Fresh start

With the indulgence of the holidays behind us, the beginning of a new year is a great time for retailers to promote healthy eating by putting the spotlight on the produce category.

By Carol Radice

The turkey has been car­ved, the holiday dec­or­a­tions are packed away for another year and there are only a few cookie crumbs left in the festive tin sent by Aunt Bettie.

Consequently, along with staying up late to watch the ball drop in Times Square and remembering to write the year 2010 on our checks, come January many Americans also repent for their food sins from the previous year.

However, take a peek at the typical consumer’s shopping list in winter and while you may see a smattering of fruits and vegetables jotted down, in general produce is largely an impulse purchase this time of year. For these reasons and more, experts say winter is a perfect time for retailers to ramp up their promotions and remind shoppers about the healthful benefits of incorporating more fruits and vegetables into their diet.

While educating consumers is a critical component, there are number of issues and challenges retailers will need to overcome to further drive sales. For example, recent reports found nearly half of all consumers are bewildered by many of today’s health messages. According to the 2009 Food & Health Survey conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation, 42% of consumers believe food and health information is confusing. At the same time, consumers crave consistent and positive food and health information that also provides choices on how to change what’s on their plate. More than half, 67% of consumers, are interested in reading or hearing about the relationship between food and health, but more importantly most are interested in hearing what to eat versus what not to eat.

“Retailers are constantly seeking ways to build more profit and what better way to do that than through increasing sales in the produce department,” says Tom Tjerandsen, managing director of the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association, based in Sonoma, Calif. “Leveraging the health aspects of produce in winter not only makes sense, it helps to drive sales. Approximately 10% of the rings at the front end are from produce, but 17% of the retailer’s profit comes from that department alone. Clearly, produce is a very profitable part of the store and only recently has emerged as a significant profit contributor in the first quarter of the year.”

Tjerandsen says as availability of fresh produce from the Southern Hemisphere broadens offerings in the produce department in the first few months of the year. “The ability to offer a seamless, 12-month produce supply has been instrumental to building sales,” he says. “Now retailers can put them in a permanent place in the schematic and can confidently know there are promotable volumes available all winter long.”

While it’s true that the beginning of the year is an ideal time to promote produce, some suggest retailers leverage that momentum to drive awareness all year long. “Retailers have a terrific opportunity in front of them to position their produce department as the health destination center,” says Suzanne Wolter, director of marketing for Rainer Fruit, based in Selah, Wash. “This is particularly true right after the first of the year when consumers have made resolutions to eat healthier and become more fit. We have an opportunity to tap into this focus and help them keep those resolutions.”

Considering the nutritional content of fruits and vegetables, Wolter says this should be an easy sell for retailers. “Many fruits and vegetables are disease-fighting foods that are full of nutrients and antioxidants, which may protect cells from free radical damage. For example, both apples and pears are good choices for upping one’s daily intake of fiber. Additionally, studies have linked the consumption of apples and pears with weight loss.”

Gary Wishnatzki, president of Plant City, Fla.-based Wishnatzki Farms, says winter is an ideal time for retailers to drive home the health benefits of produce, particularly locally grown fruits and vegetables. “Given the flu situation this winter, people should be taking proactive measures with their health, including upping their consumption of items that are high in vitamin C such as strawberries, which are also high in antioxidants,” he says. “Retailers can help keep fruit such as this top of mind with consumers during the winter.”

Emotional connection

In addition to the physical benefits, Wishnatzki adds that consumers often make an emotional connection with produce, something he feels retailers could better leverage, particularly during this time of year. “Last year we had more than 2,000 consumers respond to our survey, many of whom told us about the emotional connection they make with fruits like strawberries and how it reminds them spring is around the corner,” says Wishnatzki. “Consumers want to know where their produce is coming from and want to feel it is as close to local as possible. Their perception is that local products are fresher and taste better. Highlighting those qualities and features will help drive sales.”

Dan Crowley, a sales manager with Watsonville, Calif.-based Well-Pict, says his company has taken great measures to ensure they can offer high-quality products year round. “Producing the healthiest, tastiest, colorful, aromatic and largest berries available for year-round consumption is our central focus,” says Crowley. “Given that generating repeat business is key to our growth, having the most flavorful berries is a critical part of that equation.”

