Ripe For The Picking

5/1/2011

Summer produce inspires peak selling-season promotions.

Supermarkets from coast to coast are turning up the heat with summer produce displays spotlighting locally grown, farm-fresh fare, value-added convenience, and prices that have customers going bananas for fruits and veggies. It's a smart strategy, as well as one on which the success of the entire store may rest.

Recent research indicates that high-quality produce departments have become the proverbial carrot stick, driving customers to shop those stores with the freshest offerings. According to the National Grocers Association's (NGA) “2011 Consumer Survey Report,” an overwhelming 91 percent of consumers said the produce department is a “very important” factor in where they buy groceries. Another 9 percent said it was “somewhat important,” notes the NGA study, which surveyed more than 1,700 households.

And though produce is a powerful draw year-round, summer is the make-it-or-break-it season for demonstrating to customers that you've got the goods that are good to eat. From recreating a farmers' market feel to making a mark with local favorites, some of the country's most progressive grocers have big plans on tap this summer to put their best fruits (and veggies) forward.

Farmers' Market Mania

Farmers' markets have experienced phenomenal growth in recent years, taking over parking lots and tucking into side streets on Saturdays across America each summer. Spurred by an interest in better health and locally grown items, the number of U.S. farmer's markets surged 16 percent from 5,274 in 2009 to 6,132 in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). When the USDA began publishing the “National Directory of Farmers' Markets” in 1994, there were only 1,755 on the list.

In response, supermarkets are striving to build that just-picked appeal of the local farmers' market into their produce departments. “It's all about the display,” says Grant McLoughlin, EVP of The Fresh Grocer, a supermarket with seven locations in the greater Philadelphia area. “We create a whole atmosphere with field bins filled with broccoli or corn or whatever is in season,” he adds.

While its stores are in and around Philly, The Fresh Grocer is a stone's throw from New Jersey and the Garden State's open-air markets that dot the landscape to and from the Jersey Shore. “We try to create the farmers' market ambiance in our stores with bins at the entryway and a big banner above them with the 'New Jersey Fresh' theme,” McLoughlin notes.

The Fresh Grocer, as its name implies, stocks “a tremendous amount of fresh produce,” says McLoughlin. To keep its stores flush with the finest fruits and vege-AHEAD tables, the retailer employs a broker that represents it at the local wholesale market to which farmers bring their freshly picked fare. When the broker gets a good deal on something, like plump, sweet blueberries, The Fresh Grocer gets the word out immediately.

According to McLoughlin, “We're pretty nimble with our in-store flyers,” which are used as bag stuffers to promote popular prices on spectacular produce for a two- to three-day period over a weekend. “Our customers understand that we don't do it every week,” he notes. “We only do it when there's something special."

Local Delivery

Much of a farmers' market's appeal comes from its emphasis on locally grown produce. And these days, “local” is what consumers are lusting after. What's driving the local movement? The NGA report found that in addition to feeling good about supporting local businesses, consumers equate “local” with “healthier, safer, more nutritious foods.” As a result, notes the report, the availability of local foods has become a key motivator in terms of where consumers shop.

The NGA shopper report further cites the presence of local foods as being either “very” or “somewhat important” to store choice for some 86 percent of consumers, up from 83 percent a year ago and 79 percent in 2009. Those who said local was “very important” in their decision as to where to shop increased from 41 percent in 2010 to 45 percent this year.

Perhaps most telling, the survey found that “more locally grown foods” topped the list of improvements consumers most wanted from their primary food stores. A substantial 44 percent of consumers pointed to “local” this year, up from 41 percent a year ago.

The Fresh Grocer gets the word out about its backyard-grown items on a double-sided billboard near its Drexel Hill, Pa., store that frequently touts the availability of local produce. The retailer also devotes a page and a half of its circulars to fresh produce.

Local is equally important at Fresh Encounter Inc., a Findlay, Ohio-based grocery chain that operates stores under the Community Markets banner and other names throughout Ohio and eastern Indiana. “We've been concentrating on local for the last five or six years. For us, that's kind of our calling card when it comes to summer produce,” says EVP Eric Anderson, who notes the retailer maintains some 70 exclusive contracts with growers in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan.

The Fresh Encounter stores always put which farm and which city a particular product comes from on its signs. “It's very important,” says Anderson. “Our customers just look for that, and they know who the best growers are for sweet corn and strawberries and other items.”

‘Get Happy’ Pricing

While low prices alone don't make for a successful produce department, there's no question that in these challenging economic times, customers love a deal on the freshest foods around.

It's part of the reason that at Stadium Thriftway in Tacoma, Wash., produce manager Nathen Conat is preparing for what he hopes will be his department's most successful summer yet. In September of last year, the store launched “Happy Hour Thursdays,” during which customers could take advantage of half-off pricing on select produce. As the weather heats up, so do sales. “It's starting to become really successful,” he notes.

