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Supermarket FRESH FOOD Business: Making the most of summer stalwarts

With the big summer produce selling season upon us, a cornucopia of high-volume, high-profit fruits and vegetables have already begun making their way to supermarkets. But it won't be long before the season's selections fade from view, "and there's lots more to selling summer produce than meets the eye," says retail produce industry consultant Ron Pelger.

"Summer is often considered the best time of the year for the widest variety of produce. It's abundant, colorful, and full of flavor," says Pelger. "But there are many points to consider when you're talking about summer produce." He notes that often retailers tend to think only about the stalwart summer fruits--peaches, plums, nectarines, plums, berries, cherries, grapes, and melons.

June, July, and August have long been Pelger's favorite merchandising period. "That's when most of the volume is created with the higher priced items that generate tonnage. But there's also another part of it, and that's vegetables," the former A&P produce executive notes. "Yet all too often, we only focus on summer fruits and let the veggies sell themselves. And that's a big mistake."

Go for the grill

As grilling gains in popularity with each year, Pelger says, cookouts have become a mainstay theme for meat department promotions. "But there are countless items in the produce department that can be used for outdoor grilling promotions as well," he says, pointing to portabella mushrooms, eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onions, potatoes, and sweet corn, which he calls "one of the most beloved high-profile summer items of all time."

Describing a highly successful summer promotion conducted by one of the chains he works with, Pelger says the company has an in-house chef who goes from store to store to conduct grilling demos that highlight summer vegetables. The goal is to get the message to consumers about how easy it is to grill these items in their own back yards.

"Consumers have a lot of misconceptions about certain produce items," he says, singling out yams, which typically are promoted only during the holidays. "What most people—produce retailers included—don't know is that yams are fabulous when baked on the grill, and can be eaten as is without butter and salt for a taste that's as sweet as sweet can be."

For the vegetarian crowd, Pelger advocates merchandising prepared meatless shish kabobs on wooden skewers, "which allow you to make use of a number of vegetable combinations like cubed peppers, chunks of onions, cherry and grape tomatoes, and broccoli. Roasted garlic drizzled with a bit of olive oil on the grill is another easy tip for consumers, who often need just the least amount of prompting to try something new."

Grapes are No. 1

While Pelger hopes to see more retailers using fresh vegetables in their summertime campaigns, there's no denying that the real muscle behind the seasonal selling period is stone fruits and grapes. "The No. 1 biggest volume item in the summer is grapes," he says. The majority are now sold in bags or clamshells, which Pelger says have been readily accepted by consumers.

Yet what continues to amaze him about modern-day grape merchandising is that some retailers are still selling them loose. "When you look at loose grape displays in the stores, the fruit is falling on the floor and shattering from the bunches," he says, which leads not only to shrink and deflated gross margins, but also to costly slip-and-fall lawsuits.

"Placing grapes on paper may look nice, but it is the old way to merchandise them," he says, noting the labor required to hand-stack bunches. Further, when they arrive at the checkout, Pelger says, the cashier has to stop, look up the PLU number, and then punch it into the register, which again means extra cost. "It's much easier and less costly to place bags or clamshells on a display and quickly scan them through the front end."

Loose grapes also present issues pertaining to food safety, security, and new illnesses, and consumers are becoming very reluctant to buy anything that is exposed, says Pelger, noting the introductions of Suntex Clean's fully sanitized, ready-to-eat fresh produce in Brookshire Grocery Co. and select Kroger stores.

Cherries, another good volume summer item, are also being sold more often in bags or clamshells, says Pelger, pointing out that the peak selling period runs only from the end of June through August, with the fourth of July being the big kickoff.

The best way to maximize cherry sales, says Pelger, is to realize that times have changed. "Produce executives can no longer afford to give something away at cost. What I have seen happening lately is that they'll run cherries in an ad for 99 cents per pound, but they've got to face the fact that 99-cent cherries will doom them."

He adds, "You can still use cherries as a draw for a great lead item, but it's no longer necessary to give them away, since the quality of the fruit has improved so much that you can get a little more, and consumers are willing to pay a little more. And they will even buy more if you present what they want for their needs, rather than what you want to sell them."

World leader

The U.S. leads the world in cherry production, and more than 70 percent of domestic cherries come from growers in Idaho, Utah, Oregon, and Washington, which constitute the Northwest Cherry Growers (NCG).

Says NCG spokesman Eric Patrick: "The Northwest's climate—warm, sunny days, cool, crisp nights—and nutrient-rich volcanic soil are perfect for cherry growing." Sweet cherries, he says, are one of the few fruits in the world that are still truly seasonal.

Each summer, nearly 2,500 growers in the Northwest employ workers to hand pick about 110 million pounds of sweet cherries, according to Patrick. And though many food commodities are harvested mechanically, he says sweet cherries are still hand picked at optimal maturity. "They are hydrocooled to lock in taste and quality, and then packed and shipped immediately after harvest."

Watermelon and health

Perhaps no produce item is more symbolic of summer than watermelon, and a new campaign recently launched by the National Watermelon Promotion Board (NWPB) will be welcome news for retailers interested in helping consumers boost their intake of the antioxidant lycopene. A number of studies have drawn a correlation between lycopene and the possible prevention of cancer, heart disease, and stroke.

The new "Lycopene Leader" logo, says Wendy McManus, NWPB director of marketing, "was developed to help educate consumers about one of the key benefits of watermelon, which contains higher levels of lycopene than any other fruit or vegetable, including tomatoes.

"The full-color logo features a smiling watermelon character that quickly communicates 'watermelon' and reminds everyone that it's fun and delicious," says McManus. "The statement 'Lycopene Leader in Fresh Produce' is short and sweet, to help consumers remember the message." She says it's available to watermelon growers and shippers, bin manufacturers, and label companies, all of which are encouraged to use it throughout their programs.

McManus says the Orlando, Fla.-based NWPB is aiming to work closely with produce retailers to encourage them to place the logo in ads and on POS materials in their departments, "so consumers will see the message in the ads and the department, and then again on the watermelon bins and labels." The logo, she adds, is available to retailers on the NWPB Web site as well as on a new CD-ROM.

Pushing the logo

The lycopene message, says McManus, "is something we've been able to say for a couple of years, but it seems that by putting it in a graphic format with an icon, a whole new world has opened up, which is very exciting not only for our growers, but also for retailers, who have reacted favorably to the news that watermelon has more lycopene than tomatoes."

What her organization is most hoping for, says McManus, "is that retailers will use the logo as a matter of course in all of their watermelon ads." And while there's no better time of year for watermelon sales than summer, McManus predicts this year will be especially good.

"The quality continues to get better and better every year, yet at the same time we really are seeing good quality supplies 12 months out of the year," she says. "And from our perspective, it's all watermelon to us, since we represent some 2,500 growers, shippers, and importers."

Rather than lead a retailer in a particular direction, "what we try to do is encourage them to carry a good strong assortment, because different people purchase different forms of watermelon for different reasons." The best bet, adds McManus, is to give consumers a variety of choices—from whole melons to halves, quarters, cubes, and slices—"so that it's not a question of will I buy watermelon, but what form I will choose when I buy my watermelon?"
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