Besides investing heavily in research and development to create the best proprietary berry varieties possible, company officials say they have formed strategic partnerships with berry growers across multiple regions and climates. “By staggering harvest times, we can virtually ensure continual availability,” Crowley says. “In addition to our California crop, our relationships in Baja, Mexico, give us an earlier start in the New Year and our growers in Florida, have helped us to increase our volumes by another 50%. At the same time, by working with just a small number of growers we can keep the focus on quality.”

Avoiding diet pitfalls

Companies such as Dole Fresh Fruit are focusing on expanding fruit and vegetable consumption by educating consumers about how they play an important role in any healthy weight loss program. This January, the company is launching a month-long program called The Dole Banana Diet, loosely based on last year’s successful Morning Banana Diet in Japan. “January is a time when many people re-examine their eating habits and look to lose weight,” says Bil Goldfield, communication manager for Dole Fresh Fruit, based in West Lake Village, Calif. “With that in mind we felt this was one of the most receptive times to reach out to consumers who may be thinking of shedding a few pounds and show them how to eat healthier by incorporating more fruit, including bananas, into a weight loss program,” says Goldfield.

Considering the success of the Japanese version, Dole Fresh Fruit officials believe the diet has the potential to do well in the U.S., with a few modifications. “Anything that can get people eating more fruits and vegetables is a good thing, but often what typically kills a person’s motivation is the bland sameness many diets offer,” says Goldfield. “Where the Japanese diet focused just on breakfast, we felt it would be more responsible to offer suggestions for ideal supplemental eating all day. We also saw this as an opportunity to talk about calories and the health attributes of certain foods.”

Given that decades of nutrition research validate the idea that increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables in general and bananas in particular, can help support healthy, sustainable weight loss, company officials felt if consumers knew why certain diets work and the science behind how foods function in our bodies then there interest might be sustained. “It’s really a multi-level approach to eating better,” says Goldfield.

In addition to helping retailers sell more bananas, Goldfield says Dole also wanted to also find ways to showcase some of the research coming out of its Nutrition Institute. For example, bananas may be most known for their high levels of potassium, but many would be surprised to learn bananas fall into the superfood category and are considered heart-healthy, low in cholesterol and a good source of calcium and vitamin C, Goldfield says.

Shouting it out

Growers/shippers/packers have implemented a multi-spoke merchandising program to broadcast the health message of their products. For example, the Chilean Fresh Fruit Association has produced a multi-level advertising campaign that encompasses television ads, sales aides and POS materials such as banners and wall hangings to remind consumers that fresh fruit is available to them in the winter. It also produced a series of in-store radio ads that inform shoppers fresh fruit from Chile is in stock.

The association has produced a series of geographic buying research to help retailers understand the opportunity. “We took a look at the index of consumption across all the major cities in the country for each of the key fruit categories and from this broke down whether people are buying more or less than the index levels for their particular area. Based on that information, we can also compare buying levels between what is purchased during the summer and winter, which can demonstrate to retailers if the sales potential for a particular fruit is not being realized,” says Tjerandsen.

CFFA has also examined chains that sell the most volume and created a best practice benchmark. “Our goal was to help other retailers who may not be selling as much as benchmark companies are realize where they are leaving dollars on the table and identify where the opportunities are. From the benchmark data, we can show them how often they need to promote and how much of a margin to take, as well as the incremental impact demos make on sales and how to promote the item to get the most traction,” he says.

Helping store-level personnel has also been a focus at CFFA. The association recently created a “Product by Product Tips” brochure and poster that highlights how to best care for and handle Chilean fruit. “Recognizing the training challenges associated with high employee turnover in grocery we created easy-to-read charts that simply explain the best way to care for and merchandise each of the key fruits. We cover everything from proper temperature and how to rotate the stock to how to use waterfall extenders to call attention to the fruit, etc.,” says Tjerandsen. “Interest has exceeded our expectations which shows us there really was need for this type of information at the store level. Our goal in producing this information was to help retailers identify ways to reduce the percentage of shrink in the produce department. All those dollars fall straight to the bottom line.”

Wolter from Rainer likes the idea of retailers highlighting a different fruit and vegetable each week and discussing its health benefits in the weekly circular or in-store flyers. “Retailers could also choose a few items and incorporate health tidbits and serving suggestions on their in-store radio ads each week or on their company website,” says Wolter, adding that groups such as the Produce For Better Health Foundation offers prepared messaging covering a wide variety of topics and commodities.

