fruits, berries, citrus and asparagus, it may not be top of mind with onions. However, promoting the limited availability of certain sweet onions can strongly impact sales.

“Being specific about when particular varieties of onions are fresh is very important,” advises Greg Smith, marketing communications manager for Bland Farms, in Glennville, Ga. “Because most consumers take for granted the fact that we have onions year-round, many consumers don’t pay attention to the seasonality of onions or where they originate from.”

Bland Farms is the largest grower, packer and shipper of sweet onions in the United States, representing roughly half of the entire Vidalia sweet onion volume.

“Additionally, providing a description of the flavor helps consumers see the onion’s value,” notes Smith. “When you can describe the flavor of a sweet onion and its different uses as compared to a conventional onion, it allows people to associate more value with the product.”

Younger shoppers may be even less likely to understand and appreciate the differences between onion varieties. The Vidalia Onion Committee (VOC), in Vidalia, Ga., is hoping to change that with its recently launched 2014 retail promotional campaign, “V is for Vidalia,” which focuses on the versatility and usage benefits of Vidalia onions.

“Our goal is to reach a younger consumer demographic,” says Susan Waters, executive director of the VOC. “This fun, energetic campaign, combined with increased digital and social media activities, is the first step in reaching the Millennial consumers and starting to establish their long-term loyalty for the Vidalia onion brand.”

In addition to social media outreach, the campaign includes on-pack brand messaging, digital coupons, point-of-sale materials, a national food blogger contest, advertising and public relations. On its Facebook page, the VOC will give away digital coupons and weekly prizes during May and June.

The VOC is also updating its website to provide retailers with key marketing and merchandising resources. Retailers can access a crop report, highlights from a new onion category research study, and downloadable campaign graphics and merchandising tips, as well as storage and handling information.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds