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Summer's Bounty Brings Booming Sales


The quest for good health is in full swing, and the produce department is ripe for the picking.

While the majority of shoppers continue to scour the aisles for ways to stretch their wallets, many are increasingly aware that they can't put a price on good health, and are thus focusing closely on making better food choices while simultaneously sticking to their budgets.

For grocers, there's simply no better place to drive home the "healthy values" lineup than the fresh produce department, which serves as a veritable fortress in the strategy of helping consumers make adjustments that not only agree with their dietary needs, but also their taste buds. What's more, there's certainly no better time to inspire incremental fresh produce purchases than summer, which offers a bounty of peak-season fruits and vegetables — think tomatoes, berries, beans, cherries, cucumbers, peaches, melons, squash and fresh herbs — to showcase in healthy new ways.

Jeff Culhane, who recently joined Williamsville, N.Y.-based Tops Markets, LLC as its new VP of perishable marketing, is among the many grocery executives from around the country who are pumped about prospects for stellar summertime produce rings. "I want to help make our produce departments shine with eye-catching displays of fresh fruits and vegetables, such as larger, higher-quality cantaloupes and tree fruit, to play up the freshness and great value found in our stores," he notes.

To that end, Culhane and Tops' fresh produce procurement teams will be "seeking top quality from our shippers and growers, to help us further enhance our strong fresh foods reputation," he says, noting his keen interest in building closer connections with aging baby boomers, whose increased desire for less processed, more nutritionally focused foods — coupled with a potential willingness to pay a premium for specific desired attributes — bodes especially favorably for fresh produce sales.

"We want to make the department the first place they want to shop," explains Culhane, "by featuring prominent displays of products that baby boomers are actively seeking, such as romaine and leafy greens over traditional iceberg lettuce," ample varieties of premium berries, and a more diverse selection of top-quality tomatoes, onions, peppers, fresh herbs and tropical fruits.

Culhane's comments underscore findings of recent USDA forecasts that trend toward increased consumption of fresh produce, with per capita expenditures of fruits and vegetables expected to rack up the highest increases among all types of foods through 2020. These increases will be driven by higher incomes, the large number of boomers, a gradually increasing population, increasing consumption of ethnic foods, and higher levels of education among consumers. Of these factors, higher real income is the most important because consumers can purchase more expensive food products.

Indeed, there's considerable merit for grocers who understand shopping habits at different lifestages, which can help them optimize assortment, merchandising, pricing, promotion and advertising messages. According to a recent study by The Nielsen Company, one-third or more of participants surveyed about specific lifestyle considerations are now incorporating more basic ingredients in meals as well as buying in-season produce, which is rightly perceived as being fresher and less expensive. Further, while nearly one-quarter mentioned serving healthier meals, Nielsen found that the Greatest Generation and boomers are the groups most likely to purchase seasonal produce and serve healthier meals, while Gen Xers and millennials are cutting back on carryouts and home delivery.

Among the newest crop of up-and-coming consumer segments — college students and recent grads — sustainable farming and gardening practices are capturing considerable attention as a foremost purchase consideration.

It's a movement that Fresh Madison Market owner Jeff Maurer is ready and willing to support via a new alliance with F.H. King Students For Sustainable Agriculture (SSA), an organization that practices organic farming and promotes sustainable agriculture. Maurer's Madison-based store, located near the University of Wisconsin (UW), is donating compostable food waste, including produce, to SSA, a student gardening organization formed through UW-Madison.

Started in 1979 and located on the Lakeshore Nature Preserve on Lake Mendota Drive, the student organization is named after UW of Agriculture professor Franklin Hiriam King, who helped pioneer the study of organic techniques for conserving soil. Over 120 students are involved with the 1-acre farm, which grows fruits, vegetables and flowers through sustainable and organic gardening methods. Seventy-five percent of the produce grown is given back free to UW students at a kiosk on the Library Mall throughout the growing season.

Fresh Madison Market views the budding partnership as a way to reuse some of its food waste to help build the garden's soil. Explains Maurer: "One of the goals I have for the store is to give back to our community. I couldn't think of a better way to do that than by helping a student organization, whose goal it is to learn to grow food organically and sustainably. This is a great way to keep a majority of our waste out of landfills and reuse food to help feed others."

An F.H. King Garden volunteer on a bicycle towing a heavy-duty trailer that can accommodate up to 400 pounds picks up the food waste twice a week, notes F.H. King Student Farm program director Mark Sandberg, who hopes to find more ways to increase the number of pickups in the future.

In view of the resounding health, wellness and socially responsible attributes fundamentally embedded in its "departmental DNA," the fresh produce department also lends itself to philanthropic outreach efforts with partners like Produce for Kids (PFK), which recently kicked off its annual "Get Healthy, Give Hope" campaign to raise money for local children's hospitals and Children's Miracle Network hospitals.

From May through July, more than 35 participating fruit and vegetable growers will make a donation to local children's hospitals based on sales of the fresh produce items they ship to the six participating retailers' stores. The more items purchased, the more local children's hospitals benefit. In tandem with its ongoing campaign, PFK also redesigned its Web site to create more exposure for all sponsors and retailers as a 12-month resource for shoppers.

In addition, the organization is offering a new "Ideal Meals" program to participating retailers via 4-inch-by-6-inch cards merchandised in a self-contained, colorful display unit offering fast, easy tips for shopping and assembling healthy meals with sponsored products.

Supervalu's Philadephia-based Acme Markets subsidiary is one of the six participating retailers on board for the effort. Anthony Barbieri, Acme's longtime director of produce and floral sales, spearheaded the 125-store division's PFK efforts prior to accepting his new position with the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association (PMA) this month as its new VP of sales and business development.

