Summer Blockbuster

5/1/2013

Five ways to make produce the star hit of the season.

"Produce right now is the department. It's where consumers are headed, and it's at the top of the list of what consumers aspire to eat more of," asserts Melissa Abbott of The Hartman Group Inc.

Abbott, senior director for culinary insights at the Bellevue, Wash.-based market research firm, attributes the trend, in part, to America's return to "real food" as our main source of nutrients. A focus on sustainable, local, natural and organic foods has also led consumers to the produce aisle — the cornerstone of health and wellness.

With customers ready and willing to buy, grocers can seal the deal on bigger basket rings with strategic promotions and educational initiatives. This begins with the sales staff, says Abbott: "The retailer has to treat educating its produce team as it would its cheese or wine department. They need to know about traceability, the subtleties of different kinds of grapefruit, the best way to prepare what's in season, and how to truly engage the customer."

When it comes to commanding the most from summer's get-it-before-it's-gone bounty, consider these five promotional strategies:

1 Make Nostalgia New Again

Think grilled corn at the summer fair, shelling sweet peas with Grandma or picking berries at a farm.

"Nostalgia is something retailers can and should really emphasize," Abbott says. "There's such nostalgia for summertime produce — the roadside stands you went to with your parents when you were a kid. It's very beneficial to focus on that in the context of what is local and seasonal."

And if it's not local, celebrate "the locale," Abbott advises. Washington cherries or blueberries from Maine give consumers a sense of place. "It makes them feel part of the peak-of-freshness experience," she says. "Summertime at the height of seasonality is the time to inspire that sense of urgency with produce like Vidalia onions, Walla Walla onions or fresh asparagus."

One standout example of a nostalgic-locale promotion is Seattle-based Metropolitan Market's annual Peach-O-Rama. "Remember when you used to wait every summer with anticipation to sink your teeth into a sweet, juicy, fragrant, sun-ripened peach, and the juice would run down your chin? Well, get ready to relive that great taste of the ol' days!" reads the event description on Metropolitan's website.

"People wait all year for the Peach-O-Rama," says Abbott, who recalls the year that local foodie Jon Rowley, who helps run the event featuring Washington and California peaches, was out in the store's parking lot with a refractometer measuring the fruit's brix (sugar content) and offering samples to customers. "He put the refractometer in this peach and said, '18. It's perfect!' That engaged people in such an incredible way. It inspires that feeling of 'I'm not going to be able to get this again.'"

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