The Stadium Thriftway Happy Hour (which originated at the Bayview and Ralphs Thriftway in Olympia, Wash.) takes place on Thursdays, traditionally the slowest sales day of the week, and runs from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. During Happy Hour, the retailer offers half off the regular retail price of between eight and 12 items from the produce department. “We don't raise or lower the price of those items five days before or after the Happy Hour,” explains Conat.

The items are selected to complement each other. So, for example, when PG spoke to Conat, he was planning a Happy Hour featuring mangoes, jalapenos, onions and cilantro that he was going to tie together with a recipe for mango salsa. The recipes are then offered to customers in a recipe cardholder in the produce department.

While Conat says he maintains customer interest in the Happy Hour by always offering new items at the special price, when an item is a blowout success, he'll repeat it. “We have our own chanterelle mushroom picker,” says the produce manager, who usually sells the exquisite fungi for around $13 a pound. During Happy Hour, the chanterelles go for $6.99 a pound. Each time the mushrooms have been on Happy Hour special, the department has sold 100 pounds in four hours.

The Happy Hour is so successful it's not only boosted produce department sales by nearly 33 percent on Thursdays, it's also brought up customer count and sales in other departments that day. “Our meat sales have gone up because our customers are saving so much on produce,” observes Conat.

Thriftway uses starburst signs in the produce department to spotlight the 50 percent-off Happy Hour items. Additionally, customers can always get a taste of the sale fruits and vegetables. “One of the big things we do to promote the Happy Hour produce is to sample it,” says Conat. “Sampling is the big wheel behind this promotion because you have to demo it. The customers have to know how good it is.”

Value-added Still Valuable

A comparison of 2010 fourth-quarter fresh produce sales with those from 2009 shows that both the value-added fruits and value-added vegetables categories are gaining favor with convenience-seeking consumers. Value-added fruits showed increases of 11.6 percent in volume and 8.4 percent in sales, according to the latest edition of “FreshFacts on Retail,” the quarterly retail research report of the United Fresh Produce Association. The report also found that the value-added vegetables category recorded increases of 1.6 percent in volume and 4.1 percent in sales.

McLoughlin of The Fresh Grocer is inclined to agree. “What's selling for us are more value-added items,” he notes. “Portion-controlled vegetables that have already been washed and trimmed, smaller portions for smaller families or singles, and vegetables like onions and peppers that have been prepped for a stir fry.”

While many of the fresh-cut vegetables lend themselves to summer grilling, some regional favorites exact year-round staying power. At Fresh Encounter stores, Anderson finds that cross-merchandising stew mixes with prepped cabbage, potatoes and other roast-friendly vegetables has been “really successful” all year. “In Ohio, people aren't afraid to turn on their ovens, even in the middle of summer,” he asserts.

Produce-inspired Meals

As Americans continue to take a greater interest in improving their health, produce is playing more of a lead role at mealtime, especially during summertime.

“We've found that with tomatoes, particularly in the summer months, merchandising them with products that are complementary is very effective and has been shown to increase sales,” notes Helen Aquino, marketing manager for Eatontown, N.J.-based grower Village Farms. “For example, merchandising tomatoes together with fresh mozzarella, basil and balsamic vinegar for a Caprese salad.”

Mushrooms are another summertime slam-dunk for the produce department. According to the Mushroom Council, based in San Jose, Calif., fresh mushrooms experienced sales growth for the third year in a row in 2010. The council expects that mushroom sales will continue to heat up this year.

While mushrooms come in a variety of deliciously earthy flavor profiles, Joe Caldwell, chairman of the Mushroom Council, predicts that this will be the summer of the Portabella mushroom. “This summer, especially, Portabellas will be promoted for a variety of uses: grilled, fried, or sautéed on fajitas and quesadillas,” he says. A healthy alternative to meat, they are also great served burger-style and in stir-fry dishes.

Produce New Products & Promotions

RealSweet Vidalia Packaging Gets a Redesign

Reidsville, Ga.-based Shuman Produce, the company behind the RealSweet brand, has redesigned its Vidalia onion packaging for the 2011 season to include Quick Response (QR) codes on all of its consumer bags. While the new look features a colorful, high-graphic design, the packaging still includes the recipes and storage tips for which its consumer bags are known. With the addition of QR, customers can gain access to a RealSweet multimedia experience hosted through the RealSweet website. The company's high-graphic bins have also been redesigned to include the updated design and QR codes. For more information, visit www.realsweet.com.

Mushroom Council Sponsors Recipe Contest

While mushrooms are available year-round, the Mushroom Council wants consumers to know that they really sizzle in summer dishes. To that end, the San Jose, Calif.-based council is inviting retailers to coax their customers to participate in its annual “Every Day, EveryWay” mushroom recipe contest with Taste of Home magazine, a promotion that runs until August. The council is offering retailers promotional sales tools, including shelf danglers and floor mats, to highlight the grand-prize culinary getaway trip, and on-pack labels featuring a weekly Weber grill giveaway for consumers who submit recipes. Visit www.mushroominfo.com for more information.

