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Grocers Drive Produce Sales by Educating on Specialty, Exotic Items

Grocers Drive Produce Sales by Educating on Specialty, Exotic Items

Specialty and exotic produce may not be as familiar as apples and oranges, but retailers are learning its value, and consumers love the taste.

As customers discover the flavors, preparation and uses of specialty produce, purchases will increase and produce departments will reap the benefits in healthy margins. Specialty and exotic produce can be purchased online, but customers who buy produce this way can’t sample it to experience the flavor — offering a competitive advantage for supermarkets that choose to use it.

“Consumers are looking for ways to expand their healthy eating,” says Mary Ostlund, director of marketing for Brooks Tropicals, based in Homestead, Fla. “There are only so many apples and bananas you can eat. Specialty helps provide exciting alternatives and additions to menus and snacks.”

  • Key Takeaways
    • Learn all about specialty and exotic produce through suppliers’ websites, including how to cut an item, how to prepare it in or with a meal, and health benefits, and make sure that all department associates do the same. 
    • Share this knowledge with customers, as education is a key sales tool for specialty items.
    • Be sure that you can answer customer questions such as how to tell if a specialty item is ripe; the more you know, the more you can sell.
    • Use social media to spread the word and increase sales of specialty items.
    • Sample regularly so customers can experience these new items. 
    • Have take-home recipes and product information available.
    • Deploy signage, ads and the supermarket’s website to spread information and gain sales.

According to “Fresh Produce: U.S. Retail Market Trends 2017,” from Rockville, Md.-based Packaged Facts, the specialty/exotic segment of produce was the largest and fastest-growing produce segment over the period spanning 2011-16. Further, vegans and any customers seeking a healthy diet can find a variety of pluses in specialty produce.

Education Equals Sales

For consumers and produce managers who aren’t familiar with the steady stream of new specialty produce, education is the best sales tool. This is the first thing specialty produce suppliers mention when asked what the most important issue in specialty/exotic produce is today.

“Educating consumers is always most important to us,” notes Alex Jackson Berkley, assistant sales manager at Los Alamitos, Calif.-based Frieda’s Specialty Produce. “For example, jackfruit is big and intimidating to shoppers at first, but with more information available on the label, on in-store signage and on websites, consumers are getting comfortable with the fruit and more willing to take it home to try. We recently helped Tops Friendly Markets to train their produce managers, and one store ended up selling over 100 cases in one week!”

Grocers Drive Produce Sales by Educating on Specialty, Exotic Items
In spite of its large size, jackfruit is increasing in popularity in the United States, including as a stand-in for meat, such as barbecued pulled pork

Bridget Winkelman, Farmers Market and floral manager at Coborn’s Inc., based in St. Cloud, Minn., educates her customers about the taste and uses of specialty produce in a variety of ways.

“Some of our top sellers have been dragon fruit and jackfruit,” she says. “I brought the fruit in just to try for the summer last year, and due to my success with them, I now carry both all year round. Each week in our ad, we have a section called ‘Spotlight on Variety,’ which features a seasonal specialty item with a mini description on how it can be eaten or used. We also do a monthly ‘Foodie’ item in which our stores compete with each other to boost sales on a certain item through exposure and active sampling.” 

Holidays can be a good time to debut specialty items.

“Around Halloween, I put all of the specialty produce into one display and call it Freaky Fruit, with descriptive note cards from Melissa’s on how to use these fruits to make Halloween-style appetizers,” Winkelman notes.

Keep an Eye on: Starfruit

Starfruit has stepped over the threshold of just being a garnish. Adding the fruit’s star-shaped slices to in-store fruit salads has proved motivational to consumers. Starfruit is a simple add-on to any dish, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner. Add it before serving or before baking — its crisp, sweet taste will blend nicely with the entrée, other veggies and, of course, other fruits.

POS materials should highlight starfruit in a fruit salad, since that’s always the entry point into anyone’s enjoyment of it. Spice things up every now and again, however, with POS that shows starfruit being eaten like an apple, bite by bite.

She builds weekly ad displays with a little basket in the middle or off to the side featuring a specialty item at regular retail for extra impulse. At store level, Winkelman gives index cards to her customers with information such as nutrition, what the item tastes like, and then one or two ways that it could be paired with other fruits, vegetables or yogurt. Coborn’s uses social media to show how different items should be cut, with Winkelman herself showing how to cut a jackfruit on YouTube. 

Despite Coborn’s Halloween tie-in, specialty produce shouldn’t be scary, and that’s the message suppliers and retailers must convey to consumers.

“Signage that shows the specialty item whole and also cut open is key,” Ostlund says.

Showing the insides of specialty items helps take away the mystery of what consumers can expect. Tasting the item is also key in education. For instance, Juan Vasquez, produce merchandiser and specialist at Krasdale Foods in the greater New York area, says that he samples starfruit and dragon fruit so customers can taste what they’re buying.