“In addition, point-of-sale material has always been one of the most effective ways to communicate the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. It can be done either through the traditional signs and posters or with tote bags and high-quality graphic display bins. These types of bins create great secondary display areas or enlarge existing display space, provide more area to communicate additional messaging and the graphics draw consumer attention,” she says.

Wolter says at the same time, it is important for retailers to recognize how the economy is affecting how consumers purchase. “According to an IFIC survey, price is the number two purchase influencer with 74% of consumers ranking it as impacting the decision to buy foods and beverages. Taste was No.1 and healthfulness was No.3. Additionally, the Perishables Group 2009 Consumer Research study reported 52% of consumers are more likely to purchase items on sale than a year ago,” she says.

“Our goal is to help consumers have a good experience so that they will come back and buy more,” says Wishnatzki. “Sometimes buyers focus too much on the end price and lose sight of the value of repeat business. Using a long-term, rather than short-term perspective, if you provide a quality product that tastes good over time you will increase sales. This is something I think retailers can leverage more than they do,” he says. “To us, since the winter strawberry season for U.S.-grown fruit lasts for just a few months it makes sense for retailers to heavily promote it during this time and resist the urge to bring in lower priced, imported berries whose taste profile may be different.”

However, one area that consumers have shown price resistance is with organic strawberries, notes Wishnatzki. “We’d like to see the day when organics strawberries are the norm , but for us to grow them profitably and be able to sell them at a price point consumers are comfortable with, we need to get production up and cost down. Presently we are work­ing on some growing techniques that will hopefully allow that to happen in the near future,” he says.

Dole officials say that retailers can expect to see a multi-platform promotional program launched in January in support of its Banana Diet. From more traditional messaging such as POS signage to email and text messaging campaigns, Dole will be driving the educational message that consuming more fruits and vegetables is beneficial to your health. “Bananas are primarily consumed for breakfast, but there are many other uses for it throughout the day. With this in mind, we are encouraging retailers to cross-promote and drive incremental sales in other departments beyond produce. Our brochures incorporate fruits and vegetables into each meal so it only makes sense that the meat, snack and other departments be involved,” says Goldfield.

To help retailers call attention to their berries, Well-Pict offers an array of in-store merchandising and promotional aides such as professional photography and original recipe ideas from its Executive Chef’s kitchen, which can be used for in-store demos. Retailers can access the California Strawberry Commission’s point-of-sale materials for additional support. Although Crowley says the general media is doing a good job promoting the health aspects of berries, officials at Well-Pict are considering embarking on their own POS campaign for 2010 to help emphasize the health message as well.

“Don’t underestimate the value of attention-grabbing displays placed in a central location and the value simple aspects such as cross-merchandising can have on the bottom line,” says Crowley. “Keeping a display well stocked and regularly rotating product are critical to generating attention and sales. Like many types of produce, berries are typically an impulse buy. Partnering them with other products such as baked goods, whipped toppings and mixed green salad ingredients is a great way to drive sales in the winter, and year round,” he says.

Food safety

In addition to increasing health messaging for produce, industry officials note another way to get consumers to consume additional fruits and vegetables in the winter (and year round) is promoting the message that the produce they are purchasing is safe. While store efforts are undoubtedly an important aspect to driving increased consumption and awareness, industry experts say its also important to recognize the role efforts being made in the growing fields have had on improving overall food safety.

This is a topic, near and dear to the hearts at the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement. The group, whose standards are among the most rigorous in the industry, was formed in 2007 to verify California leafy greens growers were following food safety practices. When a member signs up they agree to mandatory field audits conducted by USDA trained government inspectors. Each audit checks compliance with 184 strict food safety check points. To help retailers identify those in compliance, the LGMA created the Service Mark logo for members in good standing to use on shipping and other documents.

According to April Ward, communications coordinator for the Sacramento-based commodity board, the group was established to protect public health by reducing potential sources of contamination in California-grown lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens products. “Having a set of specific, science based standards brings confidence and peace of mind to consumers,” says Ward. “It also makes it easier for retailers because they don’t have to run separate audits that cost them a lot of time and money. Retailers can run a simple check on our website to see which growers are certified.” Approximately 120 handlers representing nearly all of the lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens grown in California are a part of the LGMA.

“By doing so, they commit to handling and selling products grown in accordance with food safety practices accepted by the LGMA board. With the implementation of the mandatory government audits, which occur about four times per year, today California leafy greens are grown under a unique and rigorous system that has become a model for leafy greens farmers in other states,” says Ward.

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