"Today's busy lifestyles have made healthy eating seem challenging; however, programs like Michelle Obama's 'Let's Move' and Jamie Oliver's 'Food Revolution' show that making good choices can be easy and fun," says Barbieri, noting Acme's interest in doing just that. "There can be no more important cause than the health and happiness of kids. By working to support local children's hospitals, we are helping to ensure that kids in need get the best medical care and that parents balance their kids' diets by eating more fresh produce."

The Kroger Co.'s Shenandoah, Texas-based Southwest division stores; Schenectady, N.Y.-based Price Chopper; Carlisle, Pa.-based Giant Food Stores; Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Meijer; and Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets are also participating in PFK's Get Healthy, Give Hope campaign.

"Our consumer research shows moms want more information in the produce department on how to prepare healthy, kid-friendly meals," says Heidi McIntyre, executive director of Orlando, Fla.-based PFK, which since its creation in 2002 by Shuman Produce, Inc., has raised more than $2 million for local Children's Miracle Network-affiliated hospitals. "Our new meal solutions cards make it easy to shop for and prepare healthy and delicious meals for their families."

PFK offers customized programming and POS for each participating retailer, vs. "a one-size fits all approach," says McIntyre, noting that the group's redesigned Web site offers shoppers downloadable Ideal Meals information and entry forms for a Healthy Chef Sweepstakes to win kitchen cookware packages, handheld pocket video cameras, $250 grocery gift cards and other prizes.

Save Mart all 'Choked Up'

No doubt about it, customized promotions always hit the mark with both consumers and grocers, particularly for unique items like artichokes, which some home cooks are still leery about preparing. With this in mind, Castroville, Calif.-based Ocean Mist Farms earlier this spring teamed up for a successful display contest with Save Mart and its associated banners, Lucky and FoodMaxx. The stores' produce department teams were challenged to build creative displays with Ocean Mist's artichoke display kit for bulk and packaged artichokes.

Says Mark Colvin, Save Mart's category manager: "With our print ad promotions and the in-store produce teams building large displays, we created an artichoke destination during the peak of the Castroville season. Our shoppers appreciate and connect with the tradition of this locally grown crop," he adds.

In terms of annual volume, Modesto, Calif.-based Save Mart is one of the top-three-selling U.S. retailers for the artichoke category, according to Kori Tuggle, marketing manager for the supplier. "The display contest helps drive sales to create a 'win-win-win' for Save Mart, their customers and the Ocean Mist growers."

An ongoing high-visibility "Shrek-tacular" promotional campaign by the Vidalia, Ga.-based Vidalia Onion Committee (VOC) is also hitting the three-way sweet spot with grocers, consumers and growers/shippers. The "Shrek Forever After, Vidalias Forever Sweet" promotion features imagery of the Shrek character in produce aisle displays, on half and full bins, and on more than 1 million header and full-wrap or vertical bags.

The VOC's partnership with DreamWorks Animation, SKG, Inc. to promote the original sweet onion was timed to coincide with the late-May release of "Shrek Forever After." The underpinnings of the effort revolve around an in-store contest inviting produce managers get down and "swampy" this summer by building the most original, eye-catching Shrek/Vidalia onion display. The most creative entry will win a three-day, two-night "fairytale" vacation for four to Orlando, including theme park tickets and other goodies.

"The 'Shrek' series appeals to kids and adults of all ages, and we know that popularity can segue into more Sweet Vidalia sales this season," says Wendy Brannen, VOC's executive director, citing Shrek-themed packaging and POS that features newly developed kid-friendly recipes and "ogre-sized" consumer contest prize packs.

The campaign's online component — which had attracted more than 10,000 visitors by mid-May — not only helps Shrek search for onions scattered throughout his virtual enchanted forest, but also imparts relevant Vidalia trivia along the way to winning visitors, who could enter for a chance to win a grand-prize "Ultimate TV Video Gaming Package" consisting of a 50-inch HDTV, Wii game system and "Shrek Forever After" video game courtesy of Activision.

This season's 20-county growing region experienced excessive rains and cold weather, but the harvest predictions looked positive at press-time. "The onions seem to be coming out of earlier cold-weather problems more and more every day," notes Michael Hively, VOC chairman.

With the influence of social networking on the Internet at an all-time high via Facebook, Twitter and online blogs, consumers are increasingly eager to share their personal experiences, including, of course, with food. Such is the case with the cult-like following of Kingsville, Ontario-based Mastronardi Produce's Sunset Kumato Brown tomato. After being named Best Specialty Variety and winning The People's Choice award last year, the fruit recently garnered the 2010 Superior Taste Award from the International Taste & Quality Institute-ITQI (Brussels) — a first for a fresh produce item.

"The Kumato is about as unique as a tomato can get, full of flavor, juicy and with an aroma like no other," boasts company president Paul Mastronardi, noting that the variety's recent accolades further exemplify that the brown tomato "is more than just a piece of fruit — it's an experience."

Throughout the spring, Mastronardi has been ramping up its Kumato demo sessions at a variety of grocery stores across the nation, in turn triggering "a phenomenal lift in sales," according to marketing director Chris Veillon. "Customers are in awe of the authentic taste of the Kumato," which, with a sprinkle of sea salt, makes "the perfect hors d'oeuvre for any get-together. The positive consumer comments we have been getting back from the demos and daily e-mails we receive have been outstanding," says Veillon, adding that with demand far exceeding production, Mastronardi has more than doubled its planted acreage for the Kumato for the 2010 season.

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