While jackfruit and dragon fruit are current top sellers in specialty produce in the United States, the top exotics in Canadian supermarkets include rambutan, Hawaiian papaya and cotton candy grapes, according to Inder Salwan, produce expert/vegetable butcher at Saks Food Hall by Pusateri’s, in Toronto. Produce item popularity may be different in Canada, but education remains essential in selling new varieties of fruits and vegetables.

Keep an Eye on: Red Guava

Red guava, the sweet fruit that’s a mainstay for smoothies, pastries and sweets in many Latin American cuisines, is beginning to find a home in the sweet spot of all consumers. While it can be enjoyed eaten as is, or as simple slices in the day’s yogurt, baking the fruit is the next step in its acceptance.

POS materials should start consumers out with fresh thoughts on how to enjoy red guava: Showing the fruit sliced without its seeds is a good start.

In terms of fruits, Salwan’s department creates a vivid display of a fruit and other complementary elements such as produce items in the same category, or items from other departments. These displays are featured on the front end as well as in the produce department. Sample cups circle the display to allow customers to try the item, Salwan says. 

“For example, when we have cotton candy grapes in stock, we remove them from the stem, wash them, and put them in a giant bowl for guests to try and enjoy, replenishing throughout the day,” he notes.

While cotton candy grapes look like other grapes, the taste is like that of the midway favorite for which the variety is named. Signs and stickers in bold colors attract customer attention from a distance to the display.

At Salwan’s location, a monthly flier/magazine is distributed, outlining new products throughout the store, including produce items. “They describe the product, and how our guests can cook, eat and pair the item with other products throughout the store,” he says. 

“With the help of the vegetable butcher, we can help our guests by cutting specialty items and displaying this alongside the item.”

Customers can see the inside of the fruit, which allows produce associates to explain how the item can be used whether eaten raw, added to a smoothie or as part of an entrée.

Keep an Eye on: Dragon Fruit

Dragon fruit displays in the produce department entice exploration on behalf of your shoppers, who’ll be curious to find out what the shocking-pink-and-green pointy fruit is and what else is in store for them in the specialty aisle.

At home, dragon fruit’s psychedelic appearance is a conversation starter, which, for boxed lunches, dinner tables and buffet tables especially, is a great thing. In addition to the startling outside, there’s an inside of either bright white or deep crimson red, along with little black specks, so shoppers won’t be able to help but notice.

The Unusual Becomes Usual

Some specialty items are on the way to becoming produce staples for consumers.

“Now that white-flesh dragon fruit is available year-round from Vietnam — and soon, red-flesh ones from Nicaragua — this specialty item is steadily growing as a ‘table fruit,’ something you’ll always have on hand,” Frieda’s Berkley says. “Jicama has also become a staple in many households as a go-to snack like carrots and celery.”

It’s taken a while, but jicama is now extremely popular, especially with Hispanic customers, due to its versatility.

“Many of our specialty produce [offerings] have become more mainstream items over the years, and more accessible,” affirms Robert Schueller, director of public relations at Melissa’s/World Variety Produce Inc., based in Los Angeles. “This includes such items as cilantro, jicama, baby potatoes, veggie sweet peppers, heirloom tomatoes, chile peppers and fresh herbs. Mangoes are now the No. 1 fruit in the world.”

Keep an Eye on: Passionfruit

Passionfruit sounds like a fruit that consumers want to try, but most aren’t sure how to enjoy it.

POS materials simply showing a wrinkled and ripe fruit with a spoon in it tell all. It won’t be long before fruit and leaf salads alike are boasting a passionfruit either tossed into the mix or scooped into the salad’s dressing. Anyone who’s watched “The Great British Baking Show” has noticed how passionfruit seems to be in at least a couple of the contestants’ bakes. Soon North Americans will be trying this fruit out in their own dishes.

Specialty produce isn’t just a fad: Schueller points to double-digit sales growth for many items, including jackfruit, the fastest-growing fruit, and turmeric, the fastest-growing vegetable.

“Customers try items like shishito peppers in a Japanese restaurant, and then they want to eat them at home,” he observes. “Trends start at chef level.”

For the rest of 2018, Schueller thinks that growth will continue in turmeric, jackfruit, Dutch yellow potatoes, watermelon radishes, enjoya peppers, dragon fruit and, yes, shishito peppers. For her part, Berkley believes that high-flavor tropical fruits will continue to be in demand.

“Shoppers are looking for red-flesh dragon fruit, lychee, rambutan, baby pineapples and jackfruit because of the taste,” she notes.

Selling specialty and exotic produce can also have an unexpected bonus.

“One of the greatest things about carrying specialty items is not necessarily visible through sales, but in service,” says Coborn’s Winkelman. “One of my favorite things about carrying jackfruit is how it opens up conversations with our guests. As people walk by, they will stop and look at it strangely, which gives me an opportunity to tell them about it. That then leads me to introduce all the other varieties we have, or even talk about bringing variety to family events or holidays, as a conversation starter.” 

About the Author

D. Gail Fleenor

D. Gail Fleenor is a contributing editor at Progressive Grocer.

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