Crunch Pak and Disney Debut Apple Line

For the first time, Crunch Pak of Cashmere, Wash., is collaborating with Burbank, Calif.-based Disney Consumer Products (DCP) to introduce a line of fresh sliced-apple products featuring popular Disney characters such as Phineas and Ferb. Crunch Pak is also continuing to produce its FOODLES line. Packaged in the shape of Mickey Mouse, FOODLES features an assortment of healthy snack-food options, including apples, grapes, cheese and pretzels. For more information, visit www.crunchpak.com.

Tanimura & Antle Launch Summer Lettuce Program

Running May through July, Salinas, Calif.-based Tanimura & Antle's “Celebrate Summer” program offers consumers an on-pack weekly sweepstakes for $250 gift cards and recipes. Both are accessed by scanning a QR (Quick Response) code or visiting www.artisanlettuce.com. For retailers, the company is offering promotional POS. Learn more atwww.taproduce.com.

Frieda's Kicks Off 50th Anniversary Celebration

(From left) Jackie Caplan Wiggins, VP; Frieda Rapoport Caplan, founder; and Karen Caplan, president and CEO, kick off their 50th year in business.

Frieda's Inc. kicked off its yearlong 50th-anniversary celebration last month. Frieda Rapoport Caplan, founder of Frieda's, began her namesake specialty produce company on April 2, 1962, at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market, where she quickly gained a reputation for being open to buying and selling unusual fruits and veggies. Caplan is most famous for introducing the kiwifruit to U.S. supermarkets and as the first woman business owner in the U.S. produce industry. Frieda's two daughters, president and CEO Karen Caplan and VP Jackie Caplan Wiggins, now own and operate the Los Alamitos, Calif.-based business. For more information, visit www.friedas.com.

New Website for LoBue Citrus

LoBue Citrus has launched an updated website, at www.lobuecitrus.com, featuring a new company identity and enhanced content. The redesign for LoBue, based in Lindsay, Calif., offers improved navigation that makes it easier to access desired content with just a few clicks. The site also includes a products section with detailed information on each varietal, including a brief profile, pack-out information, and images of available brands.

New Promotions from Mann Packing

Mann Packing Co. is running two new promotions that offer consumers money-saving opportunities. In midApril, the Salinas, Calif.-based company began offering instant redeemable coupons on 100,000 packages of its 8-ounce Stringless Sugar Snap Peas and 12-ounce Green Beans. The offer is good for $1 savings for any two packages of the Mann's products purchased. This annual promotion enjoyed an 18 percent redemption rate in 2010. Beginning in May, Mann will teamwith Sandpoint, Idaho-based Litehouse Foods to offer a $1 IRC for any Litehouse product with the purchase of Mann's Simply Singles and Broccoli Slaw products. The IRC features a “fiesta” salad recipe to leverage Cinco De Mayo sales, as well as National Salad Month in May. For more information, visit www.veggiesmadeeasy.com

Free POS Promotes Mango Ed

The National Mango Board (NMB) in Orlando, Fla., is helping retailers to show consumers how to get a handle on mangos. The popular fruit is difficult for some to dissect, and as a result, the NMB has developed specific POS materials to educate shoppers about cutting and ripeness. These and many other header cards and tearpads can be supplied by the NMB at no charge. POS order forms are available at www.mango.org/graphics.

Produce for Better Health Names Retail Role Models

The Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), based in Hockessin, Del., has named seven Retail Role Models and seven Retail Champions for their support of the “Fruits & Veggies-More Matters” national public health initiative in 2010. The seven retailers that achieved Role Model status were Ahold USA Inc., Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA), Food Lion Stores Inc., The Kroger Co., Safeway Inc., Schnuck Markets Inc., and Supervalu/W. Newell & Co. The seven retailers that achieved Champion status were The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. Inc., Associated Wholesale Grocers Inc., Big Y Foods Inc., Meijer Inc., Redner's Markets Inc., Save Mart Supermarkets, and Weis Markets Inc. For more information on becoming a Retail Role Model, view the Retail Role Model criteria on the PBH website at www. PBHFoundation.org.

Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Launch Trade Website

In an effort to provide a more informative, interactive online experience for retailers, restaurateurs, foodservice personnel and members of the agricultural industry, the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) of Antigo, Wis., has redesigned and launched www.wisconsinpotatoes.com. The site focuses solely on the needs of trade members, with navigation centered on core industry interests such as sustainable farming, agricultural research, marketing tools, legislative initiatives, consumer preferences, and changing trends in foodservice.

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