Producing Results


More retailers are doubling their efforts to convey their sustainability strides to shoppers, and the fresh produce department is poised to play a starring role in the mission.

Spotlight on… Spice World

Garlic's ubiquity and versatility make it a natural to promote in the produce department — and well beyond.

For more than six decades, Spice World has sold garlic to supermarket produce departments, rising to become a leading supplier for U.S. food retailers, thanks to a full variety of value-added garlic products. “We cover all areas of garlic: fresh, peeled and ready-to-use jar garlic, along with a complete line of organic garlic,” says Louis Hymel, director of purchasing and marketing for Orlando, Fla.-based Spice World.

According to Hymel, the ready-to-use segment leads sales in the garlic category, as it's “the most convenient garlic item, with no waste — 100 percent ready to use when needed!”

Spice World's garlic expertise is central to its marketing strategy. “We know our customers, and what their customers want — merchandising to their individual needs,” asserts Hymel. “They must sell the freshest garlic that is available for the season, along with all garlic items, and be sure that the best-selling items are on their shelves at all times.”

In keeping with its leadership stance, the company in May unveiled its latest iteration in garlic innovation — Squeeze Garlic — that Hymel says is “changing the way people use garlic, which is no longer just an ingredient — it's now also a condiment. The reception of Squeeze Garlic has been incredible,” he reports.

In tandem with its unwavering dedication to category growth, Spice World remains sensitive to the financial constraints currently faced by the food industry and shoppers alike. “In today's tight economy, it's important that consumers, retail operators and industrial users of garlic deal direct for cost benefits and quality assurance,” explains Hymel. “Spice World is completely vertically integrated from seed to plate. We own and control our own seed program, which provides us with the finest garlic seed for our production of fresh garlic. We process garlic in many different value-added ways to provide the most convenient forms of garlic available to consumers today. Therefore, we have positioned ourselves to be the most cost-efficient, with direct traceability and stringent quality controls every step of the way.”

Boasting superior ratings in all third- party audits, Spice World's “inhouse lab monitors all incoming raw materials, along with all items that we produce,” says Hymel. “When supermarkets provide their customers with Spice World garlic products, they are assured of getting the safest and freshest value-added products available today.”

What's more, the company's green awareness goes well beyond monetary connotations. “We're always thinking ahead — focusing on environmentally friendly packaging and continuously improving our packaging with sustainability benefits,” affirms Hymel.

Spice World's products further present many advantages to produce managers eager to boost sales. “Garlic is very diverse in ethnic cooking, required in countless recipes and complements numerous food items, adding to incremental sales and cash register profits,” he notes.

Another plus, according to Hymel, is that it has a low shrink rate, with a longer shelf life than most produce items, while high markups make it a valuable asset to offset high-shrink products. “Therefore, retailers need to keep their shelves stocked with this high-profit item, ”he urges.

Garlic's health-and-wellness attributes are also noteworthy, reminds Hymel: “Garlic for centuries has been associated with many tales of its health remedies. There have been many studies over the years to support the many health benefits of garlic. As America's population ages and prescription medications are required, many people would rather seek health benefits through Mother Nature and the foods we eat.”

Perhaps best of all, garlic can be promoted year-round in myriad ways, with countless cross-merchandising items to choose from throughout the year. “Incremental sales from seasonal merchandising will lead to increased sales and profits. The merchandising opportunities are endless, and the retailers that understand and execute them well generate volume and incremental profits,” says Hymel. “They can promote garlic during seasonal events such as Cinco de Mayo,Thanksgiving, Italian festivals and summertime barbecues, or cross-merchandise during football season — garlic and guacamole dip can enhance incremental sales of garlic, avocados and other ingredients.”

Garlic displays needn't be limited to the produce department, he adds. “It can be displayed in the bakery department next to fresh loaves of bread for garlic bread; it can be displayed in the pasta and sauce section. It can go in the seafood department, promoting garlic scampi.” Regardless of the department it's placed in, “display size, variety and visibility are key,” Hymel affirms.

To help retailers make the most of their garlic sales, Spice World provides free-standing chair-back displays for its ready-to-use jar garlic and Squeeze Garlic, which can be set up in different departments for cross-merchandising. “If the merchandiser ties the display into an event, sales will skyrocket and profits will follow!” advises Hymel.The company also offers recipe cards upon request, as well as many recipe ideas on its website,

Baked potatoes stuffed with sour cream and bacon bits, broccoli bathed in hollandaise sauce, a rich onion soup smothered in melted cheese — dishes like these were the very definition of indulgence until recently. Today, there's a new breed of health-conscious consumer shopping the produce department, for whom the concept of indulgence has been dramatically redefined. For these shoppers, spending a little more for an organic salad mix or locally grown baby beets is a treat, and they feel good about their choices.

According to market researchers The Hartman Group, consumers are spending more on fresh foods that support wellness, and are increasingly looking for products that are locally grown and organic. The Bellevue, Wash.-based group's recent report, “Reimagining Health + Wellness 2010,” found that 20 percent of consumers in 2010 were looking for food and beverages labeled “locally grown,” vs. 13 percent in 2007. The study, based in part on an online survey of 2,744 U.S. adults, also found that the number of consumers looking for products labeled “organic” is on the rise: up to 11 percent last year, as compared with only 8 percent in 2007.

The Hartman study further notes that as more consumers define high-quality, enjoyable food experiences as those comprising “fresh, real and clean” ingredients, certain labels have become more important. It points to distinctions such as organic, seasonal, local, artisanal and heritage/heirloom as the buzzwords of better health — and, in a sense, indulgence — for these shoppers.

