Mixing & matching

Salad options expand beyond the traditional as consumers search for convenient ways to eat healthier.

By Craig Levitt

As Americans continue to concern themselves with calorie intake and the need to eat healthier, com­mon sense suggests that the packaged salad category should be thriving. But as consumers continue to trim their budgets along with their waistlines, they are more willing to do their own prep work when it comes to tossing a salad, according to several industry officials.

While shoppers still consider salads a viable option, they are substituting bulk products in place of packaged salads. For example, industry observers say that bulk dollar and volume sales are up for traditional lettuce as well as several other salad greens.

To try to determine why consumers have been shying away from packaged salad in a time when sales should be thriving, officials at Dole Fresh Vegetables, based in Monterey, Calif., conducted extensive consumer re­search. The research found that consumers are far less engaged in the purchase of prepackaged salad than most other items in the supermarket and they are reluctant to try new salad varieties or experiment with new blends. In addition, shoppers are unhappy with salad packaging that is difficult to open, offers little product information and obscures the lettuce, making it hard to inspect the blend for freshness and quality.

“It was precisely for these reasons that Dole Fresh Vegetables set out to re-imagine its line of blends and kits in a two-phase strategy,” says Michelle Gonsalves, director of marketing, new products for Dole Fresh Vegetables.

Making the connection

The first phase was the autumn 2009 reintroduction of the Dole Salad blends line. The on-pack Dole Salad Guide was created which included taste and texture scales and a “pairs well with” feature. Gonsalves says the intent was to add dimension to what had become a “very one-dimensional category.” Dole also developed a Salad Guide spokesperson to introduce the on-pack features. Thus far Gonsalves says the campaign has been very successful in developing a stronger connection with shoppers.

“Consumers want to eliminate some of the risk inherent in trying a new salad blend or kit,” says Gonsalves. “They want to know what other blends or kits are similar to their preferred varieties should their favorites be unavailable. They also want to know about specific pairing and serving possibilities before they purchase.”

She adds that consumers also want fresh complete salad kits that deliver robust flavor and high quality toppings, but also are free of ingredient unknowns associated with salad kits in the past. With that in mind, phase two was initiated in June, with the introduction of All Natural Dole Salad Kits.

“Prompted by research showing that consumers want a packaged salad kit with toppings and dressings that are as natural as the Dole lettuce and vegetables, we’ve taken our nine salad kits and made them all-natural,” says Gonsalves. “We’ve also made our four seasonal blends all-natural and added creamy coleslaw.”

Gonsalves adds that while the All Natural Salad Kits will not feature the Dole Salad Guide, they will be supported by a marketing and social media campaign featuring the company’s salad spokesperson.

Building on the growing popularity of all-natural salads, observers say organic salads have fared well, accounting for almost 15% of the category, and still growing. Some attribute the impressive organic salads sales to the fact that the price differential between organic and conventional choices is generally small (about 20% on average), indicating that when price is close, many consumers will choose an organic option.

“With organic showing strong growth in the largest segment of the category, retailers can take advantage of this growing popularity by expanding organic specialty greens offerings,” says Samantha Cabaluna, director of communications for San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based Earthbound Farm. She adds that the deeper knowledge produce department staffs have about the topics of organic and the details about specific greens, the more consumers will turn to them as a trusted resource and that will increase sales.

“We have worked closely with our customers to develop in-depth education programs to support their staffs. And of course consumers are always looking for inspiration in recipes or serving suggestions, too, which we offer in abundance, both on our website and via in-store brochures,” she says.

Beyond the bag

Of course there is so much more to a salad then what consumers can buy in a bag. That obviously opens the door to cross-promotional and merchandising opportunities for retailers. Chris Mayhew, director of marketing for Dole Fresh Vegetables, says Dole’s on-pack “pairs well with” feature can help retailers lead consumers in the right direction.

“There is significant power in well organized packaged salad set at the store level,” says Mayhew. “We’ve been very proactive working with retailers to ensure that they get the most out of their packaged salad sections because we know how important this is to salad consumers.”

While packaged salads still hold appeal to consumers it is quite rare for a shopper to only buy a bag of salad greens in a given trip. Observers say that retailers have an opportunity to create an aura around the salad category by highlighting the commodities (such as tomatoes, cucumbers and avocadoes, among others) that help make a salad a salad.

Mark Cassius, vice president of sales for Wilcox, Ariz.-based Euro Fresh Farms, says that especially in the summer months, retailers have an opportunity to promote one or two tomato varieties a week. One, he says, can be a snacking tomato while the other can be matched with other salad ingredients. He also extols the virtues of the long English cucumbers, and says the thinner-skinned variety has been getting a lot of traction in the U.S.

“Salads are not only about lettuce anymore,” says Cassius. “The category is about variety and the different components that can make up a salad. There are so many meal options for a salad as well. They can be appetizers, like a Caprese or an Israeli salad, or you can add some protein and make it a main course.”

Observers say that less conventional ingredients are also becoming popular with salad eaters. Items such as various types of beans and grains have been garnering attention, as have fruits such as strawberries, mangoes and kiwi.

“Fruit plays a larger role in salads during the summer than it does other times of the year,” says Karin Gardner, communications manager for The Oppenheimer Group, the Van­couver, British Columbia, Canada-based supplier of assorted fruits and vegetables. “Contrasting items like bright peaches or mangoes can be showcased with blueberries, alongside prepackaged mint. Additional fruit salad ingredient sales can be achieved if the recipe is prepared and sampled in the produce section.”

Topping it off

Adding toppings such as dried fruit has also become quite popular with consumers. Joe Tamble, vice president of sales for Sun-Maid Growers, based in Kingsburg, Calif., says that since most salad eaters are thinking about eating healthier it makes sense to use raisins, cranberries or apricots as a topping because “eating healthy and dried fruit go hand in hand.

“Salad is a very large business,” adds Tamble. “For us, more than 40% of our business is done in the produce sections so wherever we can tie-in with produce items, we try to do that.”

Retailers that promote these ingredients that may not be initially thought of when it comes to salads stand to reap the benefits. While many rely on culinary websites and magazines for salad inspiration, observers say retailers have the opportunity to build sales by strategically playing up salad ingredients. Signage that features salad photos helps spark creativity, and retailers can make it easy on shoppers by grouping together salad ingredients.

The Art of Lettuce

For lettuce lovers seeking flavor and variety, Tanimura & Antle offers field fresh Artisan Lettuce. Artisan Lettuce is sold in four- and six-count clamshells containing fully mature petite heads of Oak, Tango and Gem lettuce in a mixture of red and green varieties. The mix is based on the best varieties available in the field at the time of harvest, according to company officials.

“Our Artisan Lettuce is often considered a value-added product in a hybrid sense, falling between fresh commodities and value-added,” says Diana McClean, marketing manager for the Salinas, Calif.-based company. “It is often interpreted as a premium unprocessed produce product, like romaine hearts, only sold in a clamshell,” she says.

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