Getting the (Buzz) Word Out

The produce department has always been the most visually enticing in the store, but these days, colorful displays are only part of a successful sales strategy. How effectively you communicate messages like organic, locally farmed and sustainably grown has become an important point of differentiation in the competitive supermarket landscape.

Telling the story of sustainability is something Hy-Vee is putting greater emphasis on this year. This January, the West Des Moines, Iowa-based supermarket chain selected certified sustainably grown Zeal Navel and Cara Cara oranges as the stars of an annual citrus display competition in its 232 Midwestern locations. “We've been doing a January citrus competition for store managers for a long time, but this was the first time we made the decision to focus on sustainability,” notes Ron Coles, assistant VP of produce purchasing for Hy-Vee, who has witnessed a steady rise in consumer demand for sustainably grown produce.

The citrus promotion is a reflection of Hy-Vee's chainwide commitment to becoming more sustainable, according to Ruth Comer, assistant VP of communications for the company. Hy-Vee has been collaborating with the state of Iowa on the Iowa Food and Farm Plan to develop a local food initiative. “We are committed to expanding our natural and organic health-related items,” says Comer. The chain has also started building greener stores, like its LEED-certified store in Fairfield, Iowa.

While Comer says these efforts have been a part of Hy-Vee's MO for some time, the chain's customers weren't necessarily aware of its investment in sustainability. “Our commitment is to tell the story better to customers,” she notes. “We've been doing some of these things for years, whether it's natural and organic, using more environmentally friendly packaging, or emphasizing locally grown, but now we're focusing on making improvements that further our commitment to sustainability and we're telling our customers about it.”

Comer says customers can expect to see more promotions of locally grown produce during the upcoming growing season, as the stores increase awareness through signs, handouts and meet-the-grower opportunities in the produce department.

Dorothy Lane Markets, an upscale supermarket retailer with three stores in the Dayton, Ohio, area, has also found a way to get the word out about local and organic produce that gives customers plenty of food for thought. Its well-designed “Eat Local” brochure, available online and in-store, features photos of the family farmers who supply the store, along with descriptions of eightfarms; local wine, meat and cheese producers; and more.

The brochure explains that all of the food touted in the handout has been grown or raised within a 250-mile radius of Dayton. “Why eat local?” asks Dorothy Lane's brochure, which gives compelling reasons such as supporting family farmers, fresher food, enjoying naturally ripened fruits and vegetables, and building a connection with food producers.

Families in the Organic Driver's Seat

While the final sales figures for the Organic Trade Association's (OTA) 2011 Organic Industry Survey have yet to be tallied, the organization is confident that despite the still-dubious economy, “U.S. families continue to buy more organic products than ever before.” According to the 2009 survey conducted by the Brattleboro, Vt.-based trade group, U.S. organic food sales reached $24.8 billion that year, up 5.1 percent from 2008 sales.

In 2009, organic fruits and vegetables, which account for 38 percent of total organic food sales, represented the most significant growth category. Sales of organic produce reached nearly $9.5 billion in sales in 2009, up 11.4 percent from 2008 sales. Based on preliminary data from its 2011 survey, produce appears to be the biggest category in organics again this year, says OTA spokeswoman Barbara Haumann. “We definitely expect that fruits and vegetables will be the top growth categories again, when the sales figures come in for 2010,” she predicts.

Families with children seem to be driving the trend in organics. “There's a great deal of excitement about it, and parents in particular get the message of organic produce,” notes Haumann. The OTA and Kiwi magazine teamed for a “U.S. Families' Organic Attitudes & Beliefs 2010 Tracking Study,” which found that 41 percent of parents reported buying more organic foods in 2010, a 10 percent jump from the 31 percent who said they bought organics in 2009.

Haumann also believes that the latest spate of health studies addressing the dangers of pesticide use may be contributing to the growing interest in organics among American families. The President's Cancer Panel report released last May, for example, suggested that consumers decrease their exposure to cancer-causing chemicals by buying foods grown without pesticides, antibiotics and growth hormones. Another study, published in the May issue of Pediatrics, made the link between pesticides in food and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.

As supermarkets merchandise organic produce, which typically has a higher price tag than conventionally grown fare, it becomes all the more important to educate customers about the health benefits of organic produce. “When we talk about health, we're not just talking nutrients — we're also talking about environmental health,” says Haumann. Drawing these connections for consumers by putting a face on local organic farmers and their efforts in the community helps to tell the kind of story that will resonate with families shopping the produce department.

Florida's Organic Outreach

According to the OTA's most recent statistics, organic fruits and vegetables now represent 11.4 percent of all U.S. fruit and vegetable sales. The ever-increasing demand for organic produce has led to organic farms cropping up in unexpected places, like the subtropical climate of Florida, for example.

“Organics have grown over the years, and it's still a burgeoning niche market with a lot of interest,” says Daniel Sleep, a senior analyst and supervisor with the Florida Department of Agriculture, who admits his own state's foray into organics is both impressive and surprising. “Six years ago, if you had told me Florida would be growing organic strawberries, I would have said,‘How?’” Sleep points to problems like fungus and bacteria, which love the Sunshine State's balmy weather. But the demand for organics has motivated Florida's growers to find solutions.

At presstime, the state was expecting to move some 10,000 cases of strawberries in 2011, and maybe more.

While Sleep believes that the American consumer's increasing interest in eating a better diet is one of the driving forces behind organic produce production and sales, he, too, sees the healthy-indulgence side of organics. When it comes to purchasing organic produce, he says, “People want to pamper themselves, and it feels good, especially if that pampering has a health benefit.”

What's next for organic produce from Florida? “Growth will depend on the commitment of consumers,” explains Sleep, “and I don't see that going away. In the last four or five years, organics have taken root, and we think it has a very strong future [here].”

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